“One more time!” – Lisa Simpson
“Oh, come on, Lisa, I got a date with Billie Holiday.” – Bleeding Gums Murphy Cloud
There are a lot of head shaking problems with the way the show killed off Maude Flanders. The biggest is probably the fact that it was motivated by outright cheapness on the part of FOX and whoever else signed the checks. Maggie Roswell had been with the show since Season 1, providing not only Maude’s voice, but also the voices for Miss Hoover, Helen Lovejoy, Luann van Houten, and countless one off or minor parts (“No, my son is also named Bort”). She was always credited as a guest, and the money they paid her to show up in ten or so episodes a year wouldn’t have been a rounding error on the show’s annual budget.
To fans of the show, refusing to pay her means two things. First, it means the nimrods in charge are fucking with the show, which is always bad. Second, it means that trivial monetary matters have overridden concerns about quality, which is worse. The Simpsons was what it was in no small part because it was protected from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that wear down so many other programs, and refusing to pony up for something as vital yet inexpensive as the actress who voices half of your minor female characters can only mean that the bean counters have gotten their knives well into the vital organs of the show. They mention several times on DVD commentaries that FOX repeatedly nickel-and-dimed them about giving up the live orchestra for each episode, and that FOX was behind the shortening of the episodes by two minutes as well as the ongoing fiasco that is the four act structure. Screwing Roswell out of a few thousand dollars was a chilling precursor to those other management imposed restrictions.
As bad as all that is, however, it occurred outside the control of the writers. Neither Mike Scully nor anyone on staff at the time could’ve kept FOX from treating the Simpsons franchise like a rented mule. Off-voice Maude (a recurring problem in Season 11) and the disappearance of Roswell’s other characters simply isn’t their fault. What is their fault is the unbelievably dumb, callous, and cartoon-y way they handled Maude’s death.
Relating an unmitigated tragedy like the sudden death of a woman who was beloved by her community, her husband, and her two small children would be a tricky task even on a show that’s typically calmer than The Simpsons. Doing so in a cartoon where physically impossible things routinely happen (even before the show fell apart) requires walking a very fine line that allows you to express the sadness of it all while still keeping the story moving and the jokes coming. “Alone Again Natura-Diddily” not only fails to walk that line, it swerves back and forth across it like a drunk driver.
To take just one example of this, the first non-Lovejoy speaking parts at Maude’s funeral are Groundskeeper Willie, Captain McAllister, and Professor Frink wailing, out loud, with their various catchphrases. Not only am I not sure that we’ve ever seen any of these characters interact with Maude even a single time, but the next shot is the supposedly maudlin one of Reverend Lovejoy walking over and putting his hand on Ned’s shoulder while the now motherless Flanders boys are sitting right next to him.
Ignoring Rod and Todd, the closest thing this episode has to a coherent theme.
This is straight up sad, and yet the next thing we cut to is a bunch of Lovejoy administered meta jokes about Apu’s kids, the Van Houtens getting divorced, and a t-shirt firing squad clad in black bikinis. The show whipsaws back and forth with no regard for what the audience might be thinking or feeling at any given time.
By contrast, Season 6’s “’Round Springfield” handles the death of another minor character brilliantly by respecting the finality of death (something that isn’t easy in animation, where anything goes) and Lisa’s feelings at the loss. At the same time it tells us a story that is funny and worthy of the odd but special place Bleeding Gums had in Springfield.
Even though he was only in a few episodes, Bleeding Gums Murphy was another one of the show’s instantly iconic characters. A content but jaded take on the Magical Negro trope, Bleeding Gums gave Lisa a veteran’s perspective on jazz and the saxophone that she had been sorely missing. He wasn’t exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up, but he was also the only person she’d ever known “who had the same love for music that I do”.
Far differently than “Alone Again Natura-Diddily”, the death of Bleeding Gums at the end of the second act of “’Round Springfield” isn’t some warped plot twist dropped out of the sky. The first time we see him in the episode, he’s already in the hospital and not looking his full self, and the subsequent flashbacks show us that he’d had a full and pretty awesome life. He lived long and mostly well, and he got to do some amazing things, so while his death is sad, it’s not a senseless tragedy the way Maude’s death is. Not only is he not cut down in his prime, but it’s not the unexpected whim of a scriptwriter or studio executive that does him in.
More importantly, “’Round Springfield” gives Bleeding Gums the respect he deserves before he shuffles off to his date with Billie Holiday in the sky. After he dies, Lisa (one of his favorite people) earns his post-mortal respect by getting his music to perhaps the widest audience it has ever known. She loved him and his work, and we the audience get to see her conclude their relationship on an awesome (and literal) high note.
A great send off. They didn’t even try this for Maude.
This works because the story isn’t, and really can’t be, about Bleeding Gums. He’s dead, but The Simpsons is going to continue, so the episode has to be about how life goes on without him rather than his death and Lisa being sad about it. “Alone Again Natura-Diddily” makes a weak stab at that same kind of sentiment near the end with Rachel Jordan, Christian rock babe, but falls woefully short both because Maude’s death was so much more traumatic and because that consolation prize isn’t about Maude or Maude’s death, it’s about Flanders finding a new wife.
If your wife dies and leaves you, the newly minted widower, with two small boys to raise on your own, finding love again is something you’ll probably want to do at some point. But that point is in the future, long after you’ve made sure your sons are doing okay and you’ve adjusted to daily life without the woman who cooks, cleans, reads Ann Landers, and otherwise lives your life with you. In “Alone Again Natura-Diddily”, Flanders looking for love is the only post-Maude activity given any real screen time. The whole middle of the episode is Homer trying to get him hooked up, as though that were the only pressing concern he has. Rod and Todd are barely in it, and Flanders doesn’t do anything but be sad and go on lousy first dates.
Strangely, the episode seems to expect the sadness it so coarsely introduced to stay in tidy little boxes like Flanders on the swing set with Homer, but it obviously can’t. Given the magnitude of the change they dropped on Springfield, it hangs over everything like a black cloud. Worse, Maude is treated like an afterthought, barely eulogized, and her prospective replacement is given a rollicking introduction at the end of the third act. As surely as if she’d been Dr. Maude Winslow, “Alone Again Natura-Diddily” isn’t so much about death as it is about character replacement.
She was a bigger part of the show than Bleeding Gums, and her death irretrievably changed the relationship between Homer and Ned, but in Season 11 none of that matters. They cast Maude Flanders off like she was driftwood. Bleeding Gums got an exit worthy of him and the show.