Posts Tagged ‘Alone Again Natura-Diddily

21
Jul
14

The Day the Laughter Died

By Mike Zanna

There was a time when The Simpsons was the best show on TV. The show that currently calls itself “The Simpsons” has little resemblance. It’s not nearly as good. It’s not even good compared to the rest of the stuff on television. It’s like The Simpsons, but without everything that made The Simpsons so amazing. The show has become a hollow shell, a shadow of itself, a ghost of its former greatness. I’m sure there’s another supernatural metaphor I could use.

So what the hell happened? At some point, The Simpsons went off the air and was replaced by its evil twin, Zombie Simpsons. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was at least a decade ago, maybe even a decade and a half. I started wondering if I could pinpoint the exact moment that the change occurred. If I could find one episode that killed the show, what would it be? When exactly did The Simpsons jump the shark? I came up with an answer. Personally, I think The Simpsons died on February 13, 2000, with the death of Maude Flanders.

Alone1

Maude wasn’t the only one who died that day.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” isn’t the worst episode ever, but it had the longest lasting negative effect on the series. Most bad episodes can be safely skipped or ignored. Even “The Principal and the Pauper” restores the status quo at the end of the episode. Whether you like the revelation about Principal Skinner or not, it doesn’t affect the episodes that aired afterwards. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was what TV Tropes would call a Wham Episode. Afterwards, the show would never be the same.

Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and after eleven years, I can see why the producers would want to shake things up. It’s just that this particular change was a bad idea that was poorly handled. The show had made some changes before, and many of them are lampshaded in this episode. For example, the Van Houtens had split up. Zombie Simpsons would later have them get remarried. Killing Maude Flanders was the first change the producers had made that was irreversible.

The Simpsons had never killed a recurring character before. Bleeding Gums Murphy had died back in Season 6, but he hadn’t been seen on the show in years, outside of the opening title sequence. He wasn’t played by one of the show’s regular voice actors, so the producers couldn’t use him without bringing in Ron Taylor or recasting the part. Maude Flanders was played by one of the regulars, Maggie Roswell, who had played many parts before leaving the show. She would later return, but Maude would not.

I suppose the producers could have resurrected Maude if they’d wanted to. They are the gods of the show’s universe, after all. They can do whatever they want. But there’s no way they could bring her back without destroying the show’s reality. Then again, this episode ran the week after “Saddlesore Galactica,” which might be the least realistic show ever. The producers could have pressed the reset button, but they didn’t. They made their choice and stuck with it.

Maude Flanders wasn’t the most interesting person in the world, but one of the things that made The Simpsons great was its large cast of diverse characters. It had an entire universe full of people who seemed like real people, but funnier. She had played a key role in great episodes like “Bart of Darkness” and “Home Sweet Home-Diddily-Dum-Doodily.” And she lived next door to the title characters. But Maude Flanders wasn’t the only character who died in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” The episode also basically killed the character of her husband, Ned.

Alone2

He’s just not Ned.

Before he became a conservative Christian stereotype, Ned Flanders was just a nice guy with a perpetually cheerful attitude. Even when times were tough, he at least tried to keep a smile on his face. See “When Flanders Failed,” “Homer Loves Flanders,” or “Hurricane Neddy.” His religion was a part of his character, sure, but I think his most prominent character trait was his positive attitude. After this episode, he couldn’t be that guy any more. There would always be some sadness in him. There would have to be.

I guess the producers thought making Ned single again could lead to some interesting stories, but it really didn’t. And I think Ned dating other women so soon after losing Maude was kind of out of character. I don’t think he would be so quick to look for a replacement. There could have been some humor in Ned trying to date again, but there really wasn’t. There were a couple of episodes, two with that Christian singer girl whose name I can’t remember, and one with Marisa Tomei. And then there’s that strange Zombie Simpsons plot line where he dated Mrs. Krabappel and they later got married. Now she’s gone too, and he’s a widower twice over. That’s just depressing.

Then there’s effect that losing their mother would have on the kids, Rod and Todd. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” basically skips over their reaction, and I guess it would have to. It’s kind of hard to make that funny. But I think it shows that the producers of this episode did a really half-assed job. They wanted to kill a character, but they didn’t want to deal with the consequences that it would have. The characters on The Simpsons were characters. They seemed like real people. On Zombie Simpsons they’re just props for delivering bad jokes. It’s kind of hard to feel sympathy for them, because they don’t act like people would.

