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“Hurricane Neddy” (originally aired 12/29/1996)

“AH HELL DIDDLY DING-DONG CRAP! Can’t you morons do anything right?”

The eighth season of The Simpsons stands on the precipice. The energy is different—after half a dozen seasons of almost effortless classic comedy, The Simpsons is starting to collapse under the weight of, well, being The Simpsons. A number of episodes this season are what happens when a show’s writers run up against the limits of what they do organically within their show’s premise. Instead of descending into pleasant comfort, however, The Simpsons fights back with a wonderful creative energy.

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It does this with creative animation (“El Viage Misterioso”), remarkably entertaining crossovers (“The Springfield Files” and “Brother From Another Show”), and self-examination and self-parody (“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” and “Homer’s Enemy”). I see season eight as a gallant last stand against inevitable decline; an extinction burst of desperate comedy.

“Hurricane Neddy” doesn’t fit totally in the above categories—at the surface level its premise is fairly conventional. A hurricane hits Springfield and only destroys Ned Flanders’ house, triggering a crisis of faith and then an emotional breakdown after his neighbors fail to rebuild the family home. But there are three aspects of it that make it fit within the desperate energy of the eighth season of The Simpsons.

First, the episode is just a goddamn joke machine. The Simpsons’ ability to score emotional points has been in decline for a few seasons, especially as the episode premises grow more outlandish, but the jokes are sharp as ever. Two of my all-time favorite lines are in this episode. First, Reverend Lovejoy’s pseudo-wisdom to Flanders: “Oooo, short answer ‘yes’ with an ‘if,’ long answer ‘no’ with a ‘but.’” And then Hank Azaria’s line-reading on “Hope you like it, neighbor. We didn’t have the best tools, or all the know-how. But we did have a wheelbarrow full of love.” “And a cement mixer full of hope! And some cement!” kills me every time.

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“Hurricane Neddy” is relentless with its jokes, to be honest. Many Simpsons episodes frontload the best jokes in the first act, before the main story and the emotional stakes kick in (it’s also a great way to make the audience receptive to the episode), but this one keeps it going through the end. The hurricane itself may be the slowest part, although even that includes “Ooo, I better go take down the manger scene. If Baby Jesus got loose, he could really do some damage!” I’m also quite partial to the assistant at the mental hospital who’s perfectly designed to respond to television doctor bullshit.

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But it’s the middle third of the episode that truly shines. From Rod and Todd’s ’90s detritus t-shirts until Ned’s breakdown, the show is at its best. The slow buildup of hope followed by the swiftly spiraling destruction of the rebuilt house just nails exactly what it needs to in order to sell Ned’s emotional collapse. And then you get this perfect little gem:

Flanders’ breakdown leads to the second thing that “Hurricane Neddy” does to fit in with the self-examination of season eight: His criticisms are valid. His attacks on the Simpson family fit, to a certain extent, in the show’s world, but they’re really aimed at the external perception of the characters and the television tropes they embody. His sarcastic rejoinder to Marge’s “good intentions” hits every time characters on The Simpsons and other shows try to fix something horrible by all coming together. His attack on Bart is one of the few sour notes in the entire episode—classist and nasty—but that’s quickly forgiven by this wonderful line when Lisa speaks up. “Do I hear the sound of butting in? It’s gotta be little Lisa Simpson!”

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At this point Ned is doing to the family in a couple minutes what the entirety of “Homer’s Enemy” would do to Homer. And, while I’m not a hater of that episode like some, I find “Hurricane Neddy” lands its critiques much more successfully—probably because the rest of the episode is so damn amusing. But Ned’s not wrong, and the episode admits this, with a tinge of sadness, by ending with him back to normal.

The final way that “Hurricane Neddy” fits with the creative energy of the season is that it posits a secret history for one of the characters. The Simpsons has been going on for so long that it’s almost like a superhero comic in its remaining options: redo a story that’s been done multiple times before, do something outlandish and hope that it works, or come up with (or retcon) something about a character that causes us to see them with fresh eyes.

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The latter is what happens here with the story of Ned’s spanking therapy. That’s maybe the riskiest strategy, as it could destroy goodwill toward a character (hello, Armin Tamzarian!) or just be boringly implausible (Ned in AARP). This one works, though, in large part because spanking a kid for eight straight months is so hilariously absurd (“Yeah, you’ve gotta help us, doc! We’ve tried nothin’, and we’re all out of ideas”) that it ends up with a bizarre metaphorical honesty. Yes, overdiscipline could lead to Flanders’ midwestern overpoliteness, why not? “How do you feel about me?” “Pretty darn diddly-doodly… good?”

The Simpsons eighth season has a lot of ideas for itself, and how it could continue to work as a great comedy. They almost all work, which is remarkable, and “Hurricane Neddy” is one of the best examples of the season’s strengths.

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Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage: GOD WELCOMES HIS VICTIMS
  • “No no no! Do not listen to that man! Remain calm, you will all have the chance to be gouged!”
  • Obligatory Ralph Wiggum line: “Hi Lisa! We’re going to be in a pie!”
  • “I would make it my business to be a third wheel.”
  • “I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
  • “Homer. You are the worst human being I have ever met.” “Hey, I got off pretty easy.”
  • “Very well. Shall I show you to your room or would prefer to be dragged off kicking and screaming?” “Oh! Kicking and screaming, please.”

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  • I’d totally forgotten this bit. Great stuff. “I don’t know any Ned Flanders.” “The man who lived next door until his house blew down?” “Ohhh… hiiim.”
  • But I’d never forget this one, which always runs through my mind when I see people nitpicking holes instead of examining the entirety: “Yessss, Mr. Sherman, everything stinks.”
  • “Past instances in which I professed to like you were fraudulent!”
  • “You might even say I hate the post office! That and my parents. Lousy beatniks.” Lousy beatniks indeed, Ned. Lousy beatniks indeed.

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Next week: Oliver Sava can’t even deal with a eight-unit spice rack in “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer.”