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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Don't blame us. We voted for Kodos": Channel Surfing's favorite political TV moments

It’s Election Day, which means serious decisions about serious issues.

Not so in the TV world, which certainly uses politics as a backdrop, but does so without any real consequence – or at least one that doesn’t involve nuclear codes or pronouncing complicated last names like Ahmadinejad.

So after you’ve cast your real ballot for either Barack Obama or John McCain today, congratulate yourself on being a good patriot by enjoying our favorite bits of political theater from the small screen. We’re talking memorable TV moments that taught our bloggers important lessons about democracy in action, and perhaps more importantly, accurately predicted some 40 years earlier the ridiculous level of discourse you might expect from drawn-out, partisan campaigns overwhelmed by today's 24-7 news cycle.

Above all though, the rest of our selections promise to provide a healthy dose of levity once all the political blowhards on cable news start trying to out-scream each other tonight.

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"The Simpsons"

Episode name: "Sideshow Bob Roberts," from Season 6

Original air date: Oct. 9, 1994

Synopsis: Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) is released from prison after a call to conservative radio talk-show host Birch Barlow (not voiced by Rush Limbaugh, but may as well have been) causes a swell of listener support. Bob is soon named the Republican nominee for Springfield mayor, and thoroughly trounces Mayor Quimby in the election. In fact, Bob wins 100% of the vote, and Quimby gets only 1%. ("We remind you, there is a 1% margin of error," reports Kent Brockman.) Lisa and Bart, however, suspicious of their nemesis' handy victory -- and threatened with homelessness after Bob decides to build an expressway through their house -- discover Bob and the Republicans committed voter fraud, and the red-haired menace is sent back to prison.

Why it rocked the vote: The parodies flew fast and furious in this satirical masterstroke, leaving heavily on "All the President's Men," as well as "Bob Roberts," "Citizen Kane," the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and George Bush's 1988 "Willie Horton" ad. The voter-fraud plot thread remains a particular hotbed of controversy these days, though we doubt even Karl Rove would stoop to giving The Big Bopper a vote.

Episode name: "Lisa's Substitute," from Season 2

Original air date: April 25, 1991

Synopsis: The B-story to this classic episode sees Bart running for class president against Martin Prince, and winning the support of his fourth-grade classmates through his outlandish promises and goofball antics. In the end, his reliance on the youth vote backfires as none of his supporters turn out to the polls.

Why it rocked the vote: Successfully aping one of the Democratic Party's major tactical flaws, this sidestory also wins points for Homer's comforting and oddly sensible words of wisdom to his defeated son: The class president just has to do extra work, and doesn't get to do anything really cool. So who cares?

"Northern Exposure"

Episode title:
“Realpolitik,” from Season 6

Original air date: December 12, 1994

Synopsis: Before we came to know Wasilla, folks in the lower-48 looked to the quirky residents of Cicely, Alaska for their “small town” fix. In this episode, free-spirited pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) runs for mayor of Cicely – and wins! She’s a natural for politics, sparking a romantic interest from fellow councilman Chris Stevens (John Corbett).

Why it rocked the vote: Actress Janine Turner actually said Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska shares many characteristics with the independent, strong-willed Maggie (who “flew her own plane, shot her own moose, marched to the beat of her own drum”). Although Maggie was never one for stylin’ or dropping her g’s, all her boyfriends met somewhat impossible demises, leading the townsfolk of Cicely to label it the “O’Connell Curse.” Hmmmm. Palin Effect, anyone? Other than reflecting some aspects of our current political climate, the mayoral election of Cicely is about a surprise, last-minute win by a dark horse candidate who turns out to be a pretty good leader.

"The West Wing"

Episode title: “Election Day, Part II,” from Season 7

Original air date: April 9, 2006

Synopsis: If art imitates life, then the “West Wing’s” mock-election in Season 7 could be a case of life imitating art. In it, a little-known, eloquent Democratic Texas congressman goes up against an experienced older California Senator who is well known for being unpredictable. Sound familiar? The battle for the Presidency between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) comes to an end in this two-part episode, tinged by the tragic death of Santos’ running mate and longtime “West Wing” staple Leo McGarry (John Spencer). Santos comes out victorious when the states of Oregon and Nevada swing in his favor and Vinick refuses on principle to ask for a recount.

Why it rocked the vote: Even though “The West Wing” had a definite leftist slant (it being the brain child of uber-liberal Aaron Sorkin), its underlying theme was unmistakably patriotic in that touchy-feely “I love democracy” way. This episode brings the narrative arc of the fake Jed Bartlet Administration to an end. The words of hope offered by President-elect Santos at the end of a prolonged campaign are applicable to the real-world election. “Our votes may have been divided but our country will not be divided. Because ultimately it isn't about left or right but about doing right.” Barring a recount in Ohio, of course, it’s a sentiment we can all agree on regardless of our political affiliation.

