"Don't blame us. We voted for Kodos": Channel Surfing's favorite political TV moments
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.
We're Channel Surfing. And we approve this message.
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?
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.
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, Malavika Jagannathan, email@example.com, Kendra Meinert,
firstname.lastname@example.org, Sara Boyd, email@example.com and Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org