Father. Neighbor. Holy Roller. True believer. Mustachioed. Lefty…
One of the most beloved residents of Springfield, Flanders, Ned (full name Nedward) has given us so much over the years. A faithful provider of positivity, forgiveness, uplifting exhortations, enduring catch phrases, and gentle reminders of hell’s eternal flames, steady Ned has been our delightfully cheesy moral compass since his debut in 1989.
Longtime fans of The Simpsons have been through quite a lot with Ned. He’s been subjected to more tribulation, twists and turns than perhaps any other character on the show (other than Hans Moleman).
He’s lost a wife and nearly his faith on multiple occasions. He’s had to endure living next door to Homer for more than two decades. But despite all this trauma – or perhaps because of it – it seems Ned has also experienced the most profound transformation of any Simpsons character.
From “Funny” to Beloved
The Simpsons has undergone quite a transformation itself over the years. From its humble beginnings of getting cheap laughs from Bart’s sassy one-liners (Eat My Shorts!), and the crudely drawn family engaging in crude behavior (Homer choking Bart, shocking one another at Dr. Marvin Monroe’s clinic, etc.), The Simpsons eventually became the smartest, most insightful, most important TV show probably of all time.
How did they go from “funny” to an unmatched intergalactic phenomenon with legions of devoted fans?
I think a key to the program’s rise to greatness can be found in Ned Flanders’ ascendance from one-dimensional goofballery, to the complex, nuanced man that eventually emerged.
Some of you may be skeptical. Many people regard Ned as an annoying ancillary character whose sole purpose is to be a foil for Homer’s boorish behavior and/or a vehicle for mocking up-tight, dorky religious people. While Ned was essentially an unlovable embodiment of Christian hypocrisy in the early seasons, his character was eventually developed in a way that caused us to root for him in all his fuddy-duddy glory. We saw him fight and reconcile with God and Homer, do bedtime prayer with Rod and Todd after losing his wife Maude (in a tragic T-shirt cannon accident), we watched him bowl with his buddies. We saw Ned reach out to Bart to make up for Homer’s parenting deficiencies, and we rooted for him as he opened “The Leftorium.” We witnessed him judging others and losing his temper, but also his faith, redemption and goodness.
And this my friends represents the critical turning point of The Simpsons: The decision to move away from shock value, mockery without compassion, and one-dimensional characters, to embracing a more realistic, (generally) uplifting portrayal of “real” people worth rooting for. All great shows need to have some redemptive quality about them. This is why no one genuinely loves Family Guy the way people love The Simpsons. Cynicism, biting humor and jabs are fine, but in order for a show to be beloved, there has to be heart or some kind of meaningful message behind it. Otherwise it runs the risk of just being mean, hollow and hateful.
Not to let the cat out of the bag, but this is really the mega-secret to all great TV (cartoon, reality, sitcom, drama, whatever). You have to have realistic, compelling, empathetic characters like Ned Flanders, who can create emotional connections with viewers and cause us to care.* To me, this is a huge reason for the unparalleled, enduring global devotion to The Simpsons.
Before we wrap this up, I’d like to take a moment to personally thank the creators of The Simpsons and everyone responsible for bringing Ned into my life. Of course it’s just a TV show, and to be honest I haven’t really watched many episodes the last few years, but what a great guy. What a great show. God bless Ned Flanders.
*Whether or not we are pathetic for feeling genuine connections with fake TV characters is another essay for another day I suppose.