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When Burns’ bad behavior results in a $3 million fine, a town hall meeting is called to discuss what to do with the unexpected windfall. The Simpsons have some ideas of their own: Bart wants to use the money to build an army of giant killer mechanical ants to do his bidding, Lisa wants to use it to add virtual reality to her classes, Homer thinks a giant billboard reading “No Fat Chicks” should be constructed with the funds while the eminently reasonable Marge thinks the money should be allocated to fix up the town’s pothole-ravaged Main Street.

Such sensible thinking and solid planning have no place in Springfield, a town ruled by groupthink. The madness, arrogance and shortsightedness of crowds has long been one of The Simpsons’ most resonant and recurring themes. That’s especially true here. The good folks of Springfield are at least savvy enough to see through Mr. Burns’ ruse when he shows up at the town hall meeting wearing a preposterous fake mustache and introduces himself as “Mr. Snrub,” an emissary from “someplace far away” before proposing that the money be re-invested in the power plant—but when Grandpa sarcastically proposes that “we could fix up mainstreet. We could put all our eggs in one basket” they agree so quickly to what they think he’s proposing that they don’t even give him time to make his point or finish his argument.

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Then, a mysterious stranger appears with a snappy red bow tie, vest, straw hat, and a sexier and more exciting proposition. He seems like a figure out of time because he is a figure out of time. His name is Lyle Lanley, a loving parody of The Music Man’s big-hearted flim-flam man Harold Hill, voiced with the perfect note of oily, ingratiating charm by the late, great Phil Hartman.

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Lanley proves a quick study at manipulating the preternaturally gullible residents of Springfield. He plays to their competitive streak and foolish pride by suggesting that what he’s proposing really is more of an idea for the forward-thinking people of Shelbyville. Mayor Quimby immediately takes the bait by angrily barking in response, “We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.”

Lanley isn’t just a smooth-talking businessman. He’s also a consummate showman. Why simply tell folks an idea when you can sing about it? Sure enough, Lanley soon has the entire town singing and dancing in assent to his plan to bring a glamorous monorail—yes, the very same technology that put Rockaway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook on the map—to Springfield.

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This mysterious Mr. Lanley is very good at what he does. Unfortunately for the people of Springfield (and also Rockaway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook), that’s manipulating suckers for money rather than building safe, affordable lines of transit. When Lisa asks why on earth a town like Springfield would need a monorail the con man completely disarms her by saying that he could tell her but they’d be the only people in the classroom who’d understand the answer—including the teacher. Lisa may not be a gullible rube like so many of her fellow townspeople, but even she is susceptible to flattery, especially when issued by such a smooth operator.

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Soon everyone in Springfield is caught up in Monorailmania, especially Homer, who finally, if temporarily, earns the respect of Bart after he becomes a monorail conductor after finishing an intensive three-week course that consists entirely of Lyle explaining that “mono” means “one” and “rail” means “rail.”

Marge is seemingly alone in her suspicions of Lyle and his motives. She visits his “office” to investigate and stumbles upon a notebook containing a crude stick drawing detailing Lyle's plans to fleece the suckers of Springfield with a defective monorail system, then flee with the ill-gotten loot before anyone catches on.

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This leads Marge to travel to North Haverbrook, a semi-ghost town driven half-mad by the failure of its malfunctioning monorail system. Marge’s drive back to Springfield features one of my favorite Simpsons gags: a character replaying over and over again in their mind something that’s bothering them, along with a bizarre non sequitur. In this case, the non sequitur happens to be one of my all-time favorite lines on the show: Homer telling Marge “I call the big one Bitey” after a family of possums is discovered in the monorail.

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At this point “Marge Vs. The Monorail” segues from an extended parody of The Music Man to an equally inspired disaster-movie spoof, complete with a runaway vehicle that threatens to leave mass devastation in its path (in this instance the monorail) and some weirdly integrated star power in the form of a hilariously self-deprecating voice turn from Leonard Nimoy as an endlessly self-absorbed would-be mystic who bores strangers with the mundane details of making Star Trek and generally behaves as if he is Mr. Spock, and not just an actor who played him. This extends to mysteriously disappearing after cryptically telling Barney that his work is done after Homer saves the monorail with some utterly uncharacteristic quick thinking.

“Marge Vs. The Monorail” closes with a flurry of gags the commentators on “Marge Versus The Monorail” concede are among the weirdest and most out-there in the show’s history: Leonard Nimoy disappears into the ether, a skyscraper is built out of popsicle sticks and Springfield residents plunge into the abyss after riding an escalator to nowhere. It’s possible that other writers came up with those bits but they feel very Conan. “Marge Versus The Monorail” gave Americans an early glimpse inside the beautiful mind and wonderfully warped sensibility of a comedy icon who would go on to become the most successful Simpsons alum of all time (with the possible exception of Brad Bird) as well as a goddamned American treasure.

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Stray observations