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Catching Up with Bob’s Burgers

Welcome back to Bob’s Burgers, everybody, the freshman animated series on Fox that Bradford Evans so ably discussed when it premiered way back in a January. After its first few episodes failed to set the comedy world aflame, the show fell by the wayside around these parts but has been quietly airing ever since. And that’s where I come in.

Hi. I’m Brendan, and I’m pleased to be picking up Splitsider’s weekly coverage of Bob’s Burgers for the final five episodes of this season’s back half.

Full disclosure: I was an early adopter of this show, and lately I’ve found myself thinking and talking about it quite a bit more than most folks seem to be doing. And that’s a shame, because I’m now of the opinion that, nine episodes in, Bob’s Burgers has started coming together in a way that indicates real potential to become something pretty special.

But before we get into this week’s “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs”, let’s start with a few general thoughts on the show to date:

Most positive reviews of the series so far have focused on the outstanding voice talent assembled by showrunner Loren Bouchard, and I absolutely agree that they’re fantastic. Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman hit the ground running in Bob’s Burgers as younger siblings Louise and Gene Belcher, with their absurdist tangent-hopping providing many of the series’ most consistent laughs early on. (Special kudos to Schaal, whose manic intensity has made this her second straight series, following HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, in which she threatens to steal every scene she’s in). The golden voice of H. Jon Benjamin is currently starring in a more popular animated series over on FX (the generally terrific Archer), but here he’s also turning in predictably excellent work in the show’s titular role. Bouchard’s loose approach to his actors’ recording sessions has really allowed Benjamin make the most of his talent through riffing and improvisation. As Bob, Benjamin finds a surprising number of variations and expressive notes to hit in his performance which entertainingly supplements his baseline near-monotone.

But perhaps what’s intrigued me the most about Bob’s Burgers has been the show’s narrative sensibilities and general feel for storytelling. In this day and age, we’ve seen the rise of unscripted/barely-scripted comedies, which tend to draw their laughs from specific performers’ dynamics and mostly context-based, in-the-moment humor. At the same time, more and more scripted comedies have begun to eschew the conventions of telling complete, proper stories in favor of a gags-above-all approach. In this respect, Bob’s Burgers almost feels like something of a throwback to a style that’s been lacking on television recently. Relatively “classic”-styled sitcoms often fail to have an instant, seismic cultural-impact when they first start out (Modern Family is the only recent similar example that I can think of that did), but it’s a sturdy form and, when well-executed, lends itself to potentially be timelessness in a way that many 21st century’s comedies might not ultimately prove.

Where many reviewers seemed to lose interest in Bob’s Burgers was during its early-season struggles to define both its characters and its scope. I don’t think that the show was ever flat, but at times it somewhat faltered when looking for a balance between establishing each of the Belchers’ roles within the relatively close confines of a family comedy while also exploring the broader cast of characters who populate the town surrounding their little burger joint. I’m glad to say that since the initial quartet of decent, but not overwhelmingly impressive episodes that started this season, Bob’s Burgers has already grown a lot, both within and without the family at its center. Case in point: this week’s “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs.”

This episode contains nice beats for the entire Belcher family, but heavily features the youngest duo in the clan. It’s actually the first episode to focus the primary plot on Gene (“Bed & Breakfast” had a pretty Louise-heavy thread in it), and my initial reservations about his ability to carry an A story were thankfully assuaged this time out. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t had any serious problems with Gene before tonight, but while I usually enjoy him as the ridiculous garnish to a given episode’s action, the potential was always there for any more of him to be too much. In “Meatballs”, an experience of bonding with his father over one of the time-honored traditions of masculinity — the mediocre spaghetti western — empowers Gene to deal with an issue facing him in school. Another boy, named “Choo-Choo” (comedian Brian Posehn, who even gets to use his trademark Nerd Rage voice in one scene), is stepping on Gene’s punch-lines, a crime beyond redress to a kid whose greatest joy is to revel in his own hackey-ness. So Gene stands up to Choo-Choo the way a true anti-hero of cult cinema should: with an inexplicable musical instrument and while wearing a big, goofy hat.

Bob’s Burgers has already gotten good mileage this season out of Gene and the unabashed lameness of his affectations, but as a character, he’s actually a bit more realistic a depiction of boys his age than perhaps I’m comfortable even acknowledging. (If I never owned a book called Jokes for Blokes when I was a lad, I must have had one with a title awfully similar…) As usual, Eugene Mirman’s line-readings sidle right up to the edge of where random is still funny without becoming grating, and if episodes like this don’t necessarily make me hungry to see more Gene-centric episodes, I’m glad at least that the writers have demonstrated that they know things to do with him beyond merely chipping in non-sequiturs alongside Louise.

While Gene is setting Choo-Choo off his tracks, the Belcher women are all dealing with feelings of insecurity breeding conflicts of their own. Tina’s crush on Jimmy Pesto Jr. has grown into a jealous sense of possession and animosity toward another girl, Linda is nursing a grudge against Coleen Caviello and her delicious baked ziti, and Louise is feeling threatened that the special bond she shared with Bob as members of “The Burn Unit” is in danger now that he’s spending so much time watching a banjo fire bullets at black hats with Gene. In keeping with the conflict/resolution theme, every member of the family also manages to find themselves in/on the brink of some physical altercation with another character in the course of 22 minutes. Luckily, after having a heart-to-heart while hiding in a tubular playground slide, Bob, Gene and Louise make it to the Conflict Resolution Club’s big fundraising dinner, where we all bear witness the healing power of spaghetti.

There’s a lot to like in “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs.” As one would probably expect from the title, there are several parody elements and genre nods. Some are obvious (like rapidly-cut facial close-ups and a blatantly Morricone-esque score), while others are more artful (the playground scene begins with a nice tribute to the opening “windmill” sequence from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West). And a few of them are even downright esoteric (“Banjo” could be an abstraction of Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West, Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar, the Django from Sergio Corbucci classic, and/or a dozen others. I hope that Community’s forthcoming spaghetti western episode will nail its reference points this well).

“Meatballs” is also another in the recent string of episodes to prominently feature the growing cast of characters in Bob’s Burgers. Tina’s club is advised by Mr. Frond, he of the truly righteous “abs” (Access your feelings, Be apologetic, and Slap it!) and even better office wall posters (“Don’t forget your RESPECT-acles!), whose self-satisfaction and juvenility bring him at odds with Bob. Choo-Choo and his dad both seem to tan heavily while wearing tank tops, and share a fondness for time-based action declaratives. And Coleen Caviello shows us that there’s basically nothing more terrifying than the word “ziti” slowed down to sound like a demon is bellowing it from the depths of Hell.

Even better than all the non-family faces is that, for the first time, we spend essentially none of “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs” in Bob’s Burgers, the restaurant. While it’s a great setting and I look forward to returning there again next week, it’s wonderful to see the show stretching out its boundaries in the name of investing us in the lives of its characters. Most of the kids’ lives take place at school, after all, so why shouldn’t we follow their story there? It’s not my favorite episode of the season, but in such a limited run I’m glad that Bob’s Burgers is already demonstrating the faith in itself to venture out into its own world.

Brendan K. O’Grady is a freelance writer, critic, and part-time academic in Austin, Texas.

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