"Saved by the Bell"

Episode title:
“The Election,” from Season 1

Original air date: November 18, 1989

Synopsis: After overhearing that the winner of the student body election wins a free trip to Washington D.C., always-conniving Zack Morris throws his hat in the ring against longtime friend, real deal politico, Jessie Spano. Zack becomes an advocate for Joe Trapper Keeper by offering to do away with school rules and regulations, much to Jessie’s chagrin. Zack and Screech also create a propaganda video featuring Gorbachev and Castro to drum up support from the school’s apparent communist base, and in the biggest October surprise in election history, Jessie’s middle name is revealed to be “Mertyl” (leading to one of “SBTB’s” all-time great lines, “Mertyl’s the name of my turtle.”) Jessie flip-flops to gain majority support from a fickle electorate. Zack flip-flops when Mr. Belding, as part of a ruse to test Mr. Morris' seriousness about being president, announces the Washington trip has been canceled. In the end, a remorseful Zack can’t let Jessie’s dream of being a future Congresswoman die (though that’ll all go down the drain when she becomes a stripper in “Showgirls,” anyways) just because he’d like to be “sipping ale with the Quayles.”

Why it rocked the vote: Lots of Mr. Dewey, which is always good. And who can forget the memorable write-in tally for class president from a singing Mr. Belding: “These people got the following write-in votes: Jason Bateman, nine; Alf, seven; Gilligan, six; and the Skipper twooooooo.” Frankly, we think Alf got screwed.

"Arrested Development"

Episode title:
“The Immaculate Election,” from Season 2

Original air date: March 20, 2005

Synopsis: Speaking of Jason Bateman, when Michael Bluth gets wind that his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), is planning a run for school president, he misinterprets how popular (“Everyone likes George Michael”) the mild-mannered boy actually is. Michael also conveniently forgets his own doomed presidential run as “Mr. Two Percent,” which leads to an unwelcome epiphany and a desperate plea for help from brother/professional election saboteur G.O.B. (Will Arnett.) While George Michael has no chance against multi-term juggernaut Steve Holt (“Volt for Steve Holt!”), Michael hopes a few Swiftboat tactics will at least allow George Michael to beat “the Indian kid.” However, selling his soul to the devil leads to an embarrassing campaign video for light-saber wielding George Michael, and ultimately, only one more percentage point than Pops managed to grab back in the day.

Why it rocked the vote: The payoff is George Michael’s G.O.B.-produced election video, which could have earned the unsuccessful illusionist some major bucks as a Republican strategist. The politics of fear also come into play when G.O.B. is caught screaming “terrorist!” during a school pep rally as the Indian kid’s video airs. So glad that kind of stuff doesn't happen at political rallies in 2008.

"The Brady Bunch"

Episode title:
“Vote for Brady,” from Season 1

Original air date: Dec. 12, 1969

Synopsis: Greg and Marcia both decide to run for student body president, setting up one of those classic girl Bradys vs. boys Bradys storylines – an ingenious premise that the show only milked, oh, dozens of times. (See “A Clubhouse Is Not a Home,’’ “Kitty Karry-All Is Missing’’ and “A Camping We Will Go,’’ all of which ran prior to “Vote Brady,’’ which was just the 11th episode of the inaugural season.) Anyway, things get ugly when the sibs take sides at home and when Greg’s campaign manager, Rusty, comes up with an idea to spread a nasty rumor about Marcia (no, not the cocaine binges and wild parties at the Playboy Mansion – those came later … in real life). Let’s tell the school Marcia was seen making out with local creep Felix Brown (not to be confused with bug nerd Harvey Klinger or Doug “Something suddenly came up” Simpson). But Greg, being a Brady and all, objects, fires Rusty and threatens to beat him up if he doesn’t leave Marcia alone.

Why it rocked the vote: It was nearly 40 years ago, but the episode had everything this year’s presidential race has: smear tactics (think of Felix Brown as the William Ayers of his day), partisan politics (the girls heckle Greg, the boys heckle Marcia as they practice their speeches), reaching across party lines (Mike and Carol sit the whole gang down – we assume in the den but can’t recall for certain -- for one of those talks about Brady unity) and a strong woman who concedes (so impressed by Greg’s sticking up for her, Marcia drops out of the race and throws her support to her bro).

Runner-up: ‘Party Lines,’’ April 19, 2000 (Season Two of “Felicity’’). Because it’s hard to top Richard’s “Free Pizza on Fridays’’ platform.

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"

Episode title:
“The Gang Runs for Office,” from Season 2

Original air date: Aug. 3, 2006

Synopsis: When the “It’s Always Sunny” gang discovers there’s rampant bribery in politics, it’s only fitting that they run for office. What office, you may ask? Doesn’t matter – but through a quick call to the County Clerk’s office, Mac discovers the race for Comptroller is the closest election, ergo the quickest way to start the bribes a-flowin'. Going off Politics 101 for their plan to win the election, they begin their campaign using only blazers, clipboards, “Kennedy hair,” American flags and a promiscuous Dee to lure other shady politicians.

