TV Review – The Best of The Simpsons Part One

Like an old relationship, I fell out of love with The Simpsons a lifetime ago. When we were together, it was an all-consuming passion, a primary element in shaping who I am today. When we fell out of love, it was sudden and cold. No regrets. That said, revisiting these episodes was a lot of fun, and I was reminded of how comprehensively the series was a part of my regular communication as a child and adolescent. So many of these phrases were uttered by myself and my siblings. I think The Simpsons was one of many touchstones that taught me about humor and how to be funny.

Today, The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom having been on the air for thirty-one years and clocking in with 684 episodes and counting. The first nine or ten years are considered the best period of the show. That lines up with when I became disinterested in continuing to watch around 1999. Over so many years, writing and production staffs change and so the show today is an entirely different animal than before. I agree with the general consensus that seasons three through eight are the prime cut, when the writer’s room had its most talented people and produced some iconic episodes of television.

Homer at the Bat (Season Three, Episode Seventeen)
Original airdate: February 20th, 1992
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Jim Reardon

The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball team is a laughingstock which angers the owner, Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns foolishly bets with the owner of Shelbyville’s power plant that the Springfield team will capture the pennant in the upcoming season. To ensure he wins the bet, Mr. Burns sends his lackey Smithers out to hire nine Major League Baseball players. They are given jobs at the plant to meet the requirement and end up dominating the team. However, misfortune falls, and the team’s fate ends up in the hands of Homer.

From early on, The Simpsons had a litany of guest stars voicing one episode characters, sometimes playing themselves. This has become pretty overblown now, but back in the early years, the producers were pickier about when they would have a guest star. The idea came up of filling an episode with MLB stars due to so many writers being baseball fans. It took six months to record all the voices for the episode, one of the most prolonged production periods in the series’s history. 

Reading about the recording periods is hilarious, a mix of players who didn’t understand the jokes and others who played along and got into it. Jose Canseco appears to have bad blood about his portrayal, while Ken Griffey, Jr. had trouble understanding the point of some of his joke lines. I’ve always loved Don Mattingly’s subplot with Mr. Burns demanding he shaves off his sideburns even though the player keeps shaving his hair to the point of absurdity. Ozzie Smith expressed a desire to return as his character was left lost in the Springfield Mystery Spot.

Mr. Plow (Season Four, Episode Nine)
Original airdate: November 19th, 1992
Written by Jon Vitti
Directed by Jim Reardon

A blizzard buries Springfield under snow, and Homer ends up crashing on his way home from Moe’s Tavern. Attending a car show, Homer is coerced into buying a snowplow with the promise of paying off the vehicle with all the money he will make plow driveways and roads. He’s actually successful and is even given the key to the city. Homer’s best friend, Barney, is down on his luck, so Homer relays his success story. Barney takes his advice a little too literally and purchases his own snowplow calling himself The Plow King. Now the two friends start a bitter rivalry during the snowy season.

This episode came about when most of the writers’ contracts had ended, leaving the staff pared down. During the annual retreat to pitch stories for the upcoming season, Jon Vitti threw out the idea that snow isn’t shown much on television outside of holiday settings, so they should make a winter episode. This was combined with an idea for a rivalry between Homer and Barney, and thus Mr. Plow was born. 

One of my favorite moments in this episode is Adam West’s cameo as himself at the car show Homer attends. West leans into his perception as a kooky former television star, his mind lost in the Batman heyday. This moment was the start of West playing into a concept that would carry him through the failed Conan O’Brien sitcom pilot Lookwell and his eventually recurring role on Family Guy. There’s also a fantastic cameo from Linda Ronstadt as herself and a friend of Barney. She writes his jingle, which ends up being a nice bit of musical comedy.

Marge Vs. the Monorail (Season Four, Episode Twelve)
Original airdate: January 14th, 1993
Written by Conan O’Brien
Directed by Rich Moore

The EPA fines Mr. Burns $3 million for dumping toxic waste in a Springfield park, and the town holds a meeting on how to spend this budgetary windfall. Marge Simpson thinks it should be allocated to repair the pothole-ridden roads. Her pitch is quickly forgotten when the flashy Lyle Langley arrives on the scene delivering a song and dance about why a monorail is what Springfield needs. Homer is selected to be the conductor, and Marge becomes very suspicious about the legitimacy of Langley. She travels to other cities he mentioned in his song and finds Langley has left a path of destruction in his wake. Now Marge is in a race against time to stop a similar disaster from befalling Springfield.

The seed of this script came when writer Conan O’Brien was driving in Los Angeles and saw a billboard that said simply “Monorail.” There was no further explanation or contact information on the signage. The producers thought his monorail idea was a little out there and went some other pitches first. When executive producer James L. Brooks heard the idea, he loved it right away. 

Leonard Nimoy guest stars as himself, attending the maiden voyage of the Springfield monorail. George Takei has been approached first, though, as he had guest-starred in a previous episode. He ultimately declined, though, because he was on the Southern California Rapid Transit District board and didn’t like the idea of mocking public transit. 

The episode is one of my personal favorites. One particular moment that still cracks me up is when the monorail is christened by Mayor Quimby and Leonard Nimoy, the mayor says, “May the Force Be With You” confusing Star Trek with Star Wars. It’s one of the well-timed gags that just cracks me up. Marge Vs. The Monorail feels like a piece of comedy from Conan O’Brien with its references to old-timey showmen as in The Music Man parody. It is also one of the first moments when the writers show the citizens of Springfield to collectively be a mob of idiots.

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