Love is in the air in Springfield, but some hard choices have to be made. You know it's serious when the show does away with both the chalkboard and the couch gags, as Edna Krabappel finds herself in hot water after one of Bart's pranks goes too far, and discovers unexpected comfort in the many sweaters of Ned Flanders. It's the season finale of The Simpsons, and with only one guest voice, we're already ahead of last year's finale mess.
Disappointed that his free play time was canceled, Bart unleashes havoc and mayhem in Springfield Elementary's gym, going so far as to break Milhouse's glasses (which he doesn't mind), and retract the bleachers - with all the students still sitting in them. In the ensuing chaos, Edna Krabappel catches Bart and slaps him. While the school isn't even accredited, it can't allow teachers to strike their students (even though Homer had no problem with it), and Edna has to spend her 57-year paid suspension in a reassignment center. A guilty Bart breaks her out, but the attempt goes wrong, and Edna is saved by falling into Ned Flander's arms. An unlikely romance blooms, and things look good - until Homer accidentally alerts Ned to Edna's history with the men of Springfield (all the men of Springfield).
So here we are. Unlike last year's weak-as-water finale "Judge Me Tender", The Simpsons does a much better job this time. There's no plethora of guest voices, and no social riffing, so the show tells its own story, with its own characters. This, believe it or not, is good. The Simpsons does show its age sometimes - and at twenty-two consecutive years on the air, I don't see how it can't - but its characters are inherently good, and inherently capable of telling a good tale. "The Ned-Liest Catch" is one of them.
Again, at 22 years, we're not going to get a "The Best of Both Worlds"-esque season finale. "The Ned-Liest Catch" doesn't hit it out of the park, in terms of jokes, gags and humor, but it does pair two people together who otherwise would never interact - and, for that matter, two interesting choices for a season finale (but two decades in, options were probably low). Ned Flanders and Edna Krabappel don't have much to do with each other (until she literally falls into his arms), and Ned points this out. It does provide a fresh take on the characters, and gives us something new to read into them - Ned, still feeling Maude's loss, tentatively opens his heart to a woman who shares none of his scruples, resents his "forgiveness" of her ways, but still wants to be with him. It may not be side-splitting humor, but it may be better than that.
In the end, while the episode does have many good ingredients, the final product is less than stellar. It's good to see old characters doing new things, of course, but "The Ned-Liest" catch lacked a big, memorable, "go-home" gag - and that's not the best way to end a season. There were good moments: Ned seeing all of Springfield's men in Edna's face; Homer's desperate attempts to reconcile Ned and Edna; and Homer admitting that the vote on www.thesimpsons.com was simply a way to steal credit card information. I just wish there was a killer punch to knock me out until next season. We didn't get that, but we did get a good story. I'll take that.
4.0/5.0: "The Ned-Liest" catch makes for an interesting conclusion to The Simpsons' 22nd year. Hell, it's better than "Judge Me Tender".