The Homer/Flanders relationship is rooted in adult disappointment. For all the various permutations of their decades-long conflict, Flanders functions as Homer’s next-door reminder that he’s not in charge of his life. Looking back, moving to Evergreen Terrace was a big step for a young father and husband, a hopeful signpost toward being a grownup, whatever that means. So when Flanders—with his perfect wife and perfect kids, and better job, and chiseled abs (stupid sexy Flanders)—took the house right next door, his comparative success in life needled Homer right where the American male doesn’t like to be needled, his pride. What rankles Homer even more is how gosh-darned-diddly nice his new rival is about everything, even in the face of Homer’s immediate, incessant, and seemingly unforgivable mooching, disrespect, and outright destructiveness. If The Simpsons was initially conceived as a satire about the American family, then Flanders was introduced as the green, green grass of “over there,” the placidly prosperous life that Homer, for all his dreams and hard work (well, work, anyway), could never hope to achieve.

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Like every aspect of The Simpsons, 26 years have put Homer and Flanders’ relationship through every possible change, but, also like much of the show, that rivalry remains viable because of the archetypical truth upon which it’s based. Flanders is too good to be true, and Homer hates him for it. That they’ve fought and made up countless times over doesn’t matter, really—The Simpsons is a renewable resource for comedy, as long as each week’s plot draws on the characters’ core selves. Homer’s abuse of his churchy nemesis is a mother-lode of comic resonances, at once a joke on Homer’s signature thoughtlessness, Flanders’ meek forbearance, and viewers’ vicarious enjoyment at seeing the holier-than-thou brought low. It’s tricky humor—if the balance is off, it curdles the relatable dynamic between the two into cringeworthy cruelty. Tonight, the show examines their ongoing war in terms of Springfield’s new anti-bullying law in an episode that edges right up to the lip of satisfying without quite finding the way in.

Since the Homer-Flanders dynamic can only stretch so far—Flanders has to stay Flanders, Homer Homer—an episode that sets out to seek an emotionally satisfying rapprochement between the two has to earn its eventual big moment, and “Bull-E” comes up just short. The setup takes its time getting to the meat of the story, for one—Marge sees Bart bullied at a school dance and pushes through an ill-advised law which sees much of Springfield behind bars thanks to the Springfield P.D.’s usual hair-trigger enforcement methods. (Even Lou is locked up by Chief Wiggum—his bullying offense: labeling his own lunch because Wiggum keeps stealing it.) It’s a breezy bit of anti-authoritarian satire, with Mayor Quimby urging, “Let’s pass this legislation without any discussion whatsoever,” and Wiggum citing “the unregulated power invested in us by the hastily passed bullying law” while handcuffing Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney for hucking snowballs. Like Pawnee, Indiana, the easily swayed sheep of Springfield, [Whatever State] are always good for some mockery of the all-American susceptibility to demagoguery. The only problem is that the setup makes the final showdown between Homer and Ned that much more rushed.

Luckily, as part of Homer’s court-mandated therapy, he’s put in the questionable care of a suspiciously bullying case worker who is, even more luckily, played by Simpsons all-star Albert Brooks. Apart from a cameo a few years ago, it’s Brooks’ first return to the series in ten years (he was in the movie in 2007), and hearing his Mel Brooks-accented Dr. Raufbold here, it’s hard to express just what a welcome and funny presence Brooks is in the Simpsons universe. Voice acting on the show is an indefinable art—some very funny people make no impression at all, while some actors just click. Brooks—with the show nearly from the beginning—just lives in Springfield, his quicksilver delivery (I’d pay to hear his outtakes) nonetheless always abiding by a controlling comic logic. Sure, Dr. Raufbold is no Hank Scorpio, but, in Brooks’ performance, it’s the sort of guest spot that leaves you wishing for more. Especially if his lessons to Homer were better tied into the main story.

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There’s a moment in last week’s dishearteningly scattered episode where Rod Flanders greets Homer with a grateful, “I love you, mean neighbor,” which is followed up this week as Rod and Todd are the ones who turn Homer in for bullying their dad. Like with some of the choicest Milhouse lines, the buffoonery and callousness of adult life in Springfield are startling when seen through the eyes of the town’s kids, and seeing Rod and Todd’s disillusionment with their father’s “turn the other cheek” philosophy here is unexpectedly poignant. The problem for the episode is that, like the Homer-Flanders conflict proper, Rod and Todd’s dilemma isn’t given time to develop. (Unlike the Simpsons, there’s not enough to Rod and Todd to fill in the gaps with shorthand.) We know nothing will change between Ned and Homer—otherwise Homer’s heartwarming change of heart in “When Flanders Failed” would have eliminated some 23 years of Flanders-baiting—but that’s not necessary. What matters is that this Homer-Flanders reconciliation land—and “Bull-E” doesn’t manage it.

Flanders’ statement to Homer (“I want you to understand how you make me feel. You made me seem less of a man in my sons eyes”), and Homer’s realization that he torments Flanders “because he’s better than me in every way,” again, is right there—and Homer’s heartfelt but suitably silly pledge to stay on his knees in Flanders’ front yard until Ned forgives him does the same. But, if “When Flanders Failed” is the gold standard for this sort of story, “Bull-E” doesn’t quite equal it. Again, part of the problem is how short-changed their story gets (the precious few minutes spent on Otto’s Magic School Bus LSD sequences could have easily been repurposed). But—and I’m not proud to say it—the real problem is more elusive than that. A great Simpsons episode has a unity in the writing that incorporates the character beats necessary to provide a meaningful, satisfying conclusion (plus jokes), while simultaneously understanding the necessarily melancholy fact built into the Simpsons universe that nothing will ever really change. But, while no classic, “Bull-E” (credited to Tim Long) is a creditable effort—in these late days, even a laudable one.

Stray observations:

  • Yes, that’s really Johnny Mathis singing about killing gophers. Tell your mom.
  • Homer, meeting his petard: “I never dreamed a law I abused could be used on me!”
  • Ill-advised school dance theme: “Why don’t we do it in the gym?”
  • Bart’s encounters with the vision of the demon of puberty might similarly have been repurposed as more time for the main story, but the lesson from the girl who sees him bullied is painfully sound: “Lemme give you a life lesson—this isn’t your fault, but it’s the end of us forever.” Just ask Louie.
  • Pretty sure I spotted Bart doing the Bartman for a few seconds at the dance.
  • Also, “Get Lucky” is a wholly gross choice for a grade school dance, right?
  • “Hey, look! It’s somebody who does stuff—the bully’s natural enemy!”
  • I wanted to salute Brooks’ reading of the Doc’s response to Homer saying that it’s boring in his own mind. “Oh, is it? I thought it would be like the Louvre in there.”
  • Same with: “I want you to go deeper. And if you think I mean underground I’m gong to punch you.”
  • I liked that the depth of Ned’s politeness kept his insults to Homer twice-removed from his sons’ ears.
  • “When you grow up, you’re gonna have a hell of a career. Oh, wait—you’re not the girl.”
  • A Flanders mimosa: A little sparkling water and a lot of regular water.

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