Then there’s the way “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” changed the character of Homer. He had become more of a jerk during Mike Scully’s tenure as show runner, and this episode shows him at his absolute low point. He actually causes another person’s death. He is responsible for the death of someone that he has known for years. A real person would feel at least a little guilty about that.

Okay, it wasn’t actually his fault. It was an accident. Maude Flanders’ death was like something from an Itchy and Scratchy episode. Slapstick violence isn’t really funny if we’re supposed to care about the people who get hurt. I guess you could blame the girls who shot the t-shirts that knocked Maude off the bleachers. This kind of begs the question of why they were at the funeral. But really, the girls only shot the t-shirts because of Homer. He provoked them, so he has to take some responsibility for the fact that a person died. It’s the first time his antics caused another person’s death.

Alone3

This is a pretty crappy way to send off a longtime character.

I know some people might mention Frank Grimes, but that’s a different situation. Homer doesn’t actively antagonize his co-worker. He tries to be a nice guy to him. He tries to make friends, but it doesn’t work. Frank ends up going crazy out of jealousy and basically kills himself, by doing something too stupid even for Homer. And that episode was basically The Simpsons criticizing itself. It was almost a self-parody.

Homer wasn’t a jerk in “Homer’s Enemy,” but he really was in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” There’s a line where he says he parked in the ambulance zone preventing any possible resuscitation. What the hell? First off, that doesn’t even make sense. I don’t think you can resuscitate someone with a broken neck. But second, it just makes Homer seem more like a callous bastard. It also makes the producers look like jerks too. It’s possible to be tasteless and funny, but I think this episode is just the first one.

I think my least favorite joke is when Bart changes the cake from “Rest in Peace” to “Rest in Pee.” This is too juvenile for even a 10-year-old. The fact that the producers think this is funny is just really telling, and the fact that they think Bart would find it funny shows how little they get his character. Then there’s the scene with Rod and Todd playing “Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster,” which is actually a little funny. But I don’t think the kids would just be playing video games after their mom died. Maybe they’d be happy because they think she’s in heaven. I don’t know.

Death is a hard subject to make funny, but The Simpsons were able to do it. Take “’Round Springfield” for example. This website has already done a Compare and Contrast with that episode, so I don’t want to be redundant. It’s just amazing how much better that episode is than “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” “’Round Springfield” managed to be funny while still taking the death seriously. It managed to be sad but also had some great jokes. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” doesn’t do either of those things. The death is treated like a joke and the attempts at humor are just sad.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was a terrible episode, but it was more than that. When Maude Flanders died, a part of the show died. The characters stopped behaving like actual people, so it became really hard to care about them. The show had lost its sense of humor, and with this episode it lost its heart. Yes, it’s kind of arbitrary, but I think that’s the episode where the show crossed the line from The Simpsons to Zombie Simpsons. It was the day the series died.

13
Sep
13

Quote of the Day

Alone Again, Natura-Diddly3

“Look, Ned, I know we ain’t hung out much, what with your insane fear of drinking and me being banned from the church and all.” – Moe

28
Aug
12

Alone Again Natura-Diddily Makes Baby Jesus Cry

Bart of Darkness8

“But I distinctly heard you say that Maude was with God.” – Bart Simpson
“Oh, that’s right, I was at Bible camp. I was learning how to be more judgmental.” – Maude Flanders

Much like the commentary for the Jockey Elves episode, the commentary for the death of Maude Flanders mostly dances around the actual events on screen and their larger implications for the overall history and health of the show. Also like the commentary for the Jockey Elves, George Meyer is here quietly commenting on things without doing any of the stammering defense/non-defense of the indefensible crap that’s occurring on screen.

What’s most interesting here is that they actually do acknowledge that Flanders starting to date people might have been premature, that Rod and Todd were too much of a bummer to do much with, and that death is awfully difficult to handle on a show like this. They don’t really say much beyond that, and it’s cold comfort knowing that they’re aware of the problems here, but it’s something.

Six guys on this one, though Jim Reardon recorded from Oakland, where he was working on WALL-E.

1:20 – Here’s an artful elision: “Maggie Roswell, the actress who played Maude Flanders had decided to leave the show for awhile.” Well, that’s one way of putting it, and I don’t even blame them. FOX really, really doesn’t like people talking about salaries, and that the subject was a no-go on a commentary doesn’t surprise me in the least.

2:15 – Scully chuckles as Homer sprays his crotch with bug repellent.

2:30 – The NASCAR drivers all turned them down for voices.

3:20 – Maxtone-Graham denies that it was supposed to be his name in giant letters, says he originally wrote it as Reardon.

4:30 – Long silence here broken by someone asking if that was another actress doing Maude, which, of course it was.

5:30 – FOX, which was broadcasting NASCAR, didn’t care about their crash heavy portrayal.

6:30 – Scully’s rambling about how they got to the death scene and how they didn’t want it to be “horrifying”. He seems nervously defensive, which I suppose is understandable.

7:00 – Reardon complains that the camera was supposed to pan right to show Maude as she went off the edge but instead it went left and cut her out of the shot. Calls it a “clerical error” that never got retaken.

7:30 – Meyer jumps on to try and explain what they were going for on the act break and admits that it didn’t work out and “just seemed grim”. As usual, I’m glad he’s here. As soon as he’s done, Scully, Maxtone-Graham and the rest of them go back to nervously laughing and explaining things.

8:00 – They wrote a scene where Ned talks to the boys about Maude being dead, but it was too sad so they cut it.

8:40 – That’s followed by more rambling defense of this as having a lot of “heart”.

9:20 – Selman brings up how dumb FOX’s promotional material was for this episode, where they teased characters like Homer or Bart dying when everyone knew it was going to be Maude.

9:35 – Meyer comes on to explain that death is really tricky to do, whether you’re doing a one off character like Frank Grimes or a long running one like Maude. He concludes, again without really defending the episode, by saying that “People just don’t like death, and I’m going to remember that.”

10:50 – After the scene with Bart and the Flanders boys playing video games, someone says, “So they’re over it, that’s good”.

11:00 – Selman’s just rambling along here for no real reason.

11:30 – Still going. Meanwhile, Homer just kissed Flanders on the forehead.

11:45 – Someone finally comes on and asks, “Are you waiting for us to get you out of this?”

12:30 – After some banter with Reardon, Selman actually asks him if he gets free iPhones working for Pixar.

13:00 – Wondering why they went right to Flanders dating and if that might seem like it was too sudden. That’s followed by an awkward silence before someone finally says it’s okay because it’s Homer doing it.

14:15 – Actually interesting trivia: Flanders ATM code is 5316, which is short of John 3:16 (the J being on the 5 on a nine digit keypad).

14:20 – Scully asks Reardon about how far they should go with Flanders’ pixilated horse cock, Reardon doesn’t miss a beat: “Yes, you guys seemed to have a real interest in looking at those model shoots.”

15:15 – A long silence leads to the generic “Shearer did a great job in this episode” comment.

15:35 – Smattering of laughter as Homer’s in the mailbox for some reason.

16:30 – Mostly silence, some commentary that they should check with the Bob Hope and Charles Nelson Riley estates before doing those “grr” growls.

17:10 – More long silence.

17:30 – Quickly noting that Flanders apparently took the park swan boat all the way home, then more silence.

18:15 – The framed picture of God that Flanders turns around had to be approved by the writers. Not much else is going on here.

19:00 – Oh, hell, Selman’s off on a rant again. This time it’s about how Ned is like Job. Mercifully, someone cuts him off after only twenty seconds or so.

20:00 – Reardon points out that when you have a long song you can’t just park the camera somewhere, you’ve got to move things.

21:05 – Now they’re discussing the fact that, yes, Hot Christian Singer Babe (whose name they couldn’t remember either) did come back in a later episode.

22:10 – Maxtone-Graham: “Let me just say that I’m a little sorry we killed her and I’ve been trying to think of ways to bring her back and think of what she’s been doing all this time and hiding out, but then we did an episode where we showed her up in Heaven with God, so I guess she’s really dead.”

22:20 – And we close with them chuckling about having Ned remarry someone a lot like her with the same name. Ugh.

16
Aug
12

Compare & Contrast: Deaths

'Round Springfield9

“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. 

Alone Again, Natura-Diddly2

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. 

Sax on the Beach

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.

02
Aug
12

Crazy Noises: Alone Again Natura-Diddily

Alone Again, Natura-Diddly1

“While our organist is on a much needed vacation, we thought we’d try something new, so get down and put your knees together for the Christian rock stylings of . . . Kovenant!” – Reverend Lovejoy

For the fourth summer in a row, we here at the Dead Homer Society will be spending some time discussing twelve year old Simpsons episodes.  This year we’re doing Season 11.  Why Season 11?  Because we’ve done Seasons 8, 9 and 10 already, and it’s time to take an unflinching look at the end of the show.  Since Skype and podcasts didn’t exist in 1999, and we want to discuss these episodes the way the internet intended, we’re sticking with the UTF-8 world of chat rooms and instant messaging.  This text has been edited for clarity and spelling (especially on “solemn”).

