56. Black Widower

  • First broadcast: Thursday 9 April 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 16 February 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Raymie Musquiz, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Sideshow Bob appeared in the best episode of season one of The Simpsons, and he appears in the best episode of season three as well. He is one of the greatest characters the show has ever created, and his appeal can be traced in its entirety from the way in which he introduces and re-introduces himself into the Simpsons’ world with a deportment that is one cup self-imploding tenacity, one cup outrageous flamboyance. In fact it is not enough to merely say he “appears” in The Simpsons, for Sideshow Bob never just appears in anything. He manifests himself, he crowbars himself, he slinks and roars and sashays and pirouettes himself, and he does it again and again by failing ever to learn from his mistakes and never once presuming his intelligence to be on a level several hundredfold of storeys above that of the person (Bart, and sometimes Lisa too) by whom is he always ultimately outwitted. Here, and for the next few years, the character would inspire the show’s writers to create some of their most crisply ornate dialogue and fiercely-welded scripts, and Kelsey Grammer to muster some of his best work in television.

After a run of episodes where both the journey and the destination of the plot were equally unappealing, we’re back with a bang to the kind of story that hooks you from the second the engine starts ticking over – in this case, Patty turning up at the Simpsons’ house to announce that Selma has a new boyfriend about whom there is “something disturbing”. The camera zooms knowingly, the music tickles you with menace, and the family launch themselves into fantasy:

From then on not a scene is wasted and not a line thrown away. Like all the sweetest whodunnits, the plot is as much about how Bob’s machinations are thwarted as what he tries to do. As soon as he shows up with Selma by his side, you know he’s after more than the chance for a snog (though “kissing you would be like kissing some divine ashtray”, he concedes). It works as a proper mystery, with clues carefully laid and signposts there for the keen-eyed to spot. It works also as a farce, with Bob’s antics broad enough to feel more like indolence than malevolence. There’s even a flavour of repertory theatre, thanks to the small number of locations, lots of people entering and exiting rooms, and the ensemble finale with everyone gathered to hear how Bob’s scheming was foiled. Sometimes when The Simpsons tries to do lots of things it fails at just enough to spoil the whole caboodle. Here the show succeeds at everything, and with the kind of precision of engagement that leaves you cheering for more. 10

Sideshow Bob was already a rich brew of behaviour the first time we met him. Now more appetising elements are added to the mix, including politics (“Do you know what prison is like for a lifelong Conservative Republican?”), phoney remorse, table manners that have come straight out of an 18th century epistolary novel, and – best of all – his bogus amorous inclinations. Bob’s elaborately-worded courtship of Selma, told in flashback, recalls Bart’s fake wooing of Mrs Krabappel, only more gruesome in its articulacy and lopsided in its intent. “Your latest letter set off a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart,” Bob coos in one of his letters, as Selma sinks into her bath in rapture. Later on we see them before and after sex, with Selma in post-coital bliss (“Bob, one of my fillings fell out!”) and Bob in the bathroom trying to scrub himself clean (“Even murder has its ugly side”). Because their relationship is driven by expediency (Selma wants a lover; Bob wants a widower’s inheritance), the script allows them both to behave appallingly towards the other, then reconcile and go back to being hopelessly and hideously in love. All of which is absolutely fascinating to watch, despite – or maybe because – the rest of the Simpson family are barely in it. For the purposes of the “mystery”, everyone except Bart has to behave with the barest of self-awareness, forever chuckling at Bob’s quips (Selma: “He’s a once in a lifetime catch.” Bob: “I hope the police are saying that as well!”) while oblivious to anything suspicious. But this doesn’t matter in the slightest, because the writing is so strong, the characterisation so satisfying, and the audacity of the plot so enchanting. 10

Locations and design
The economy of plot means that for much of the episode we don’t venture far outside the Simpsons’ house. But later the action moves to the location of Bob and Selma’s honeymoon, a gloriously tasteless motel in Shelbyville next to some equally gaudy natural wonders (Shelbyvile Falls, Rolling Rock).

