NEW YORK Good heavens! Ned Flanders has come into his own.
A zealous instrument of God, Ned has long been instrumental to ''The Simpsons'' as it lampoons organized religion (that is, when not mocking virtually every other human institution, from business to democracy to its own TV network).
But lately the ground has shifted beneath the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield, U.S.A., along with the rest of the nation. The new term has begun for a president whose re-election was clinched by the ''moral values'' ballyhoo. The current climate finds faith synonymous with patriotism, while ''secular'' is code for un-American.
Before on ''The Simpsons,'' Ned was a secondary figure Homer's cloyingly pious next-door neighbor. But the values he embodies in exaggerated form now monopolize the political scene. In fact, one might say that Homer is Ned's next-door neighbor, not the other way around, so clearly does Ned bask in the mainstream.
''The values he represents have become more visible in American life,'' agrees ''Simpsons'' executive producer Al Jean, ''as people who maybe are outward advocates of Ned's values have come into positions of power. We always satirize who's in power and what the cultural zeitgeist is, so currently the point of view Ned has is a little more ripe for satire.''
Ned stands front and center in Sunday's edition of ''The Simpsons'' when, in an unlikely collaboration with Homer, he co-produces the Super Bowl halftime show as (what else?) a biblical pageant. Homer portrays Noah. The stadium is flooded from a Duff's Beer blimp. Ned preaches the Word. Take that, Janet Jackson.
(The episode follows Fox's real-life Super Bowl telecast, except in the Pacific time zone, where it airs at 7 p.m.)
Ned answers the call of show biz after seeing a sex-aid commercial for seniors and declaring, ''There's nothing but filth on TV.'' He seizes his camcorder and films a backyard biblical drama: a bloody re-creation of the story of Cain and Abel, with his two young sons in the starring roles.
Homer's wife, Marge, is troubled by Ned's ''Passion of the Christ''-inspired antics. ''There's more to the Bible than blood and gore,'' she says.
But Ned (voiced by Harry Shearer) sneers in response, ''I guess you'd rather see a film about a liberal European wizard school. Or the latest sexcapade of Miss Ashley Judd.''
Ned's cinematic crusade fizzles when money man Mr. Burns withdraws his backing. But a panic-stricken Homer who was hired to create the Super Bowl show, then can't think of anything to do desperately needs Ned to help him.
''Maybe,'' says Ned, thrilled to get this globe-spanning pulpit, ''God brought us together for a reason.''
Whatever the reason, Ned has been a holier-than-thou thorn in Homer's side since the very first episode of ''The Simpsons'' in 1989, when Ned decorated his house with a dazzling array of Christmas lights.
''Too bright,'' pouted Homer, embarrassed by his own house's display.
Homer still feels bedeviled by Ned's goody-two-shoes style, his glossy cheer, his habit of injecting ''diddly'' into things he says, like his chipper greeting, ''Hi-diddly-do!''
In a startling admission, Ned once disclosed that he was 60 years old, then attributed his youthful appearance to ''the three C's: clean living, chewing thoroughly and a daily dose of 'vitamin church'.''
Mighty easy to see why Homer would say, ''I don't care if Ned Flanders is the nicest guy in the world he's a jerk!''
Of course, Homer knows jerks from the inside out. For 16 seasons of ''The Simpsons,'' he has been a champion jerk lazy, dimwitted and irresponsible. His chief pleasures are beer, snacks and endless hours of TV. He reigns as the flawed secular Everyman.
''I think Homer is a pretty bad guy in a lot of ways,'' says Jean, who helps shape his personality, and adds, ''The writers like Ned as a person better than Homer.''
But Ned's faith-based deficiencies serve ''The Simpsons'' well as a Homer counterbalance. Spiritually in bondage, Ned is a model of righteousness gone wrong.
He must surely have been shocked to behold (or, more likely, learn about second-hand) Janet Jackson's flash dance during Super Bowl XXXVIII, and definitely would have supported the anti-media backlash. Like he says, ''There's nothing but filth on TV.''
But how to explain why his squeaky-clean extravaganza flops with the public?
''All over America today,'' reports newsman Kent Brockman, ''viewers were outraged by the Super Bowl halftime show's blatant display of religion and decency.''
This can only be a temporary setback. These days, Ned represents the nation's ruling point of view. And what of citizens who beg to differ with it? Thank heaven ''The Simpsons,'' at least, still guarantees them a laugh.
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