This episode finally delivers us some classic Simpsons plotting. After gently admonishing Bart for being jealous of the Flanders, he sees Ned has bought a massive RV (the same RV he’d hijack five seasons later in “Lemon of Troy”), and in a fit of jealousy goes out to buy an even better RV. We get an extended cameo from Albert Brooks as Cowboy Bob the RV salesman, the first ever celebrity guest star the show got; it’s a real sign of the times the show was made that Brooks was vaguely embarrassed about being associated with a cartoon and chose to be credited as A. Brooks.
Cowboy Bob is one of the funniest parts of the episode. Brooks’ characters in the show are people who talk for so long that they end up unintentionally blurting out an extra joke, and Bob the salesman is a prototypical version of that (“You look like a god, sort of!”). Though even Brooks, like everyone else, still needed to refine his work at this stage, delivering his lines with a stop-and-start rather than with the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm the show would develop.
It turns out Homer can’t afford the big cool RV everybody wants, and he ends up driving off with a shitty, tiny van (a typical Homer trait cropping up early: he is very easy to manipulate and sell things to, falling for Bob’s line that another guy desperately wants the same RV). In what would become a familiar beat, Homer shows off his new van to Flanders and smugly interprets his neighbours genuine goodwill as jealousy. The Simpsons drive off to the forest, and we end act one.
When they drive into nature, Homer rather stupidly ends up sending the RV over a cliff, so he tells his family to make the best of it and set up camp ‘like real pioneers’. Bart and Homer head out to find help while Marge and Lisa are left behind to make camp, with Maggie beginning to follow the boys only to end up picked up by a wild bear. We get three parallel plots: Homer and Bart getting into misadventures where they end up nude and freezing, Marge and Lisa are warm and comfortable, and Maggie becomes the leader of the bears.
Starving, Homer spots a beehive, and smashes it open for the honey despite Bart’s protests (shades of the ending of “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”). The bees sting his mouth, and in a blind panic Homer runs around, falls in some mud, and ends up drawing the attention of a guy with a camera who mistakes him for Bigfoot. This leads to a media circus as people descend upon the forest, inadvertently getting Lisa and Marge rescued. Marge realises they’re chasing Homer, and all her statements end up misconstrued by the media trying to push the Bigfoot angle. The rest of the episode pretty much plays out how you’d expect: Homer is found, taken down like an animal, studied, then let go when scientists can’t determine if he’s human or not.
This episode is remembered as “okay, but not great”, and I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that, aside from it not being hilarious, while the episode is better structured than previous episodes, there’s very little character work being done, especially around the middle. Homer, of course, is driving the story with his increasingly stupid decisions, but the other characters are just standing around watching him – I can imagine a richer version of this episode where Bart gets sick of Homer’s failures, wanders off, and either one of them gets in trouble and needs rescuing from the other.
(Though I admit Bart and Lisa’s cynical apathy leads to a lot of the best lines of the episode)
That said, the further I get into season one, the more intrigued I’m becoming by the idea that Bart and Lisa are stand-ins (intentionally or otherwise) for the writers’ Gen X sensibilities versus Homer and Marge as Baby Boomers. At this early stage, it’s not Homer that’s been warped by television, it’s Bart – Homer, instead, is simply acting how he thinks a traditional man should be, which in this case endangers his family, and Bart acts as a jester to all of this.
Chalkboard Gag: “I will not draw naked ladies in class.”
Couch Gag: The family all sit without incident. What the hell.
First Appearances: Rod, Falnderseseses RV, Homer telling his family to avenge him
This episode was written by John Swartzwelder, and directed by Wesley Archer.
Hank Azaria starts to take his place as an important Simpsons supporting player, playing a random tourist, a park ranger, and a newsreader.
(Rod saying “Howdy Bart! Hot enough for ya?” got a big belly laugh out of me, but only for how out of character it was, so I didn’t think it counted)