Look, there’s no single best episode of The Simpsons. “Marge vs. the Monorail” is an incredible episode, to be sure. One of the very best! But is it really better than “$pringfield”? “Cape Feare”? “Homer the Great”? “Last Exit to Springfield”? Not really, no.
It’s an easier argument to make that The Simpsons is the best sitcom ever, or at least is had the highest zenith of any sitcom ever. Diehard Simpsons fans like to point to seasons 3-8 or so as the “golden years,” those that are pretty much untouchable by any other show, and “Marge vs. the Monorail” may be the best example of that era, even if it’s not singularly above any other episode.
“Marge vs. the Monorail” aired in the middle of the fourth season, when the show was really hitting its stride and coming into its own. It was one of only three episodes written by Conan O’Brien, the most famous name to come out of that legendary writers room, and former writers frequently cite it as a turning point in the show where the more absurd became the norm. There’s something pretty magical about imagining a young, yet-to-be-famous Conan hamming it up in the writers room and then hunkering down to crank out a script as near-perfect as this, and it’s probably given him more credibility with diehard comedy fans (or at least diehard Simpsons fans) than anything he’s done on late night in the 20 years or so since he write it. Even though the show was very collaborative by all accounts, one can’t help but love the story of this episode, with the future superstar proving his chops amongst some of the greatest comedy writers ever.
And beyond the mythology of its creation, the episode’s highpoints certainly rival any other classic Simpsons episode. From the Flintstones opening to Phil Hartman’s Lyle Lanley to the monorail song to Leonard Nimoy’s cameo to “I shouldn’t have stopped for that haircut” to the closing shot of the escalator to nowhere dumping people in view of the in-flames popsicle stick skyscraper, it’s stuffed with iconic moments and quotable lines. It does a virtuosic job balancing quick and absurd jokes and gags with a well-structured overall story that’s funny in its own right. It’s not easy packing a script so densely with jokes while also having the whole thing make sense and flow well, and this episode makes it seem effortless.
And in terms of this competition, well, it doesn’t seem like a very fair fight to me. I really love Community, but the episode it’s up against isn’t even the best of its short (so far) run. It’s a great episode to be sure, but one that forgoes an in-depth plot for some structural pyrotechnics. You can’t deny that it’s super fun, but it’s more of a refreshing change of pace from what we’re used to than a real change to the sitcom’s form. I mean, would you watch an entire season of episodes built like “Remedial Chaos Theory”? I don’t think so. Unlike “Marge vs. the Monorail,” which one can watch for the umpteenth time two decades after its original airdate without losing any of what makes it so great, “Remedial Chaos Theory” feels more of this moment, and I wonder how well it’ll hold up.
Yeah, it’s a great episode of one of the best sitcoms currently on TV, one that gleefully questions with what a 23-minute episode of TV can be. But anyone claiming that it’s the best single episode of all time has a serious lack of perspective. There may not be one episode that deserves the title above all others, but it’s tough to make an argument for any above one of the best episodes of one of the best sitcoms of all time, penned by one of the biggest names in comedy from the past 20 years.
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