The Simpsons, Season Three, Episode Twenty-One, “Black Widower”

Hell yeah, the first return of Sideshow Bob! After season two, the Sideshow Bob episode would become a beloved tradition, shifting the show’s genre to Murder She Wrote-style mystery. As much as I missed him during season two, this was a good point for him to come back; the show is now confident enough in references, sophisticated enough in satirical vision, and skilled enough at slapstick, comedy, and storytelling that it can live up to Bob’s potential as a character, and I’m gonna try understanding why by pulling right back out and looking at the show as a whole.

Two things define The Simpsons‘ vision: taking pleasure in a vast sum of knowledge on a range of topics (like baseball), and a strong moral heart. This is the sense in which Lisa is the soul of the show, moreso than her left-wing beliefs (though obviously as the show soured so did that aspect); she knows a lot, and she uses that knowledge to make the world a better place. You take away the knowledge, you get Homer, someone who gets to make the impulsive and foolish decisions that you aren’t allowed to make but is ultimately sympathetic because of his sense of right and wrong. You take away both knowledge and the moral heart, you get Bart, who can be everything you’re not allowed to be – impulsive, street-smart – but still ultimately has to reckon with right and wrong, has to work much harder when dealing with it, and thus has a greater sense of triumph when he pulls it off. You keep the vast sum of knowledge and lose the moral heart, you get Sideshow Bob.

(Marge has the moral heart but lacks both impulsiveness and a vast sum of knowledge; this doesn’t make her a weaker character, but it is far enough outside the show’s vision that it never quite knows what to do with her)

Looking at that on paper, it feels like Lisa should be Bob’s archnemesis, but that’s definitely wrong looking at the show. Aside from Bart and Bob’s personal history, I feel like they’re both natural schemers who come at scheming from two totally different directions; Bob is a long-term schemer who spends months, even years planning out his schemes, while Bart is in-the-moment and barely thinks about the future. From a storytelling perspective, they feed off each other – Bob’s schemes are complex enough to set off Bart’s own scheming nature, and they’re coming fast enough that he has to act right now.

All this and I’ve barely talked about the episode itself! It’s definitely a massive step up from “Krusty Gets Busted”. The crucial decision here is that Bart stops Bob’s scheme right near the end of it rather than solving it afterwards – my main complaint about the older episode was that it telegraphed Bob’s evil before revealing his plan. This episode does the same thing, but to slightly different effect; we learn Bob’s goal (murdering Selma) but not his method, which means we’re now in his head enough to have jokes about it but not enough that Bart’s “I’ve got it!” moment is still effective.

Meanwhile, two satirical ideas float through the episode. The first is a take on the prison system, which the show sees as over-crowded and inhumane (“I’ve already run through eight of the ten dollars they gave me when I got out of prison!”). Bob reveals he’s a conservative Republican over dinner, and the show gets in a few good though poorly-aging jokes about the Republican/Democrat splits on crime – you can’t really make jokes about the views of Democrats these days because they don’t have any views to make fun of. There’s also jokes about the entertainment industry, with my favourite being the telethon to support motion sickness (“You should see the bus they came to the studio in!”).

Chalkboard Gag: Funny noises are not funny.
Couch Gag: Two thieves literally steal the couch out from under the family.

The script for this episode was written by Jon Vitti, but the story was written by Sam Simon with help from Thomas Chastain, then-head of the Mystery Writers of America, with hopes of winning an Edgar Award (they failed).

There’s a parody of Dinosaurs, which the writers thought was a cheap knock-off of their show (“It’s like they saw our lives and put it up onscreen!”). Lisa imagines that Selma’s new boyfriend is the Elephant Man. Bob’s prison time is a reference to Cool Hand Luke. Bob’s prison number is a reference to Les Miserables. Bob and Krusty’s reunion is a reference to the suprise reunion of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin on a 70’s telethon. Bob’s discovery of his foiled plan is a visual shoutout to Psycho. Homer references the 60’s Batman show when he says “To the Simpsonmobile!”.

First Appearances: “AAAHHH! SIDESHOW BOB!”, Sideshow Mel’s speaking voice.
Biggest Laugh: