An Oral History of ‘A Serious Flanders,’ the Best Modern Episode of ‘The Simpsons’

The writer and directors chime in, along with ‘Simpsons’ executive producer Matt Selman and ‘Fargo’ creator Noah Hawley
An Oral History of ‘A Serious Flanders,’ the Best Modern Episode of ‘The Simpsons’

Like so many other insane Simpsons (mis)adventures, this one started on a seemingly normal day in Springfield. Ned Flanders, the most neighborly guy in town, was collecting garbage in the forest when he fell down a hill and smashed his head into a log. Hidden inside of the log, he found a bag with $173,296. Flanders being Flanders, instead of keeping the money, he anonymously donated it to a local orphanage. 

Yet, there was a part of Flanders that wanted the rest of Springfield to know that he had done such a good deed. And so, he donated the cash in the name of his grandfather Ned Flanders I. This slight bit of vanity, though, would send his life into a downward spiral unlike anything seen before on The Simpsons.

The two-part Season 33 episode “A Serious Flanders” was incredibly ambitious and written by Cesar Mazariegos at the behest of Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman. The entire story was a play on prestige TV, particularly FX’s Fargo. Cut up into six chapters, “A Serious Flanders” spoofed many elements from Fargo, including its look, tropes and music. It also told an effective story about Flanders being hunted down by the money’s rightful owner, a ruthless debt collector (voiced by Brian Cox). In addition to Cox, the all-star guest voices included Chris O’Dowd, Jessica Paré and Fargo alumni Cristin Milioti and Timothy Olyphant.

“A Serious Flanders” quickly became one of the most beloved Simpsons stories in decades, with even longtime, jaded fans — *cue Comic Book Guy voice* — praising its razor-sharp satire. Critics loved it as well, with Rolling Stone opining, “‘A Serious Flanders’ is about as dark, violent (RIP, Disco Stu, Fat Tony and Mr. Burns, among others), and out-of-continuity as the show gets, outside of its annual ‘Treehouse of Horror’ stories. It’s also devilishly clever in the ways it shines a light (on) the many clichés of this era of cable and streaming drama.”

With the fifth season of Fargo now concluding on FX, I caught up with the creative team behind “A Serious Flanders,” as well as Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, to discuss the making of one of the most dark-diddly-arkest episodes in The Simpsons’ 35-year history. 

Chapter One: Writing ‘A Serious Flanders’

Matt Selman, executive producer and showrunner on The SimpsonsThe initial idea for “A Serious Flanders” came about because COVID started, and I finally got a chance to watch some of this peak TV stuff I was behind on. I watched Season One of Fargo, and it was great. I was on the edge of my seat. The show was having so much fun and was so playful, dark, funny and smart. It was doing all this fun peak TV shit — indulgent stuff and artistic stuff and music stuff and camera stuff and other weird stuff. Like, they’ll do an episode that’s a flashback just to tell a little short story, or they’ll go deep into a character that you think is only a background character. 

Anyway, I had an idea to bring that to The Simpsons — specifically to our writer Cesar Mazariegos, who I knew would kill it. Give all the credit to Cesar. My idea was just “Let’s do it.” Cesar thought of everything else.

Cesar Mazariegos, writer of “A Serious Flanders”: My first three episodes of The Simpsons, which includes both parts of “A Serious Flanders,” were assignments by Matt Selman where he had just a tiny germ of an idea. For this, the idea was “The Simpsons and peak TV,” which would include the tropes of peak TV. There was no story, just a theme. There wasn’t a super-hard deadline either, so there were times where we’d roll on an idea and then sit on it for a bit. I also watched every Coen Brothers movie for this

We made a list of what we love about these shows. One thing was the tension, where someone walks in in the middle of some heist, and they don’t know that they’re in trouble. Mexican standoffs were another thing, with the threat of a shootout. There’s the monologues with a parable in them. There’s the flashbacks — I mean, there’s an entire episode of Fargo in the third season where it takes place in the 1970s for a minor character we don’t even know that well.

We also loved those scenes that start with absolute mysteries where you’re like, “What the hell is this? Why are we here?” To that end, one episode of Fargo starts with the creation of a washing machine. You see it being assembled, then it’s on a truck, then it’s in a store, then it’s being delivered to Nygard’s house, then you realize it’s the replacement washing machine for the machine that wasn’t working when he killed his wife.  

