For three seasons, Bob’s Burgers has been based in one primary location: Bob’s Burgers. Like Cheers, the restaurant contained an endless amount of hilarious stories that allowed Bob and his family to relate to the world around them. The outside world came to them, and at no point has this felt tired or old.
Season four opener, “A River Runs Through Bob,” makes a preemptive strike on the formula and changes things up before Burgers gets stale. Rather than continuing to give fans more of the same, the show moves the family to the great outdoors and away from the previously established world and characters.
The premiere puts the family on a camping trip with Bob, of course, taking the lead. Things go south when Bob and Linda go for a dip in a nearby tepid spring and are whisked away by the river’s strong current. They hit land miles from their campsite, leaving the kids stranded and them lost.
“A River Runs Through Bob” starts things off on a decidedly different beat than past season premieres. Instead of re-establishing characters and introducing them to new viewers, “River” relies on the audience to already know them. By removing their normal cruxes, the cast and writers must find new ways to make with the funny. This goes even further than past fieldtrip episodes, like “It Snakes a Village,” and reduces Bob and Louise to feral, bug-eating hill people. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of Community, which in season three and four moved the action away from Greendale and to the outside world. This keeps the show from repeating itself, helps it stay fresh, and expands the universe.
For most of the episode, the family attempts to keep their composure in a world they’re not used to, a world they enter. Past seasons generally see a new element being introduced to them, a biker gang comes to town or a psychotic sister-in-law re-decorates the restaurant. Here, they are totally out of their element and it pays off wonderfully.
In comparison to the last three seasons, there’s much more emphasis on keeping the family together. Burgers does familial relationships differently than other shows. The plot revolves around maintaining the family unit, because the family actually likes each other. Bob and Louise struggle to get home to be with their kids, and the kids go on a quest to rescue their parents. A fight doesn’t separate them; distance does, and the show gets a lot out of that dynamic. This is something The Simpsons used to do really well (and in a camping scenario, too), but years of cynicism and Family Guy have stripped cartoons of this sentiment.
One of things that I love about this episode, and Bob’s Burgers in general, is that these jokes have so much weight. Each quip and aside actually matters to the plot, because that’s how the show delivers information. Louise mocks Tina for missing her scout camping trip, and we learn why they're going camping. This quickens the show’s pace by keeping the exposition light and the jokes constant.
The chemistry of the cast, as usual, is remarkable. At this point, the voice actors seem so comfortable with each other that dialogue feels more natural and quick than any other animated series. While it’s easy to get all Simpsons-did-it with the plot, the cast’s back-and-forth sound more like Arrested Development, with layers upon layers of jokes that reveal themselves during repeat viewings.
“A River Runs Through Bob” feels like a step in the right direction for Bob’s Burgers. It’s not an outright classic, but it definitely helps the team stretch their legs a bit and try something new, even that movement is incremental.