We here at Pussy Goes Grrr are all about retcons. We’re OK with it if Greedo shot first, or if Iron Man’s origin was in the Gulf War, or whatever, as long as we can do it too. Therefore, I am retconning this series into a monthly series, and retroactively marking this as the May post. Comprehensively analyzing The Simpsons is, I think, a worthwhile task, but it’s also difficult and time-consuming. That said, it’s also uniquely rewarding. For example, it gives me an excuse to talk about The Simpsons for a long, long time once a month. I hope you enjoy it.
When I talked about the themes of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?“, one of them really stood out to me: the mob mentality in Springfield. Ever since then, I’ve observed mobs of all shapes and sizes everywhere in The Simpsons. In the show’s on-the-nail satire of ugly Americans, it depicts them in their natural environment, which happens to be as members of large, amorphous groups. The show also mercilessly criticizes ruthless individualism and hypocritical elitism, so it brilliantly plays both sides of the fence. All of this (and more) is at work in one of the best episodes ever, “Marge vs. the Monorail.”
It’s a testament to the show’s writers that this episode should be so effective. The premise feels so absurd, and indeed Wikipedia says that when Conan O’Brien originally pitched it, it was considered “a little crazy.” But the idea won out, and it became a showcase for some of the show’s sharpest social commentary. As with many of the best episodes, it’s so packed with allusions and quick gags with such a wide variety of targets that, in lesser hands, it might feel overcrowded. But it’s perfectly paced, none of the segments seem rushed, and it even has a slightly disturbing drama unfolding beneath the constant humor. This is virtuoso storytelling, and no convention is left without a little satirical twist.
The episode is so well-designed that it even starts with the cherry on top. This is, apropos of nothing, a 20-second parody of the Flintstones opening as Homer leaves work. It’s a brief preamble, recognizing the show’s debts to animated sitcoms of the 1960s while setting up Homer as a new type of TV father. Hell, if someone had never heard of Homer Simpson, this could be an introduction to the entire complex character. The plot then begins in earnest, as Carl and Lenny casually seal up vats of toxic waste at the nuclear power plant, which Mr. Burns and Smithers then dispose of at a local park. This section leads right into the main storyline, both causally and thematically; after all, it’s all about communal interest vs. personal greed. And Mr. Burns, of course, is personal greed incarnate.
So we get a mini-narrative about corporate corruption and disdain for the environment, and the episode’s barely getting warmed up. (I addressed this part of the episode in more depth in another post that was specifically about environmentalism in ’90s animation.) Mr. Burns’ $3 million fine for his “unbelievable contempt for human life” (which he pays with ease) goes to the city, necessitating a town meeting. These meetings are a relatively frequent part of life in Springfield, popping up whenever the town faces any kind of crisis; in general, as you may expect, the townspeople devolve into a mob, whether angry or otherwise. They’re opportunities to illustrate the divide between the government and the people, and they give a chance for each citizen’s own brand of ignorance to shine. “Marge vs. the Monorail” is no exception.
First, though, we’re treated to some wonderful fantasy sequences, as Lisa and Bart each share how they’d spend the money. These fantasies are especially great because they reflect the children’s personalities (Lisa’s bookishness, Bart’s desire for mayhem) while still maintaining a childlike yearning for the impossibly awesome – whether it’s eating who Genghis Khan eats, or controlling robotic ants. Both with the children here and later with the adults, the show pulls off a neat trick, as it represents the wishes and biases of individual characters both when contrasted with, and then integrated into, the teeming masses. A lot of deep questions are being raised about the individual’s role in popular decisions, and they’re raised in very funny ways.
Marge, often acknowledged as the town killjoy, is the voice of personal responsibility. Her plan for the money – to fix the potholes in Main Street – is an unexciting but obvious proposition that would greatly improve day-to-day life in Springfield. The mob even goes for it at first, following Abe Simpson’s confusingly sarcastic opposition. Then Lyle Lanley enters the picture. Lanley is one of the most memorable one-time characters in the show’s history, and it’s entirely because of Phil Hartman’s voice acting genius. Hartman voiced the supporting characters Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure on a regular basis, and although McClure was occasionally given room to grow, both were mostly (hilarious) one-note jokes – the sleazy lawyer and sleazy actor.
Lanley is something else altogether. Yes, he’s a sleazy con man, but he’s much more than that. He breathes contempt for small-town rubes, but it’s smeared over with greasy charisma, and a willingness to speak their simple-minded language. He has the element of surprise, and has no problem grabbing the town’s attention, especially since their civic leaders are so comparatively dull. Lanley brings razzle-dazzle to policymaking. Later, when Marge complains that the potholes will go unfixed, Homer remarks, “Well, you should’ve written a song like that guy.” Homer, an everyman, has the memory of a goldfish; he can’t even recall Lanley’s name, but he definitely remembers that he had a song.