We were going to do an opening like that for one of the acts, but it was cut for time after we got the animatic. It was the harvesting of the blueberries on a blueberry farm by a farmer and his son. Then they were being boxed up and being shipped, then they’re at a farmer’s market and a chef is looking at them, then he starts making blueberry muffins, then they’re wrapped up and put into a cargo truck, then they end up in front of Flanders’ doorstep with a huge assortment of gifts being given to him, then Homer reaches over and steals one of the muffins, spits it out and goes, “Ew, blueberries!” It was completely superfluous, but it was one of those things that was a loving homage. It was us poking fun of those flights of fancy those shows will go on. 

Selman: It took Cesar a whole day to convince me to cut that. I couldn’t bear it because I loved it.

Mazariegos: At first, we thought maybe the episode would be a trilogy, with the first part being Moe’s arc, then “Breaking Ned.” We eventually settled on doing a whole story about Flanders because the audience already knows that he’s a good man with strong morals, and we thought it was more interesting to chip away at that, where he has to commit more and more sins. It was fun to come up with those sins, too — for him to lie to Marge and for him to seduce a married woman, then to have him have to steal money from an orphanage. 

When Flanders donated the money to the orphanage, there was a little bit of vanity to his gesture as he donated it “anonymously” in honor of his grandfather, who has the exact same name that he does. Flanders is a little bit to blame, which he finally admits at the end. Some of that came from the ending of A Serious Man, where, finally, when the character commits a sin, he immediately gets a call from his doctor’s office with some medical results, and on the other side of town, his son looks off into the distance and there’s a huge tornado coming. With Flanders, if he didn’t do this one vain little thing — if he’d been truly anonymous with his donation — none of this would have happened. 

Selman: It’s the smallest little sin Flanders commits, but then it snowballs into a life-destroying nightmare.

Mazariegos: Selman and I went back and forth on the tone of the episode. I was probably more Fargo than The Simpsons on a lot of these ideas; then Selman would pull me into “How do we make this funnier? How do we Simpsify this?” It was definitely a balancing act, especially in the moments that got really grim. Like, “What in this shootout can be funny?” That’s why it’s great to have a room of people, because we can send three or four people out to come up with zany weapons ideas. Then they bring it back and half might not work, but there’s really funny stuff there and we’re voting which are the funniest. 

During the writing process, I also showed Selman these clips from American Dad — these super serious period pieces called “The Golden Turd.” They were these dramatic stories with no jokes in them at all. I showed them to Selman, and he said, “These are funny, but what’s funny about them is that they’re taking it so serious. We should still make sure we find ways to be funny because of our characters and who they are and how they would react.”

Selman: Usually, I’m the one saying that sometimes jokes get in the way of a story. I’ll pick a story over a joke any day of the week, but the balance here was hard to find. I didn’t want this to just seem like an animated drama; so I was probably more on the comedy side for this one, and Cesar was more on the animated drama side.

Mazariegos: We knew that to do the peak TV noir crime genre justice that this wouldn't be “canon.” What makes this scary is that people die, and you don’t know who’s gonna die. We also knew that someone had to die pretty quickly, which is why Rich Texan dies in the first scene. We also thought of the idea of setting it in this “Simpflix” universe, which told the audience right up front that this is something different. 

Selman: On The Simpsons, we’ve really wanted to embrace creativity with our world and thinking outside the box and experimenting with our format. That’s more fun than being slavish to canon. As long as the characters are true to themselves, we like to explore what we can do. It’s more fun. Which is why Cesar thought to make it an episode of Simpflix. It’s not a Halloween episode, but it’s also not a regular episode. It exists in its own tone in this streaming universe. Also, each act would be its own chapter with its own heading. 

Debbie Bruce Mahan, director of “A Serious Flanders: Part One”: Speaking of Simpflix, in one of the earliest versions of the episode, a preview of The Tween’s Gambit was at the very end of the episode. It was very funny, but it got cut for time.

Mazariegos: “A Serious Flanders” didn’t start out as a two-parter, but as I was writing it, I knew we couldn’t tell this story in one episode. I told Selman, “If we really want to do this the right way and have this be something that stands out, it has to be a two-parter.” For one thing, we knew we wanted a whole act that was a flashback, so how do you do that with three acts to fill? We also wanted to cut to the future for a whole act. There was no way for all that to fit without two parts. Even then, we were fighting for seconds. The cut on Disney+ is both of them cut together, and it has maybe 20 seconds more than the TV versions did. 

Originally, the title I liked the most was “A Simple Flan,” which is Coen-esque, but Selman thought it sounded too much like the dessert. Then I thought “A Serious Flanders,” which is reminiscent of A Serious Man. It also let the audience know that it’s a serious episode and that it’s about Flanders. 

