As the northeast continues to get pummeled by snow, it’s hard not to think about the infamous snow plow wars waged between Homer and Barney Gumble in “Mr. Plow,” a fourth-season episode of The Simpsons.
The episode starts with a common premise: Homer does something really stupid. In fact, it’s a series of stupid things: He stays out late at Moe’s during a snowstorm, wrecks both the family’s cars in a driveway crash, and then buys a snow plow to compensate—largely because the salesman questioned his manhood. We’ve even seen this last sales tactic hook Homer on an impractical auto purchase before in “The Call of the Simpsons.” To be fair, Homer is smart enough not to admit that Moe’s is a bar to the insurance agent:
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Homer does, however, admit his stupidity to Marge—“If you’re gonna yell at me every time I do something stupid, then I guess I’ll just have to stop doing stupid things!”—right before he walks into the open door of his new plow.
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The difference between “Mr. Plow” and something like “The Call of the Simpsons” is that Homer’s stupidity pays off. Buying the plow turns into a good investment that not only leads to some extra cash but also some major notoriety (some extra “snuggling” at home). I mentioned in my review of “Lisa the Iconoclast” that Homer’s turn as town crier is one of the few instances in which we see him really succeed at something. His plow business is another (although there are all sorts of issues it begs, like how often is it snowing in Springfield and is Homer even going to work at the nuclear plant anymore and in what town are individual snow plowers so decorated). It’s fun to see how Homer’s success attracts Marge; it’s not usual to see the wife in a married sitcom couple initiating the “flurries of passion.”*
*It’s not unusual to see it, though, on The Simpsons in episodes like “Whacking Day,” “Natural Born Kissers,” and “Marge in Chains.”
“Mr. Plow” also gives us one of our first looks at Homer’s friendship with Barney. The episode was originially written with Lenny playing the part of the Plow King—a concept that doesn’t work as well because Homer and Lenny aren’t really close friends (and thus it wouldn’t be as much of a betrayal on Lenny’s part to steal Homer’s idea). Barney, however, is Homer’s best friend; in fact, you can make the case that Barney is really Homer’s only friend. The other three main contenders are Lenny, Carl, and Moe, who are all friends of circumstance. Lenny and Carl are coworkers that Homer occasionally hangs out with after work at the bar or bowling alley. Moe is a bartender who profits off Homer’s misery. Barney, on the other hand, has been Homer’s friend since high school, and he’s one of the only people Homer actually works to spend time with. He calls Barney to come over when Marge is on vacation (“Homer Alone”) and he plans on spending a Sunday afternoon with him (“Lisa the Greek”).*
*The episode also shows Homer introducing Barney to beer the night before the SATs and, presumably, ruining Barney’s life. I’ve never really liked this flashback because the Barney solving those practice test analogies would probably never hang out with the high school Homer established in other episodes (and shown in this very flashback).
That’s what makes Barney’s theft of Homer’s idea such a betrayal and helps, somewhat, explain Homer’s harsh reaction that almost kills his friend. After all, Homer’s plan isn’t to hurt Barney; it’s just to ruin his day and exploit his absence for his own financial windfall.
All this about friendships is good and well, but “Mr. Plow” wouldn’t be memorable without a trip to Crazy Vaclav’s, a series of hilarious commercials, two excellent guest turns by Adam West and Linda Ronstadt,* and arguably the greatest jingle in American commercial history. I’ve seen this episode dozens of times, and yet the scene at Crazy Vaclav’s cracks me up every time. I don’t know what’s funnier: the idea that Homer would buy a car that can go “300 hectares on a single tank of kerosene” and must be put into H, or that he hitched a ride to go to that specific dealership. Furthermore, while everyone knows low-cost infomercials are a comic gold, nobody has mined that topic as effectively as in this episode. Starting with the Sea Captain’s Sea Chanteys right through Homer’s homemade commercial and the opaque follow-up done by a big-time agency, down to Barney’s own ad in which he smashes a cardboard cutout of Homer with a baseball bat, every commercial earns its laughs. And of course, there’s Homer’s genius jingle: “Call Mr. Plow, that’s my name, that name again is Mr. Plow.”
*In the past, I’ve been critical of guest stars playing themselves on The Simpsons. Here’s two counterexamples, where both West and Ronstadt were great secondary pieces to the main plot, ranging from West’s take on the modern Batman (“How come Batman doesn’t dance anymore?”) and Ronstadt’s jingles for the Plow King (and that she and Barney “had been looking for a project to do together”).
“Mr. Plow” further includes some very good references, highlighted by Bart being pummeled by snowballs Sonny Corleone-style and Kent Brockman revealing the news of Barney’s being trapped just like Walter Kronkite did when he learned JFK had died. Moe’s line about the Iranian hostages (“Ehh, they shouldn’t’ve been there in the first place”) is another that gets me every time.
“Mr. Plow” may not be one of the most realistic episode of The Simpsons, but it’s real enough in its portrayal of Homer’s one true friendship to complement some of its most hilarious scenes. On another snowy February day, it’s nice to sit back and call Mr. Plow, that’s his name, that name again is Mr. Plow.