The news that iconic voice actor Harry Shearer is leaving the Simpsons leaves the future of many of the show's leading characters in the balance. Shearer has been involved in the show for more than 25 years, voicing characters including evil businessman Mr Burns and headteacher Principal Skinner, but has indicated via Twitter that he's quitting due to a contract dispute. Perhaps most importantly, that could signal the end of Shearer's most famous Simpsons character, Ned Flanders.
The Simpsons' evangelical Christian next-door neighbour has been a permanent fixture in the show since 1989, when he appeared early in the first season. With his unrestricted cheerfulness and trademark habit of adding 'diddly' into the middle of a sentence, he's been both a constant thorn in Homer's side and a constant source of friendship and grace to him when needed. While Ned is an often irritaing caricature of Christianity, he's also a largely positive one; while sometimes a little legalistic and puritanical, he is also consistent, loving father, husband, friend and neighbour. As such he's a marked contrast to pharisaical church leader Rev Tim Lovejoy; he genuinely loves God, and despite his foibles he's treated with affection by writers and fans alike.
With his future uncertain, it seems like a good moment to remember some of Ned's greatest and most memorable moments on the show; the times he's made us laugh, think, and even cry. The former Archbishop Canterbury Rowan Williams is a confirmed fan, and he's even been described by a US Catholic magazine as 'America's most famous evangelical'. Here's a reminder of why he's quite so beloved...
Ned has his Eureka moment and sets up a 'Leftorium'; a mall store which sells products for left-handed people. When he shows it to Homer however, he gets jealous, and when pulling on a wishbone wishes that the store would fail and go out of business. That's exactly what happens, but when Flanders is plunged into debt and loses his home, Homer feels guilty, rounds up the left-handed residents of Springfield, and saves Ned and his business.
Best moment: Flanders has no customers, apart from people who want to take advantage of him...
Man: Hey, I hear you validate parking tickets without purchase?
Ned: Oh, right as rain! Or, as we say around here, 'left as rain', heh heh.
Man: Just stamp the ticket.
Maude dies, and Ned gets angry with God
One of the most poignant Simpsons episodes ever sees Ned widowed when his wife Maude is killed in an accident while watching a speedway race. In the story, entitled 'Alone Again, Natura-diddly', Maude's death causes Ned to seriously question his faith; the scene where he gets angry at God for not answering his prayers is hugely moving. He returns to church the next morning (apologising profusely to God along the way) and rediscovers his faith thanks to the appearance of a Christian rock band who are playing at the morning service. Maude's death even leads Homer to change his treatment of his neighbour; even offering him a kiss of friendship at the funeral.
Best moment: Bart plays Christian video games with Ned's sons Rod and Todd, and discovers they have a game entitled 'Billy Graham's Bible Blaster.'
The Adventures of Ned Flanders
An extended gag at the end of fourth series episode 'The Front', The Adventures of Ned Flanders is an imagined Simpsons spin-off show which focuses on the loveable zealot and his family. In this one-off episode, Ned scolds his children for not being ready for church, before realising that it's actually Saturday. Cue laughs all round. It's genuinely charming.
The Hurricane tests Ned's faith
In the eighth season episode 'Hurricane Neddy', a huge storm hits Springfield, but miraculously leaves every house standing bar one - the Flanders'. As a result of this apparent inverted instance of the Lord's favour, Ned begins to question his faith, and starts to believe that the Lord is punishing him (when he consults the Bible, he receives a paper cut). In a kind of reflection on the book of Job, Ned moves through anger, counselling, and eventually thanks to an honest conversation with Homer, some kind of resolution. Despite the comedic tone, it's one of the most 'real' on-screen depictions of a Christian under immense pressure.
Best moment: Ned reveals that he doesn't have home insurance as he considers it a form of gambling...
Ned does Notting Hill
In a parody of the Richard Curtis rom-com, the now widowed Ned meets and falls for famous movie star Sara Sloane, who comes to the Leftorium in pursuit of a pair of left-handed eyelash curlers. She likes him too - preferring his simple lifestyle and honest approach to her fast-paced Hollywood world. They begin a relationship, but cracks appear when she asks him to return to Hollywood with her, and Ned suffers nightmares warning him against the move. When she pressures him to begin a physical relationship Ned reveals his belief that sex is only for marriage and they break up, although Ned has a renewed confidence with women as a result. The episode is entitled 'A star is born again' in reference to Christian conversion.
Best moment: Flanders talking to Homer about Sara's request for sex outside of marriage. "Well, I'm not sure I wanna do it. I mean, who will buy the cow when you get the milk for free? You know, the cow being me."
Then of course, there's this:
And I leave you with perhaps the greatest Ned Flanders quote of all, and one that all good evangelical Christians should live by:
'I've done everything the Bible says — even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!'