68. Mr Plow

“Excitement, she wrote!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 19 November 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 4 May 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Storyboard: Steven Markowski, Dominic Polcino
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

With this episode, The Simpsons began a run of form unprecedented in its history and all too rare in its future. It’s always dangerous to apply the label ‘classic’ as that immediately turns something that feels fresh, spiky and unpredictable into something whose qualities cannot be questioned and whose value is not open to interpretation. Plus it’s just lazy. Let’s say instead that this episode, along with those that follow, rank as television of the highest order, and do so for reasons as numerous as the number of people who still enjoy watching them.

Plot
Most storylines in The Simpsons manage a combination of being smart, entertaining and exciting. Mr Plow manages to be all three, with a thrillingly tense finale to boot. Homer’s attempts to make a success of his snow-plow scheme keep things ticking over nicely during the first half of the episode, but probably wouldn’t have been enough to hold your interest to the end. By layering on to the plot a bit of “healthy competition” with Barney, climaxing in Homer’s race against time to save his friend from an avalanche, the writers avoid all risk of the plot drifting aimlessly to a conclusion. Instead you’re on the edge of your seat, just like Homer:

It’s one of the most well-crafted stories of the season. 10

Characters
Homer and Barney’s relationship is so touching here that you almost forgive Homer for turning Barney into an alcoholic (as revealed in a flashback) and hence being the cause of all that character’s crass and unfunny behaviour in the entire history of The Simpsons. Both of them work hard at their respective snow-plow schemes, rather than just luck themselves into success, which helps keep you interested in their plight. It’s great to see Homer really invested in his Mr Plow project, to the extent of making not one but two TV adverts, with the rest of the family all playing a part.

“Get out, you lousy… season”

“He could still surprise you!”

It’s only a shame ‘God’ has to appear right at the end, and apparently as a real ‘thing’ rather than merely something about which Homer dreams. Until that point the entire episode has rooted itself faithfully in the tangible and the plausible. 9

Locations and design
A story full of big machines doing big things in dangerous places needs appropriately big and dangerous locations. Happily, Springfield has acquired another natural wonder to add to its portfolio and which does just the job: Widow’s Peak, dubbed “forbidding Widow’s Peak” by the local news channel and rightly so.

It is so forbidding that goats tumble down its side and the town’s engineers were too spooked to remove from its slopes a rickety, half-distintegrated wooden bridge, despite building an ultra-modern, ultra-safe suspension bridge right alongside.

All the big machines in this episode look suitably forbidding as well. 9

Pardon My Zinger
Last week’s shortage of gags is made up for this week by a bounty. Pick of the bunch are Homer hijacking a bible reading at church to promote Mr Plow (“Homer, this is really low,” moans Reverend Lovejoy; “Not as low as my low, low prices!” chirps Homer); his attempt to convince an insurance man that Moe’s Tavern is not a bar (“It’s a pornography store. I was buying pornography”); and his visit to Crazy Vaclav’s Place of Automobiles:

“What country is this car from?” “It no longer exists”

He also has a run-in with an elderly neighbour when she insists he “makes sure not to scrape my asphalt.” “Kiss my asphalt,” he mutters – a reply that tickles him so much that tries to retell the exchange to his nonplussed family (“So I said, ‘Kiss my ashalpt!’ – hmm?! hmm?!”). 9

Special guests
Adam West plays it absolutely spot on. Required by the script to be charming yet quietly put-out that ‘his’ Batman is no longer the talk of the schoolyard, West gets the tone exactly right, gamely playing along even with the gentle digs at his age (“How come Batman doesn’t dance any more?”) and at being typecast (he drives a clapped-out Batmobile instead of an ordinary car). It’s one of the most finely-judged performances by a special guest in any episode. The startled reaction of Homer, Bart and Lisa just makes you love West even more.

Linda Ronstadt also turns up but hers is not a cameo that impacts substantially upon the plot and her role could have played by any famous singer. West is enough to ensure this gets a 10, however.

