Marge Vs The Monorail is a genuine bona-fide electrified classic episode of The Simpsons. It’s one of the touchstone episodes you can comfortably assume just about everybody knows from start to finish. For me it’s the best episode from the show’s opening four seasons and if the Monorail song isn’t now whirring round your head, then frankly you’re missing out.
After Mr Burns and Smithers are caught trying to dump toxic waste in Springfield park, the former is forced to pay the town a cool $3million. The collective hive-mind of Springfield must then get together and decide what to do with this windfall. At a town meeting, the consensus seems to be behind Marge’s idea to fix the potholes on Main Street, until Lyle Lanley makes his grand entrance and throws a spanner in the works. Smooth-talker Lanley wraps the town round his little-finger and after batting away their concerns via song (“it glides as softly as a cloud”), he convinces them that what Springfield really needs is a monorail system. As the episode then unfolds we see Lanley play the entire town for fools, Homer enter the exciting world of monorail conducting and Marge finally uncover the truth behind Lanley’s plan.
The previously mentioned monorail song is not just a catchy ditty; it’s also perhaps the show’s all-time great song and dance number, with the possible exception of “See My Vest”. It combines gleeful Springfield insanity with Lanley’s fast-talking charm and tops it all off with Homer’s terrible timing. It’s the perfect way to launch into the episode’s main storyline.
Lanley himself is voiced by the great Phil Hartman. Hartman appeared in 52 different Simpsons episodes and in that time took on a number of roles. Originally he was only meant to be a guest star but he enjoyed working on the show so much and impressed so many of the writers, they gradually began to create parts specifically for him including the likes of hotshot lawyer Lionel Hutz and the incomparable Troy McClure.
Hartman fitted in to the Simpsons’ madcap vibe perfectly and his extraordinary comic timing was put to great use whenever he appeared. In Lanley we have Hartman’s finest one-off performance; a smooth-operating grafter with a penchant for the theatrical. His memorable opening gambit is the astute observation, “you know, a town with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.” Lanley also delivers another of the episode’s funniest lines when we cut in to his closing summation of the extensive monorail conductor training course, “so mono means one and rail means rail.”
Homer is on excellent form in this episode too, his endearing naivety coming to the fore once again as he gets swept up in monorail fever. The exciting new project luckily now meaning he can finally follow his apparently lifelong dream of becoming a monorail conductor. He gets plenty of great lines, including my personal favourites, “I call the big one bitey” and “Batman’s a scientist”, both of which are wonderfully surreal.
Marge has a particularly strong episode in this outing too. As the voice of sanity in Springfield, she maintains her suspicions about Lanley from the get-go and her sleuthing double act with engineer Sebastian Cobb uncovers the real truth behind Lanley motives. Homer and Marge’s two threads finally join together and the episode culminates in a great moment of drama as they are forced to band together to save the day.
It’s always fun to see the residents of Springfield get caught up in a spot of mob mentality and this episode has it in abundance. Springfield is a place that loves a town meeting almost as much as it loves getting one over on Shelbyville. The masses are already eager to buy into Lanley’s snake oil, and are tipped over the edge once they see a chance to get one over on their despised neighbours. As Mayor Quimby succinctly puts it, “we’re twice as smart as Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.” It’s all part of the town’s charming collective insanity.
Looking back on Marge Vs The Monorail, it certainly feels like one of the show’s most unashamedly silly episodes. While the show’s silliness would get thoroughly out of hand in later years, this episode arrived at a time when the show was at its creative peak and so luckily it could instead be harnessed to glorious effect. The gag hit-rate is sky high and even throwaway lines like Cobb’s “I shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut” and Homer’s suggestion to Bart that he change his name to Homer Junior as “the kids could call you Ho-Ju”, are pure gold. There’s also an enjoyable cameo from Leonard Nimoy who has great fun sending himself up and delivering some classic hokey Sci-Fi dialogue (“the cosmic ballet goes on”). All this absurdity works perfectly and plays into the idea that Springfield is always just one big idea away from self-destruction.
The surreal genius of the episode makes more sense when you realise it was written by none other than Conan O’Brian. Conan’s stint as a writer on the show was only fairly brief, lasting just under two years before he left to front NBC’s Late Night. During his stint there though, O’Brien proved a huge hit with the other writers and is credited by many for revitalising the show’s outlook and encouraging a more unhinged and obscure approach compared to its more conventional sitcom beginnings. This episode is perhaps his crowning glory from his brief but influential time on the show.
A wonderful mix of Simpsons family escapade and Springfield mass meltdown, Marge Vs the Monorail is a gleefully silly onslaught of Simpsons brilliance, filled with as many memorable quotes as any other episode you might care to mention.
All together now…. “I hear those things are awfully loud?”
(Image Credits: FOX)