After we already did most of the work on it, we came up with another title we didn’t use. Matt Groening is from Portland, Oregon, and a lot of characters in The Simpsons are named for locations in Portland. In response to that, there’s a bridge in Portland named “Ned Flanders Crossing.” I found out about this and thought “Flanders Crossing” would have been an amazing name. Ultimately, if I could change one thing, that would probably be it. Or, if I had 90 more seconds, I’d put in more pauses with longer transitions.

Selman: The one thing I might have done differently is the time jump for Chapter Six. It’s like four years later, but I wish we did like 10 years. In Chapter Six, Bart and Lisa were teenagers, and Jim Brooks wanted it to be like that because there’s this lie that Homer told that solves all the kids' problems. It would have been harder to show that if they were much older.

Chapter Two: The Look and Feel of ‘A Serious Flanders’

Mazariegos: My hat’s off to the animation team and the sound team because they did an incredible job. This only being my second and third episodes, I certainly did my homework, but so did everybody else. They watched whole seasons of Fargo, and we were all on the same page. We kept giving the animation team visual references to Fargo. I had really specific ideas about what the characters should be wearing. For example, at the time, we didn’t know we were going to get Cristin Milioti to do a voice, but some of what her character, Barb, wears in the episode is reminiscent of what her character wears in Season Two of Fargo

To the sound team, I said stuff like, “Don’t use our typical gun sounds. Let’s mine the library for loud, abrasive guns. Also, the sound of a dog barking shouldn’t be Dan Castellaneta, it should be a real dog.” Little things like that people would find unsettling and not know why. We told everyone, “We’re going for something different here.”

Matthew Faughnan, director of “A Serious Flanders: Part Two”: Early on, Selman and Cesar got together with Debbie and I, and we held a big pre-visualization meeting. We storyboarded and thumbnailed out ideas and designs and tried to get everyone on the same page with what our approach was going to be with doing The Simpsons through the lens of Fargo. It took a lot of careful planning.

Mahan: “A Serious Flanders: Part One” was my very first episode as a director of The Simpsons, and I’m still surprised they gave me this one. I’d been part of the animation team for a long time, but this was a giant leap of faith on both our parts. In a way, it was the best first episode to start on because I didn’t have any frame of reference for “What’s my style?” and “What are my tendencies?” 

I grew up loving The Simpsons, and I’d been with the show for a while, starting out as an intern, so I knew what made a proper Simpsons episode. But when I opened up the script, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I was scared. 

The big fear, really, was that I’d never seen Fargo. I had a little bit of time to binge every episode, and after the first one, I was just like “Yes! This is really cool!” I immediately latched onto the visual vocabulary of the Fargo series. Even though each season was different thematically and character-wise, it had a common thread — like a sense of foreboding and meeting someone that you’re least likely to get mixed up with in that seedy underbelly of crime and murder. To marry that with The Simpsons, it was a match made in heaven with Flanders being this Boy Scout and getting himself into this horrible situation. 

Faughnan: I’d directed other episodes prior to this, so there was definitely an adjustment when it came to “A Serious Flanders.” Fargo is such a slow-paced show with these big vistas and they let things breathe, which is so opposite from our pacing. I had to really reframe how to go about directing a show. 

Mahan: It was also a departure visually. The way we put our shots together is very close to the eyeline — it’s shot like a sitcom, without too many high angles or low angles — but when doing it like Fargo, we got to play more with extreme angles to heighten the tension and drama. One of my favorite shots is in the opening scene, where Flanders falls from a great height face-first into the log, then Homer falls too. That’s called a God’s-eye shot, and it took some figuring out because we don’t usually do that. As a thank you gift to me, Cesar had someone on Etsy embroider that shot for me.

Cesar Mazariegos’ embroidery gift to Debbie Bruce Mahan. Made by bazarbartiano.

Chapter Three: Highlights from ‘A Serious Flanders’

Mazariegos: For the scene in the Lard Lad donut shop, originally, Mrs. Skinner was going to die instead of Mr. Burns. She came in and said, “This donut got raspberry all over my shawl! I want a new donut and a new shawl!” Then blam, her brains blow out onto the glass. 

But when we watched it in the animatic, Selman was like, “It’s this little old lady. Yeah, she sucks and we hate her, but it would be funnier if it’s someone we really don’t like.” We landed on Mr. Burns, who comes in with this “Free Donut on Your Birthday” coupon. There was a backstory that there was no time for, where Mr. Burns thought he was pulling a scam. He saw this ad in the paper and was like, “They don’t know it’s not my birthday. I’m going to get a free donut!” Then he gets his head blown off for it.

Selman: It came off as super sad to see Mrs. Skinner with a bullet hole in her head; it was too real. So we made it Mr. Burns, and his head goes in this dust puff, which seemed less sad. 

Mahan: Selman had a very specific request to make Mr. Burns’ head explode, but not in a gory way, more like he was a mummy whose head exploded, so you’d get nothing but dust. There’s nothing more fun than animating heads exploding. That’s why I got into animation.

Mazariegos: For the shootout in the 1970s, we wanted to figure out how to do our version of a Fargo shootout, so we had the two guys in a trenchcoat and a guy with dynamite nunchucks. There’s a shot where, while Ned Flanders I is under the car praying, you see bullets flying, then an arrow, then two eggs. That whole segment also has a Kodachrome filter on it to give it a different, more dreamy kind of look. 

As for the ending on the ice, you’d think that maybe we knew from the beginning that the episode would end like Fargo Season One, but we didn’t. I had them going into a cave; then there was this long monologue, then a bear attack. I can’t remember who pitched that they end up on the ice, but it was definitely Selman who wanted the joke where this broken circle of ice that Kostas is on keeps flipping. We had three flips in there for a while, but when we got the color back, Selman said, “Let’s do one more flip!” So now there’s four in there. That’s the one with the fish biting him.

Chapter Four: Reactions to ‘A Serious Flanders’

Mazariegos: The Simpsons doesn’t get reviewed as much as it used to, but the next day, there were good reviews for “A Serious Flanders.” Even that night, people were on IMDb giving it good scores. Selman took a screenshot and sent it to me saying, “It’s been a while since the show has scored this highly.” 

“A Serious Flanders” was also on a lot of end-of-year lists, and when it got to Disney+, people were talking about it again. Every month or so, I look it up on Twitter, and people are saying, “Holy shit! I just watched ‘A Serious Flanders’!” 

Mahan: If you work on The Simpsons, you don’t really want to go on the internet. I’m just so used to reading negative stuff like, “Why is this show still on the air?” To see these episodes get such an awesome response, it gave me a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, and it reminded me why I work on this show.

Faughnan: When we were making it, we knew we were taking a big swing and making something special, and it was satisfying to see it resonate.

Selman: It was cathartic for an audience to see us break our rules in a new way and parody something we’d never parodied in that manner with such depth and affection. We went all in. In the glory years of The Simpsons, they would do a 20-second scene that would be a brilliant parody, then they’d move onto the next thing. We can’t afford to do that. In the late 700s in terms of episodes, you’re like, “That’s an episode! That’s two episodes!” 

Mazariegos: It was also very cool to hear that Noah Hawley, the creator of Fargo the series, enjoyed it too. He sent us an email after he saw it, and he was complimentary. Just recently, he reached out and got Selman and I two tickets to the Season Five premiere of Fargo

Noah Hawley, creator and showrunner of FargoI thought there were a lot of things they got right about the way we tell stories, including the structure of the show. They also had a dig at the idiosyncrasy of our musical direction that I thought was funny. 

What was a little ironic is that I was already planning Season Five of Fargo when I saw “A Serious Flanders,” and Season Five revolves around the theme of debt. With “A Serious Flanders” having a debt collector as the villain, there was a part of me that did think, “Oh no, now people will think I’m copying The Simpsons.” But of course, on The Simpsons, it was a very literal thing about money, whereas, for me, it was a way into a conversation about morality. 

It was also fun to watch this with my son, who is 11, and while he hasn’t seen every episode of The Simpsons yet, it’s his mission to do so. He loves that show whole-heartedly, and it was fun for him to see his dad mocked by The Simpsons. Not everybody is honored by the institution that is The Simpsons, so I’m grateful for it. That’s why I invited Selman and Cesar to the premiere. They’re part of the Fargo family now.

Mazariegos: In addition to the big reaction we got for “A Serious Flanders,” in general, people are now saying how The Simpsons is coming into a second era. We’re taking bigger swings. It’s an exciting time to be working on the show. There’s even another idea floating around in the Simpflix universe. It’s great to have that in our pockets as a new version of “Treehouse of Horror.” We’re coming up on 800 episodes, so it’s wonderful to have this device that can help us tell new kinds of stories. 

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