Music
Ronstadt’s appearance is another of those Look Who We’ve Persuaded To Be In The Simpsons moments. Though it’s fun hearing her sing “Mr Plow is a loser and I think he is a boozer”, and watching her join Barney in beating up a cardboard cut-out of Homer, there’s no earthly reason for her to be in this episode aside from showboating on the part of the production team. Her singing is sublime, naturally, while the Plow King song is catchy enough to never be forgotten (“Let it ring!”). There’s an air of pointlessness about her contribution, however. More entertaining by virtue of sounding so cheap and throwaway is Homer’s Mr Plow jingle. 8

Voices
Dan Castellaneta won an Emmy for this episode and it’s completely deserved. Aside from having to play both Homer and Barney – often in the same scene – he treats us to another outing of the finest of Homer’s “comedy” voices, which is the one the character affects when he is trying to impersonate someone else. We last heard it in Blood Feud (“Hel-loo, my name is Mr Burns.”) This time Homer pretends to be someone with a driveway on the top of Widow’s Peak (“There’s a $10,000 bill in it for you!”) As usual, the voice is ludicrously unconvincing but shown to be delivered with total conviction on the part of Homer, which is precisely why it is so funny. Listen also for the strangulated yelp from Homer when he walks smack in the door of the snow-plow. 10

“Oh Homie – did that hurt?” “[muffled] No!”

Animation direction
The last time we saw snow in an episode of The Simpsons was in Homer the Heretic. Then as now the director was Jim Reardon, and then as now he does a fantastic job of turning Springfield into a chilly wonderland, where there is something beautiful to look at in every scene. Whenever it snows in Springfield it really snows, with great piles of the stuff building up on pavements, over cars and outside houses. It is exactly how you wish snow would be like in real life, which just makes it all the more irresistible.

Capping the lot is the Widow’s Peak sequence, which would be gripping even without the snow, and it’s a shame ‘God’ has to show up to change winter into spring and cause all the snow to vanish in seconds, turning Springfield back into its usual mix of murky beige and brown. All of this is more than enough for a 10, and that’s not counting Reardon’s affectionate tip of the hat to the 1960s Batman TV series: tilting the camera several degrees to the left or right whenever Adam West appears on screen.

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Once again we open with members of the Simpson family watching something on television, and once again the programme they’re watching is a spoof – this time of something we never had in the UK, a sort of lavish celebrities-perform-circus-acts affair, going by the name of Carnival of the Stars and hosted by Troy McClure on the tallest pair of stilts you’ve ever seen.

We might remember him from such films as The Erotic Adventures of Hercules and Dial ‘M’ for Murderousness. “Tonight we’ll see Angela Lansbury walk on hot coals,” he booms; “excitement, she wrote!” It’s almost the best thing in the entire episode. Seconds later Bart and Lisa change the TV channel and we see the Bumblebee Man running around his living room being chased by a police officer with a giant fly swat. It’s hard to say what’s more fun: the running around or the reaction on Bart and Lisa’s faces.

Later on there are more treats, in particular Homer’s elaborate fantasy of using his snow-plow to help President George HW Bush clear his driveway of protesters (“I’ve got to sneak these valuable artworks out of the White House!”):

There’s also a pastiche of Walter Kronkite announcing the JFK shooting recreated pose-for-pose when Kent Brockman announces Barney is trapped on Widow’s Peak:

A homage to The Godfather when Bart is pelted by snowballs:

And the most obscure reference in the series to date, a parody of William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer when Homer drives across a gorge:

A very audacious 10.

Emotion and tone
Despite everything that is crammed into this episode, the script never loses sight of the main storyline and you rarely feel your time is being wasted with subplots or padding. The consistency in the writing is matched by a consistency of tone; from start to finish this is one of The Simpsons’ most rousing of yarns and enchanting of adventures. 9

Verdict: 94%
That name again is Mr Plow.

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