Today’s episode is 1114, “Alone Again Natura-Diddily”.  Yesterday was 1113, “Saddlesore Galactica”. 

[Note: Dave couldn’t make it again this week.  I’m beginning to think this “job” of his is just an excuse not to watch Season 11.]

Mad Jon: I know we always talk about how off Maude’s voice is this season, but this is the most standout to me.

Charlie Sweatpants: Well, yeah, they’re sending off a character in a very serious way – and they’re doing it because they were too cheap to pay the actress they’d been paying for more than a decade at that point.

  If ever there was a clear indicator that FOX didn’t give a fuck about the quality of the show, that was it.

Mad Jon: I am not a fan of the character change episodes, but man, I am really not a fan of the ones that require an unemployed Homer to get things on track.

  Especially when he has to hide in a mailbox for some reason.

Charlie Sweatpants: No arguments here. Homer is such a crutch in this episode that Flanders comes home from a date straight to the Simpsons house.

Mad Jon: This one feels like a repeat of the Vegas wife one. Except, you know, someone dies.

Charlie Sweatpants: Good call.

  It’s got all the problems that one does, plus several more.  I mean, Homer actually promises not to be a jerk, and then proceeds to be a jerk, and we’re still supposed to sympathize with him.

And Jerkass Homer is especially bad here because the rest of the episode is so damned solemn and serious.

Mad Jon: It really is. We have to support Ned through his loss, as well as his realization that he needs to move on, through the trials of that, and finally to the point that he learns he can be himself and still find love, I guess. And all the while all I can hear in the back of my head is "And that’s my queue to exit."

So I am supposed to feel bad and slapstick-y at the same time? Homey don’t play that.

Charlie Sweatpants: I know how you feel.

This one is a hot mess all over, though I’ll again say that there are a couple of good jokes and lines.

Mad Jon: I like the sign in the park at the beginning "Outdoor Sex By Permit Only".

Charlie Sweatpants:   I’m partial to "War Rocks", even though it’s very dumb. But overall it’s just unwatchable because it jumps back and forth between maudlin and profound and dumb and loud so fast that you don’t know whether to turn off the television or punch it.

Mad Jon: "This isn’t a war, it’s a murder…" "This isn’t a war, is a mudah!"

I also am partial to war rocks, but at the same time I shame myself for it.

  If it was anyone but Homer, fine. But not Homer.

Charlie Sweatpants: Like "horny" on the Scrabble board is funny, but is also instantly cut off as Flanders does the incredibly un-him, unbelievable, and stupid thing and mails Homer’s stupid dating video in.

And then it ends with a despicable meet cute between Flanders and the Christian singer babe.

Mad Jon: Yep, I couldn’t feel that scene either. The idea of him playing scrabble with himself is one thing, but the words on the board made him feel too much like "The Simpsons Movie" Flanders that I hate so, so very much.

Charlie Sweatpants: Like, Maude’s been dead for ten minutes, and we’ve already given Apu kids this season, so if there’s one thing we need, it’s to make sure Flanders has a woman waiting for him.

Mad Jon: A hot Christian musician at that.

Charlie Sweatpants: It’s the cheapest possible emotional resolution, which is fitting with the rest of this thing, but still pretty awful when you think about it.

Between that unwatchably poorly paced story and some of the worst Jerkass Homer ever, the few good lines and ideas just can’t compete.

Mad Jon: There really weren’t that many of them anyway.

  Although I did like the fax machine strapped to Lindsay’s leg.

Charlie Sweatpants: She was an early text message adopter.

A Pentecostal ska band is an awesome idea, and it’s funny that Flanders’ cock hangs past his knees, but the rest is way too nauseating to stomach.

Mad Jon: Why have hamburger when you can have steak? I probably say that almost daily.

  Again though, one line against a thousand.

  No competition here.

Charlie Sweatpants: Starwipe is excellent, but as you said, it’s heavily outnumbered.

  I feel like I’m saying this a lot lately, but I really hate this episode.

Mad Jon: You have been saying that a lot, but it has been justified, so don’t feel bad.

Charlie Sweatpants: It’s Season 11, my expectations are pretty low by this point, and this one still stands out for being both awful, and a preview of equally dumb things to come.

Mad Jon: This is going to get worse before it get’s better…

Charlie Sweatpants: Indeed it is. But not tonight.




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