(originally aired January 14, 1993)
The Simpsons started as a rather low-key, “realistic” subversive sitcom that just happened to be animated. Over its first few years, the tone and scope of the show slowly began to take shape, and limits were pushed: gags became more outlandish, and plots got a bit crazier. We had “Homer at the Bat” feature nine famous baseballers get side-lined in the most ridiculous of ways. But “Marge vs. the Monorail” is particularly egregious: compared to the seventy episodes before it, this show is downright nuts, and even after twenty years it remains one of the series’ most insane episodes ever. Full of overly crazy gags, a spectacularly bizarre premise, guest star Leonard Nimoy literally teleporting, and much much more, this episode basically opened the flood gates for the show in terms of what they could get away with. However, as off-the-wall as this show is, it has a very tight structure, has a perfect flow, and gives us great insight into mob mentality in the city of Springfield. And it’s hilarious, of course.
Things are insane off the bat as we see Mr. Burns personally disposes of used drums of toxic waste in public areas, stuffing them under sandboxes and in trunks of trees. Discovered by the EPA, he is forced to pay the town of Springfield three million dollars in damages, and a town meeting is held to determine what to do with the money. I may be mistaken, but I believe this is the first town meeting of the series, and it really sets a great precedent. Not only do we see the denizens of Springfield as a better collective, we get a great examination of their quickness of devolving into a mindless mob. Acting as the voice of reason, Marge suggests the money be used to repair Main Street, which has been mindlessly tattered and destroyed by the town. Grampa attempts to issue a sarcastic response, but the town completely misreads it and immediately celebrate Marge’s proposal. Enter Lyle Lanley, a gregarious smooth-talking shyster who claims he’s got the perfect solution: constructing a monorail for the town. Lanley is probably Hartman’s greatest one-off role; he exhibits all of the smarm of his other characters, but has a lot more charisma. He’s well aware of his dangerous product, but sells it with as much sincerity as he can muster. Having a musical number doesn’t hurt either.
The townspeople are completely overtaken by this stranger’s candor, and immediately go forward with his proposal. With time, Homer is even swayed into becoming a conductor. This further emphasizes Lanley’s power: Homer barely has any idea what a monorail is, but after his razzle dazzle performance and a flashy ad, he claims being a conductor to be his life-long dream. Meanwhile, Marge, the only doubter of the bunch, discovers Lanley’s shady ways and travels to the site of his previous fiasco North Haverbrook, a town deserted and virtually destroyed, a vision of Springfield’s potential future. The third act becomes almost like a disaster movie when the monorail malfunctions and Homer must figure out how to shut it down. This episode is full of ineptitude from supposed authority: Judge Snyder gladly sells the statue of justice to Mr. Burns, Kent Brockman shamelessly over-promotes the monorail with a smile, and Chief Wiggum and Mayor Quimby have a proverbial dick-measuring contest whilst lives are at stake. In the end, the common man (Homer) saves the day, thanks to his favorite snack treat (giving us the immortal line, “Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?”) While this episode pushed the bar much higher in terms of outlandish content, it never lost sight on the show’s themes and social satire. And laughs. Lots of laughs.
Tidbits and Quotes
– Even before the plot set-up with Burns, the episode is silly to start with a loving tribute to the Flintstones opening, with Homer leaving work singing a hilarious reworking of the famous theme song. And smashing his car into a tree.
– Mr. Burns’ piss-poor disguise always cracks me up (“Hello, my name is Mr. Snrub, and I come from… some place far away! …yes, that’ll do.”) I also like even considering how nonplussed he seemed about paying the three million in the first place, he still wants it back just for its own sake.
– The scene with Homer driving with chain-link tires and hoisting a grand piano, gleefully ripping up the pavement behind him makes me laugh; a man so giddy at his rampant and mindless destruction.
– Lanley is truly a master manipulator. We get some insight on how he resonates: as Marge bemoans how her proposal was usurped, Homer responds, “Well, you should’ve written a song like that guy.” He doesn’t even remember his name, but knows he had a song, and that’s good enough for him, and the rest of the town. Lanley is so crafty he even manages to mollify Lisa’s justified complaints. Damn, he’s good.
– I love the end of the Lanley Institute of Monorail Conducting commercial, showing a picture of the institute (“Actual institute may not match photo.”) Later when we see the class, we see a hastily written name on a piece of paper taped to a door.
– More great test questions, akin to the driver’s test in “The Otto Show”: “True or false? You can get mono from riding the monorail.” Homer surprisingly picks false, but unsurprisingly backpedals, thinking it may be true.
– The one bit we see of Lanley teaching is very telling of what his class must have been: “Mono means one, and rail means rail. And that concludes our intensive three week course.”
– Another classic line from Homer regarding the family of possums living in the compartment of the monorail that should house a fire extinguisher: “I call the big one ‘Bitey.'”
– This episode is silly enough, but Lanley’s notebook of childish stick figure drawings of himself running off with bags of money and the monorail burning are truly insane, like there is something really wrong with this man. I love when Marge appears to be in hot water upon discovering them, but Lanley just lets her leave (“I don’t know why I leave this lying around.”)
– Nimoy is an amazing guest star right off the bat, with his indignation over Quimby not knowing who the hell he is (“I think I do. Weren’t you one of the Little Rascals?”) Every bit of his is great: talking to an uninterested fellow passenger about Star Trek tidbits, saving Krusty from leaping out of the runaway monorail (“The world needs laughter”), and giving the best line in the whole show, one of the best in the entire series: “A solar eclipse. The cosmic ballet goes on.” The seriousness of the read is so amazing.
– I always liked Bart sticking his head out of the window, pulling it back in mere moments before he would have been struck and killed by a telephone pole.
– Lanley, armed with two suitcases overflowing with money, has a comeuppance when his plane to Tahiti has a layover in North Haverbrook. Not only can the townspeople see him on the landing plane, but they identify his seat number, and all charge on board to beat him senseless.
– More things that spectacularly explode, but shouldn’t, as Homer’s ‘M’ anchor cuts through Springfield’s oldest tree, which lands on the birthplace of Jebediah Springfield, which bursts into flames.
– We end just as silly as we start with the Popsicle stick skyscraper, the giant magnifying glass, and the escalator to nowhere, which I guess is a city-approved suicide venture. It’s almost too crazy for the show. Almost.