The Brady Bunch was about as G-rated of a 1970s family sitcom as you could get. Plenty of G-rated situations abounded, with obvious (and sometimes quite awkward) situations substituted to avoid the easier, grittier way to tell the story of the Bradys' latest situation and get to the moral. "The Tattletale," for instance, forewent the "something bad" happening to Jan or Marcia and instead went for Tiger dog-napping a claim voucher that Alice is frantically trying to find.
The times when Sherwood and Lloyd Schwartz wanted to use more realistic situations saw ABC shake their head in disapproval. Such as the time they wanted to do a story on hero worship. At the time, there was a popular song called "Where Have All Our Heroes Gone," where country singer Bill Anderson bemoans how young boys — including those about Bobby's age — are easily impressionable and influenced by the media sometimes painting criminals in a sympathetic light, or a football player who sees the game as a ticket to sex and drugs, or the baseball player who gambles and so forth ... all while real heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, General Douglas MacArthur and the NASA astronauts are scoffed at.
Here, the guy that Bobby thinks would be good to idolize was supposed to be a skyjacker. ABC gave a flat "No!" to the suggestion, and that forced the Schwartzes to consider a, well, more whitebread "villain" to be ... "Bobby's Hero."
Mike and Carol get a call from the principal, stating that Bobby had brought a toy gun to school and was bothering his classmates pretending to make like an Old West outlaw. And then we see just what criminal of the 1880s he's referring to ... Jesse James. (Yes, the same Jesse James that killed people, took hostages, raped women, robbed banks and stagecoaches and basically did whatever he liked while on the run.) Mike and Carol share mutual concern as they are also told of Bobby acting up in the classroom and thinking he's a little bit above the rules, and always making references to the head honcho of the nefearous James-Younger Gang.
Today, Mike and Carol would be making a call to their attorney to fight a possible expulsion from school. This being the age before gun violence in schools, Bobby is let off with (an off-camera) stern warning from the principal, along with a talking to from his folks. Bobby admits that he thinks of Jesse James as a Folk Hero, that he was brave and stood up for what he wanted.
Throughout the episode, lectures, movies and books fail to impress upon Bobby the real, dark side of Jesse James. Finally, Mike is running short of options (short of scheduling an appointment with a counselor) and manages to track down the author of a book, who wrote of his father being killed by James and his gang. (The book had a recent copyright date, and Mike was fortunate to find the gent in good health.) The writer, Jethro Collins, agrees to come over, and he tells his story.
Basically, Collins tells Bobby — and Mike and Carol — that his father was riding a train on a trip. It was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the James-Younger gang was in the area and, upon coming into town, decide to rob the train. Which they do, all while telling the passengers inside to get down on their hands and knees and not look, and everyone will be OK. However, when James and his buddies finish the heist, they decide they aren't satisfied ... and they either kill, or seriously or mortally wound everyone inside. One of the dead at the scene was Collins' father. Collins, then a young boy, never forgot the ordeal and, in the case of increased heroic depictions of the outlaw vowed to tell the truth about James and expose him for what he was ... "a mean, dirty killer."
"A mean, dirty killer. A mean, dirty killer."
Those words are burned in Bobby's mind, but the thing that seals things is surreal Opinion-Changing Dream he has about his encounter with Jesse James. It's the late 1870s, and the Bradys are riding a train to California from the East Coast. Then, their train car is invaded by none other than Jesse James. Even though Jesse is telling everyone to stick 'em up, Bobby proudly exclaims that Jesse is his friend and means them no harm. Mike tells everyone to do as Jesse says and throw down their billfolds, purses and guns and they'll be spared. Jesse, who keeps trying to brush Bobby aside, then says for everyone to turn their backs to the window. Bobby wonders why — and Jesse responds, "So I can shoot them!" He then yells out "Bang, bang, bang!" as he shoots them repeatedly. Bobby watches at first in disbelief, then genuine horror as his entire family — his mom and dad, Alice, Greg, Peter, Marcia, Jan and Cindy — are all killed and mercilessly shot, dozens of times.
Bobby is in genuine tears as Peter wakes him up. "I just had the worst nightmare!"
A few moments later, as Mike and Carol are getting ready for bed, Bobby comes in to turn in his (toy) guns. "Good man!" Mike tells his son, as he notes that not only is picking a good hero important, but being able to see the difference between who is worthy of idolizing and who isn't.
While indeed, a more contemporary-for-the-times anti-hero or villain could have been picked as a hero, the dated choice of Jesse James makes its point.
Incidentally, the word "skyjacker" would be used during Mike and Carol's meeting with the principal ... as he is musing about how the media writes about gangsters and skyjackers being written in a positive light.
Tropes present in this episode:
- Dream Sequence: Actually, the nightmare sequence, which — coupled with the old man's all-to-real experience with Jesse James — shocks Bobby out of his idolizing Jesse James. The "nigthmare" is where Bobby is forced to watch James kill the other Bradys and Alice.
- G-Rated Situation: Famously the result of ABC quashing the writer's idea that Bobby choose an international terrorist (a skyjacker) as his hero. Several other ideas for villians-turned-folk heroes were considered before the writers grudingly settled on Jesse James.
- Hilarity Ensues: In 1973, Bobby gets off with a warning to never bring a gun to school again. Today, he would be fighting expulsion.
- Kill 'Em All: In the nightmare scene, what Jesse James does to the Bradys, all while making Bobby watch.
- Locked In A Closet: Bobby, when Greg and Peter have enough of the youngest Brady brother playing Jesse James, grab him and put him in the coat closet by the entry foyer. Mike hears the commotion and after getting an explanation, tell Greg and Peter to let him out. Bobby charges out and gets less than zero sympathy from his dad, who angrily tells him to stop immediately with the Jesse James games.
- Opinion-Changing Dream: Bobby is convinced that Jesse James is not someone to worship only after he has a nightmare about it.
- Scare 'em Straight: Collins' graphic telling to Bobby of the real life story about Jesse James, to put to rest any notion that he is a folk hero. If that didn't seal the deal, Bobby's nightmare, where he witnesses James kill his entire family, did.
- Trademark Favorite Food: "Bobby's Hero" is one of several episodes where the Bradys are seen eating or making references to eating pizza.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: In-universe, where Mike and Carol — and also, the principal at Bobby's school — complain that movies, books and the media sympathize and sugarcoat the exploits of criminals, making them out to be folk heroes rather than the bloody, mean, dirty crooks that they are. At one point, the folks screen a Jesse James biopic that turns out to be heavily sanitized and romanticized (a la Bonnie and Clyde).
- Would Hurt a Child: Humorously played as Bobby, in a nightmare, is forced to watch James shoots and kills his entire family, including his 11-year-old sister Cindy, during a train robbery.