Why it rocked the vote: Plain and simple – Charlie’s awesome, illiterate, dyslexic campaign speech script: “Hello, fellow American. This you should vote me. I leave power. Good. Thank you. Thank you. If you vote me, I am hot. What? Taxes. They’ll be lower. Son. The democratic vote for me is right thing to do, Philadelphia. So do.”


Episode title:
“The Wizard,” from Season 9

Original air date: Feb. 26, 1998

Synopsis: After Kramer announces an early retirement – seemingly from a life of earning nothing, but said to be from successful "coffee table book on coffee tables" sales – he heads where all the retirees go: Del Boca Vista. Jerry’s father, Morty – who was previously impeached as president of the condo association – decides Kramer would be a perfect candidate for presidency. Or more so, would make a perfect, pretty face front man with Morty running the presidency from behind the scenes. The episode just goes to show how powerful the media, er, the Boca Breeze Condo Newsletter, can be in an election.

Why it rocked the vote: For starters, the montage of Boca Breeze headlines are superb, among them: “Kramer: I will increase social security” (as a condo association president, totally realistic) and “Vacancy in building four” with a photo of Kramer slapping a “Vote Kramer” bumper sticker on the ambulance toting the latest senior who came to Del Boca Vista “to die,” as Jerry would put it. Also the scene of Kramer campaigning and cutting the meat of an older woman is classic. Ooh, ooh! Also, when controversy erupts from the Boca Breeze in the form of a front-page story “Candidate Cosmo caught barefoot in clubhouse” – which is clearly against the rules – the crew performs damage control to cover up the scandal.

"The Wire"

Episode title:
“Margin of Error,” from Season 4

Original air date: October 15, 2006

Synopsis: It’d be pretty hard to drop into just one episode of “The Wire’s” landmark Tommy Carcetti-Clarence Royce mayoral slugfest and grasp the sheer magnitude of its role in framing the series. But “Margin of Error” marks the end of a political showdown that began in Season 3, seemingly with the incumbent Royce (Glynn Turman) an untouchable force in Baltimore even as the wide-eyed “great white hope” Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) attempted to steal his thunder with a series of impassioned speeches. A last minute smear tactic by Royce threatens to pull down Carcetti’s underdog run on election day. But by finally securing the black vote through state delegate Odell Watkins – and even forking over some serious cash to the super-sleazy Clay Davis – Carcetti takes the reins of his beloved Baltimore, marking his momentum as a real agent of change. Or at least until the rest of Seasons 4 and 5 reveal just how quickly one man’s idealism can evaporate in a crumbling city come budget time.

Why it rocked the vote: With his introduction in Season 3, Carcetti became one of "The Wire's" most dynamic characters – the kind of politician you weren’t sure whether to love or hate, which honestly, leads to a little of both. The draining campaign brings about some hilarious, all-too human moments – particularly when Carcetti throws a hissy fit because he has to make more fruitless cold calls to donors. But he also displays real character and leadership when he attends the funeral of an African-American man who is killed while serving as a state’s witness. Originally there for political purposes, Carcetti turns down news coverage because the exploitation doesn't feel right after speaking to the murdered man’s grieving mother. It proves Carcetti's heart was always in the right place. But maverick or not, he never had a chance in the dirtiest game of all.

"Spin City"

Episode title:
“Goodbye, Parts 1 and 2,” from Season 4

Original air date: May 24, 2000

Synopsis: Nikki’s new boyfriend is a hit with the Mayor’s staff, which would be fine and dandy if not for the minor detail that he’s a big time mobster. When a snoopy reporter who has it in for Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox) starts digging into the story, it’s revealed that the staff did minor favors for Nikki’s mob friend, including the Mayor giving away a no-bid construction contract. That it wasn’t intentionally shady doesn’t matter to Mr. Muckraker. Though Stuart offers up Paul as the office's sacrificial lamb, Mike shockingly falls on the sword during an impromptu press conference and leaves City Hall for good (it’s the only hand he can play, the spinmeister surmises) so the Mayor’s political career can remain untarnished.

Why it rocked the vote: “Spin City” never killed in the ratings, but this one did since it marked Michael J. Fox’s emotional exit from full-time TV due to his real-life Parkinson’s diagnosis. Even though it was a half-hour comedy, “Spin City” displayed a tremendous amount of heart throughout. “Goodbye” is particularly sentimental (even including Fox's "Family Ties" dad, Michael Gross, in a perfect cameo) as it examines the devotion Mike has for the Mayor -- a testament to the “take a bullet” kind of relationship a lot of people have for the politicians they serve. Well, except folks like Scott McClellan, who know a good book deal when they see one.

-- Adam Reinhard,, Malavika Jagannathan,, Kendra Meinert,, Sara Boyd, and Thomas Rozwadowski,

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The fact that Glenn Howerton (sp?) ad-libbed that entire Charlie-written campaign ad makes it that much more incredible. Nice post all.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 5, 2008 at 12:18 PM  

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