Monday, March 28th, 2011

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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  • http://twitter.com/barbituratecat Avy

    I have to admit I was initially unimpressed by the first episode, and didn't really know what to expect. I'm happy to say now that this is my favourite show in any weekly line-up.

    I love that for all their quirks, the Belchers are definitely NOT Simpsons or Family guy clones in any way. There is no Homer/Peter in Bob, and it's refreshing to see a father figure who is not bumblingly oblivious to his family's needs or wants. He might be stubborn at times, but overall he wants what is right for his wife and children. Linda is a mother who is shown being slightly "uncool" [read as "excited about things their families don't care about"] in the way most of us moms can be, but it's never played off in a cruel way. All three kids are unique without being Bart Simpson rip-offs in terms of catch phrases or "troubles of the week".

    I really hope the people who wrote the series off after one or two episodes come back to it and see how well it's progressed in terms of character development/story. Maybe if enough fans talk loudly and obnoxiously about it, we can attract some new viewers ;)

    • Brendan K. O'Grady

      There's undeniably a big Simpsons influence on Bob's Burgers (how could there not be?), but I totally agree that the show has avoided the pitfall of making Bob too recognizably like Homer or Peter Griffin. I like that, although he can over-react to provocation, Bob isn't prone to the flights of irrational fancy that dominate Homer and Peter's silliness.

      The rest of the family is similarly more grounded as well. This week we saw the two most "out-there" members of the family engaged in a primary plot that explored parent-child bonding experiences and the tension that they place on sibling dynamics, complete with Louise actually crying- a genuine emotional response! Hooray!

      Hope you'll be joining our conversation weekly, Avy!

      • http://twitter.com/barbituratecat Avy

        I think with any family-based cartoon you run the risk of "being another Simpsons/Family Guy", but the trick is to not get carried away with total absurdity. Bob definitely grounds the show, but unlike Homer or Peter, his are not the outrageous antics that the episodes centre around. Which is great – I'm getting a little tired of the whole 'zany father with a totally replaceable quirky family unit" trope.

        I was really touched by Tina's slide-confession. Normally she's played off as this very sociopathic, random character, but it was nice to see that what she really was angry at was the loss of time with her father and brother. The fart-bonding was also hysterical, and oddly enough, really didn't detract from ANY of the emotion in the scene.

        • Brendan K. O'Grady

          Yeah, I focused on Gene in the recap, but this was every bit as much a Louise story. I think letting her have a genuinely emotional response to the dynamic with her father and Gene was necessary for the character. We've now had A-plots for every member of the Belcher family, and we're only 9 episodes in. That's promising.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joel-Lugar/564735904 Joel Lugar

    Awesome recap. Good episode. My favorite line from this week belongs to Tina, "Huhhhhhhhh. Thank you."

    • Brendan K. O'Grady

      Thanks, man. I wish that I could have justified to myself a bullet-point set at the end to pin down my favorite lines, but it just didn't feel neccessary. That said, best laugh of the night: Repressed Memory Emily. "She won't remember this…"

      See you next week, Joel!

  • Mike

    Bob's Burgers averages nearly five times the number of viewers each week as Archer. How could you say Archer is "more popular"?

  • Brendan K. O'Grady

    Well, it's a network show, so it's going to get higher numbers in terms of raw viewership, but I was referring more to the fact that Bob's Burgers has received a far less media attention (especially in the world of TV and comedy news/reviews, at sites like this one) than Archer and that it hasn't developed the core fanbase of weekly viewers that Archer has. Not to mention the fact that Archer has already been renewed for a 3rd season, while Bob's Burgers has been losing viewers every week since its (admittedly pretty good) premier figures. While I think that Bob's Burgers will PROBABLY get renewed, that's far from a foregone conclusion at this point.

    Ultimately, I consider "popularity" sort of a relative thing, but I suppose I should clarify when using it in that sense.

  • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

    Nice recap. I'll have to give this show another shot, I haven't watched since the early episodes but I keep hearing it's gotten good.

    • Brendan K. O'Grady

      Thanks a lot. Hopefully I can do justice to the job you started.

    • http://twitter.com/barbituratecat Avy

      Do it! I felt the early episodes were kind of confined to the restaurant/apartment, and as a result the characters didn't really get a chance to grow outside of those small spaces. But oh man, the recent episode of anus-paintings alone is worth going back and giving it another shot. Who can resist a cartoon filled with paintings of animal bums?

  • robin@twitter

    I really hope the show is picked up for a season 2. So much so that for the first time I started a fb fan page. It is called "Renew Bob's Burgers". To any BB fans who are reading this – please join or make your support known to Fox in some other way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/victor.delfa2 Victor Delfa Barrera