And what a song! Of course, it’s a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, but it’s not just a frivolous reference. It instantly links Lanley to The Music Man‘s Harold Hill while applying the absurd randomness of Hill’s opposition to pool to Lanley’s support for a monorail. The question of “Why a monorail?” is raised precisely once, by Lisa, and Lanley cleverly distracts her; the point isn’t so much what he’s selling as how he sells it. He’s literally all flash, and the Springfieldianites are more than happy to be taken in. (As Mayor Quimby says, “Just tell us your idea, and we’ll vote for it!”) The episode also takes The Music Man‘s original story of a con man who grows close to the folks he’s trying to swindle, and redirects it into a savage indictment of politics and business. The episode’s bitter lesson, after all, is “You can fool all of the people all of the time [except Marge].”
The episode’s second act expands on this message through a series of monorail-related vignettes. Lanley’s slick presence suddenly lights up Springfield’s schools and TVs. Nobody thinks about the monorail in terms of what it actually is (i.e., a mass transit system); instead, it’s a receptacle for everything they want their town and their lives to become. Lanley could be a stand-in for any kind of demagogue, whether cultural, political, religious, etc. – the point is that he calculates his pitch so that the rubes feel they’d be doing themselves a disservice to not buy into him. He’s like a one-man rendition of the infomercials I analyzed a while back. (In many ways, he’s akin to the Leader from the later episode “The Joy of Sect.”) He hooks most of Springfield, including of course Homer, who decides that becoming a monorail conductor is his “lifelong dream.”
Here, the episode introduces a new and vital plot thread: the father-son relationship between Homer and Bart, and by extension, Homer’s role as an authority figure within his family. In an episode that begins by branding Homer as an especially incompetent patriarch, it really is, perhaps unconsciously, his “lifelong dream” to restore himself to a position of respect before his wife and children, specifically Bart. However, as Homer’s fortune rises along with the respect he receives from Bart, Marge discovers that Lanley is essentially a smooth-talking sociopath. The rest of the episode brings these parallel plots to their logical conclusion as Homer leads the monorail on its maiden voyage and Marge hurries to somehow save her town and her husband.
Marge’s detour into North Haverbrook is both unnerving and fascinating. It’s like a vision into Springfield’s possible future, as determined by its citizens’ short-sightedness and gullibility. This is a ghost town with a poorly-hidden secret. It’s also a tragedy, because according to Lanley’s spiel, all the town wanted was to be “put… on the map.” Lanley is an easy answer to difficult problems, whether personal (Homer wants to be a model father) or city-wide (the people of Springfield crave national renown). And Marge, as the hard-working mother, is automatically suspicious of everything the monorail represents. On her trip, she meets creepy monorail technician Sebastian Cobb, and together they return to Springfield… only to find that Homer has already started the monorail.
The episode’s last act is a curious mesh of disaster movie, political satire, and family melodrama. This comes complete with riffs on celebrity culture, more incompetence on the part of political leaders, and several more forays into absurdism – whether with Homer’s Chuck Jones-style viewing of Bart as an anchor, or the continued but superfluous presence of Leonard Nimoy. It’s resolved in a typically absurdist way as well, with the heroism being divvied up between Nimoy, Homer, and a giant donut. But how else could an episode based around a faulty monorail end? What’s impressive is how the show keeps the emotional stakes high even while realism runs low. The titular battle between Marge and the monorail rapidly becomes a fight for her town and her family, and Homer is still able to be temporarily recuperated as a legitimate father figure, since in an act of (ridiculous) leadership, he disarms the monorail’s destructive capabilities.
Thus, the Simpson family (and by extension, Springfield) averts any harm caused by its indulgence in fast answers, and is put back in order with Marge and Homer as its equal leaders. The episode’s conclusion, however, avoids settling on too triumphant of a note, as Marge narrates, “And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon. Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper. And the 50-foot magnifying glass. And that escalator to nowhere.” This finale sarcastically suggests that the townspeople’s extreme ignorance is cyclical – although you can fool all of the people some of the time, there’s also a time when you can’t. (Specifically, right after they realize that they’ve been fooled.) As usual, the writers wield humor to put the finishing touches on their ideological points.
This is just a great, brilliant episode. It presents its satire simultaneously on macro and micro levels, as the city and the family, two groups of people driven to make poor decisions for selfish reasons. It also links these ideas to government oversight and free enterprise to give a very full picture of an America where everyone’s looking out for himself – except Marge, who has the public interest at heart. The show sees all these institutions as fundamentally flawed, but sometimes necessary. Despite all the greed, incompetence, and misguided choices, they can still be redeemed, if only through cosmic intervention… or donuts.
So I think “Marge vs. the Monorail” is genius. What about you?