The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Five, “Sideshow Bob Roberts”

There’s a phrase, “the personal is political”, and I like how this episode actually plays out that concept as effective storytelling – it starts as an abstract political statement on shock jocks, and shows a very specific, personal consequence of their existence; if there was any group at the time who reflected the show’s sense of people as a mob that’s hepped up about one particular thing, it’s shock jock audiences, and actually it’s incredible how this is one more thing that has changed only in the sense that it’s evolved. There was an article on Breitbart (that I unfortunately cannot get my hands on again) that showed an email from editor to writing staff that encouraged them to take up the exact hysterical style Birch Barlow uses within the episode (though I will concede ‘smokesperson’ as a delightful neologism). Just as The Simpsons gives us language, men like Barlow and sites like Breitbart give angry conservatives their own language (it was Barlow’s inspiration, Rush Lambaugh, who invented the word ‘feminazi’). And he goes one step further and gives them an action that acts as an outlet for that anger: free Sideshow Bob.

This is the episode that characterises Sideshow Bob as a Republican, and intuitively that’s a decision that makes a lot of sense – he’s classy (or as classy as a clown’s sidekick can be), evil, and brilliant. Now, I don’t want to imply that I don’t enjoy the episode or Bob as a character, but I do find it interesting that reality has given way to something much cruder and uglier – the current US President and face of the Republican party is a boorish, unsophisticated asshole who can’t even wear a flattering tie, let alone achieve Bob’s gravitas. This is something that comes up a lot in pre-Trump media, the idea of a cool Republican who is, if not a good person, then at least a witty and charming one, which looks positively archaic today. Perhaps, and I’m drawing on my own emotional reaction to this episode, but perhaps some of us leftists really want some kind of genius supervillain to take down, some challenge big enough to fit our imagined skills. This is perfectly harmless in something like a sitcom, but we (“… The royal we.”) bring that into politics; I think of leftists who are horrified not so much by Trump’s evil as his poor sense of aesthetic about it.

Once Bob is elected, the story mostly abandons overt politics for parodies of political stories (though it still gets a great political line, “The dead have risen and are voting Republican!” which is another line that should be more iconic than it is); I’d say this is, if not my favourite “Bart & Lisa, Kid Adventurers” story, definitely up there, because the idea of two kids acting like Woodward and Bernstein is inherently funny. This is another great case of the show using comedy to push the plot forward; this time, it occurs to me that most shows took the show’s lampshade hanging as something good in and of itself, but the show itself mainly used it as a tool to skip over plot beats, with Lisa’s contact flagrantly breaking the law just to keep the episode moving. As always, the show comes back to character to resolve the plot; Bob crumbling under the weight of his own ego is kind of cheap but totally makes sense, especially the part where he defied the advice of Stringer Bell and took notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: N/A

This episode was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and directed by Mark Kirkland. There’s an active attempt to be politically neutral that doesn’t hugely work for me; “He said Ted Kennedy lacked integrity!” works, but, and you can call me a greasy thug, the problem isn’t that the views of men like Barlow make people uncomfortable, it’s that they incite violence, literal, social, and structural. Kelsey Grammer returns as Sideshow Bob, and I love the way he says “Is that what you want, you smarmy little bastards?”

The other great political line of this episode is “No children have ever meddled with the Republican party and lived to tell about it!” and speaking of lines that should be iconic, I always loved “Sexy dames and plenty of ‘em!”

Dr Demento and Larry King cameo as themselves, and Henry Corden cameos as his character Fred Flintstone. Much of the episode draws on the Watergate scandal, especially its fictional representation in All The President’s Men. Bob’s campaign ad riffs on a political ad used by George HW Bush in 1988. Barlow’s question about the budget is a riff on a similar question Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis in 1988. Quimby’s appearance in the debate references Richard Nixon’s appearance during the 1960 debate with JFK. The climactic scene parodies A Few Good Men. Bob’s confession riffs on the common endings to Perry Mason episodes. Sideshow Bob’s acceptance speech is a reference to Citizen Kane. The title and a few plot elements are references to Bob Roberts. The language spoken by the Republicans is a riff on Enochian. Lisa listens to “St Elmo’s Fire” by John Parr while driving. The characters from Archie Comics cameo. The plot point about the Simpsons’ home being threatened by a freeway is lifted from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Iconic Moments: 8! “Hey! I am no longer illiterate!” | “If that is the way the winds are blowing, let it not be said I don’t also blow.” | “I’d say that Les Wynan ought to do more thinkin’ and less whinin’!” | “My question is about the budget, sir.” | “I don’t agree with his Bart-killing policy, but I do agree with his Selma-killing policy!” Three iconic moments within three minutes! | “Stuck up Riverdale punks!” | “Meh.”
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