Just in time for April, my “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series is back—in a new, bite-sized format! I’ve been looking for a way to keep writing about The Simpsons that’s a little less time-consuming than the more comprehensive essays, so I can do it with more regularity. Thus, I’ll be paring down my analysis and trying to focus more closely on the episodes’ satirical points and individual moments of comic genius. Since winter’s just now ending in the midwest, I’ve picked a snowbound classic from Season 4 to celebrate: “Mr. Plow.” (That’s the episode’s name. That name again is “Mr. Plow.”)
“Mr. Plow” follows a narrative arc that should be familiar to Simpsons fans: first, Homer tries to accomplish something so he’ll be respected by his family. He fails, here through the betrayal of his best friend. Finally, he achieves some modicum of redemption, though divine intervention guarantees that it’s no more than a modicum. It’s the typical sour-but-sweet satire of the American dream that the show is renowned for dishing up. “Mr. Plow,” though, is brought a cut above even The Simpsons’ high standards by its brilliant set-pieces, reversals, and character-based humor. For example, consider my favorite joke in the whole episode…
While visiting a big, flashy car show, Homer stops off at a booth to enter a “free car” contest. He fills out the form and, while dropping it in the slot, asks the model, “Do you come with the car?” The model, voiced by Nancy Cartwright (aka Bart) offhandedly replies, “Ohh, you!” with a coy wave of her hand and a squeaky giggle. Homer leaves, and another man walks up, fills out the form, and asks the same question. She automatically responds in the exact same way. The whole joke takes about 11 seconds, it’s unobtrusively woven into the episode’s plot, but it’s still an incisive, self-contained critique of rampant institutionalized sexism.
I love how the show’s not afraid to mock its main character when he treats a woman like a sex object. (For a more in-depth exploration of this, see Season 1’s “Homer’s Night Out.”) Both he and the man who follow him think they’re so clever, like they’re the first visitors to this booth to crack that obvious joke. And of course the model can’t tell them off, because it’s her job to validate their delusions of wit and desirability. But in Cartwright’s performance, you can catch the slightest whiff of contempt, both in the ultra-calculated nature of her laugh and the mechanical way she repeats herself. It’s such a scathing, flawlessly executed indictment of male self-satisfaction.
Nothing else in the episode quite lives up to those 11 seconds, but there are still nuggets of genius deposited all over the place. Parts of “Mr. Plow” could function as a time capsule of global politics circa 1992: just look at “Crazy Vaclav,” the Slavic car salesman who tries to sell Homer a car made in a country that no longer exists (“Put it in H!”). Or the representative of the ethically suspect and ironically named “Fourth Reich Motors,” a model of post-Nazi German efficiency at any price. Both of these examples casually and hilariously postulate a world still struggling to figure itself out in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.
Another one of the best jokes in “Mr. Plow” is rooted not in international politics, but in the inner workings of Homer’s mind. As he’s about to claim his insurance money for both of the family’s wrecked cars, the claims adjuster asks him to explain what “Moe’s” is. Internally, Homer panics and decides to lie. “But what else is open at night?” he ponders. Then, in extreme close-up, he answers while wearing the most blissful of smiles: “It’s a pornography store! I was buying pornography!” Dan Castellaneta’s delivery is so pitch-perfect that I can hardly think about that line without cracking up. The restrictive framing and the lack of a reaction shot from the (no doubt aghast) claims adjuster complete the moment, rendering it unforgettable.
So far, I’ve concentrated entirely on the episode’s first act. (That’s how substantive “Mr. Plow” is.) The rest of it is brimming with good jokes, mostly focused on Homer’s harebrained, initially successful scheme to make his snowplow pay for itself. But the best parts come after he encourages his perpetually drunk pal Barney to go out and make something of himself—and Barney instantly becomes an aggressive rival plowman. This conflict capitalizes on their ongoing, beer-soaked friendship, as Barney callously shoots out Homer’s tires, slanders him on TV (with the aid of Linda Ronstadt), beats a cardboard cut-out of him into oblivion, and steals his clientele, all under the guise of “healthy competition.”
It’s pretty astonishing that Barney gets away with all this, yet the episode never feels mean-spirited or unnecessarily vicious. I suspect it’s because Barney retains the same soused, happy-go-lucky personality throughout, burping and mumbling even when he’s hobnobbing with Ronstadt and mercilessly sabotaging his best friend. He still feels good (or maybe drunkenly innocent?) at heart even when his actions say otherwise, and he even gets a moment of wickedly funny pathos toward the end, as he remarks that at least dying will reunite him with dead family members “and that plant I never watered.” It’s impressive that the Simpsons writers created a character whose audience sympathies could withstand his borderline-sociopathic behavior in this episode.
I’ll close with another of my favorite jokes from this episode. (That is, aside from the sublime visual gag with the bridges.) It’s when Homer complains to Flanders, who’s just had his driveway plowed by Barney, “I thought I was your plowman!” Flanders pauses, then offers to let Homer plow his pristine driveway, but to a self-motivated go-getter like Homer, this is tantamount to an insult. He cries, “I don’t need your phony-baloney job!” before quickly adding, “I’ll take your money. But I’m not gonna plow your driveway!”
I just love the understanding of commerce that this exchange betrays: he’s willing to put on the facade of earning the money when need be, but ultimately it’s all about getting the money, especially since the job’s prestige has run dry. Flanders, naturally, is too gracious to ask for the money back. Considering all these bitter, bleak, and brutal jokes, it’s surprising that “Mr. Plow” still has time left for scenes of adorable lovemaking, advertising parodies, nail-biting suspense, and even an extended Adam West cameo that single-handedly outdoes his entire recurring role on Family Guy. But what else would you expect? This is prime Simpsons, so of course they turn a 20-minute cartoon about buying a snowplow into a work of art.