It is the perfect setting for a diabolical mastermind. 8

Pardon My Zinger
Jokes flood the screen from the opening minutes (“You’re forgetting the first two noble truths of the Buddha.” “I am not!”) to the very last seconds, when Bart delivers one of the show’s finest ever closing lines: “Now let’s all get out of this gas-filled hallway before we all suffocate!” Again, it’s as if the quality of the plot and the distinction of the special guest have spurred the writers to come up with some of the their best material. You can imagine the amount of time and effort (all justified) that went into coming up with all the different numberplates Bob gleefully manufactures while in prison:

The same goes for the run of dialogue where Bob mumbles threats under his breath (“Prepare to be murdered”) only for Selma to overhear, prompting Bob to come up with hasty explanations (“Er, ‘Eh par-dee meh moo-coo’ – that’s Sanskrit for ‘Your toes are like perfume'”). But topping the lot is the glorious return of Patty and Selma’s fecund addiction to the ABC TV series MacGyver, elevated from a side obsession to one of the key elements of the plot, prompting endless fury from Bob and continued swooning from the sisters (“What did I miss?” “MacGyver was wearing a tank top.” “Dang!”). There’s even a taste of the show’s own winning brand of implausible antics: “Thank you Señor MacGyver, you’ve saved our village!” “Don’t thank me: thank the moon’s gravitational pull!” 9

Special guests
It’s Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob, so obviously it’s a 10.

Alf Clausen has all the right cues at all the right moments, especially during the last five minutes as Bob first tries, then fails, to incinerate Selma with the combustible mix of a cigarette, natural gas, and an episode of MacGyver. It’s always a treat to hear Grammer sing when he’s playing Bob, and here he joins Selma for a fulsome and syrupy chorus of Something Stupid, accompanied by an orchestra and a montage of romantic trysts – itself a triumph of animation, with precisely the appropriate amount of ludicrous charm. 9

For every whoop of maniacal laughter or shudder of repulsion that Kelsey Grammer gives to Bob, Julie Kavner has an orgiastic grunt or lovelorn rattle to give to Selma. They make an excellent match, but it works only because you know it can’t end happily. The characters’ time together is always destined to be short, so you appreciate every second of it all the more. 9

Animation direction
The last time David Silverman directed an episode of The Simpsons was Blood Feud. Some 20 episodes have been and gone since then, and in every one Silverman’s eye for ambitious detail and his flair for memorable set-pieces has been missed. He picked a fine episode to return to the helm, and you can tell that he relished the challenge of a story brimming with potential for exciting, daring visuals. So many individual moments from Blood Widower stay in the memory: Selma’s face pressed up against the glass of the prison visitors’ room:

Bart imagining Bob turning briefly into a vision of Death:

The characters who compete against Bob for a Daytime Emmy Award, including Pepito The Biggest Cat In The Whole Wide World:

and Suck-Up, The Vacuum;

All the drawings of Bob shrieking with laughter:

And the use of shadows and flickering light during Selma’s near-fatal TV appointment with MacGyver:

There is genuine tension evoked by the way Silverman slows the tempo right down to a crawl as Selma picks up a cigarette and goes to strike a match, the viewers aware – unlike Selma – that the first spark will blow her and her precious TV set to smithereens.

There’s also some splendid Carry On-style insinuation, as the camera frames Selma apparently in some kind of erotic frenzy, groaning with delight as Bob rummages under her skirt…

…only to pull back and reveal he is rubbing her feet.

“Could you… pumice my corns for me?” she purrs. “Avec plaisir,” he drawls. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
It is surely unintentional, but the moment in which Bob stands in the motel courtyard and sips a drink at the bar while Selma’s flat explodes behind him is, shot-for-shot, almost identical to a sequence in the film Never Say Never Again:

By contrast, there’s a very deliberate dig at the unlamented puppet series Dinosaurs, which ran on ABC in the early 1990s, starred a family of anthropomorphic beasts, and was widely held to be a complete rip-off of The Simpsons. Homer, Bart and Lisa are watching Dinosaurs at the start of this episode; “Hey, don’t have a stegosaurus, man!” the boy dinosaur says, in exactly the same voice as Bart.

“It’s like they saw our lives and put it right up on screen,” the real Bart laughs. It works even if you’ve never heard of the programme they’re spoofing, as merely the sound of a dinosaur having Bart’s voice is funny enough. 8

Emotion and tone
This episode has swagger and it knows it. If you don’t like Simpsons stories that junk restraint and contain no scenes of parents bonding with their children or people telling each other than they love them, this one will leave you cold. But if you’re minded to submit wholly to a plot that involves a TV star turned jailbird attempting to murder his wife only to be foiled by a small child, the swagger is part of the charm. Besides, it’s all played to the gallery, as any decent drawing-room mystery should be. By way of a final reminder to viewers, Selma’s parting words to her ex-husband – “You tried to kill me – I want a separation!” – are matched in grandstand absurdity by Bob’s farewell cry: “I’ll be back! You can’t keep the Democrats out of the White House forever! And when they get in, I’m back on the street – with all my criminal buddies!” 10

Verdict: 93%
And it’s all thanks to the moon’s gravitational pull.

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