“You’re my children and I love you, but you’re all terrible at what you do.”
Bob’s Burgers debuted in 2011 in the Fox Network Sunday night animated sweet spot, right after cultural institution The Simpsons and right before the insanely popular Family Guy. The show did well, viewers responded, and it got picked up for a second season. Those who missed it the first time around can now sink their teeth into all thirteen episodes of the first season on this two-disc set.
Bob (H. Jon Benjamin, Archer) and his wife Linda (John Roberts) run a burger joint in a small beachfront tourist town, with the help/hindrance of their three children. Oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz) has hit puberty with extreme awkwardness, middle child Gene (Eugene Mirman) believes he is an entertainer, even though he has no talent. Youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal, Flight of the Conchords) is apparently some sort of psychotic maniac.
The tone of Bob’s Burgers is tough to describe. It’s closer to The Simpsons than it is to Family Guy. The characters live more or less in the same “real world” you and I live in, with allowances to occasionally stretch that reality to cartoon silliness, but never so far as to go into Family Guy‘s extreme “anything for a laugh” style.
Loosely speaking, the plot for any given episode is the same. Bob has his restaurant jut how he likes it. Then, some outside element intrudes, threatening change, and Bob reacts with outrageous results, dragging his family along with him. This is a highly simplistic description, however, as the writers dream up numerous ways to spin this basic formula throughout the season. Bob faces vengeful health inspectors, rival pizza joints, intrusive relatives, his cold-hearted landlord, and more. All of the above threatens Bob’s relatively peaceful existence. In some cases, this disruption might come from his family, but in most episodes, it’s external. The few times we see Bob happy, it’s usually behind the grill, cooking up burgers for his customers. This is who he is, this is all he wants. When an in-law, or a competitor, or a Brazilian martial arts master (long story) storms into Bob’s life, he goes to ridiculous lengths to maintain what is his, and this is where a lot of the show’s comedy is born from. Conversely, Bob is also prideful, and whenever someone dares insult his little hole-in-the-wall burger place, he again goes to ridiculous lengths to stand up for himself. In one episode, Bob is initially against displaying a bunch of offensive paintings, but when someone uses this as fodder to disparage his restaurant, suddenly he supports the gross-out paintings, all to satisfy his pride. Occasionally, we get dream/fantasy sequences, which hint at even deeper, more twisted layers to Bob’s psyche, which, hopefully, can further be explored in future seasons.
As the season begins, episodes mostly focus on Bob and Linda, with the three kids merely being one-note characters, repeating the same few jokes. At this point, Bob’s Burgers is merely an “OK” show. Fortunately, as time passes, we get a lot more character development for the three kids. The latter half of the season lets us get to know them a lot better, and that upgrades the show from “OK” to “really fun and interesting.” As much as I enjoy H. Jon Benjamin’s comedy, the three kids are the ones who make this show what it is—they give Bob’s Burgers its distinctiveness. They’re what make this show distinct from other animated shows.
Tina, given life with a marvelously deadpan voice performance, captures all that is awkward about adolescence. Episodes about her crushes and/or her cluelessness about sex are highlights, and they also have an emotional weight to them that you’d never find on Family Guy. Although they get some moments to shine, Linda and Gene don’t get quite as much time in the spotlight. We get hints that Linda longs to turn the restaurant into something more than it is, and we’re shown how Gene uses his attempts at music and comedy to survive nightmare world that is a school cafeteria. This character development is good, and leads itself to interesting opportunities for the show’s writers, but isn’t as deep as the other main characters.
I enjoy this show, but I must admit that the Louise character is probably the character that may be too much for some viewers. Louise more or less exists to punch holes in everyone else’s boats. No matter what crazy situation Bob finds himself in, Louise jumps right in and makes it worse. This will make it hard for a lot of people to like her. Others might delight in Louise’s antics, as she’s the one who gets to say and do anything she wants with little to no consequence. She’s the big audience-divider. Either you love her for messing with everyone, or you dislike for the same reason. Me? I’m on the “like” side. No matter how exasperated Bob gets due to the plot of the week, Louise is right there to make it worse, which make Bob even more exasperated, which just ups the comedy.
The back-to-basics question is, “Is it funny?” to which I answer, “Yes, it is.” The bonus features reveal that the show has two levels. First, the actors recorded the scripts as written. Then, they performed an improv version of the same story. The final result is about half scripted and half improv. Therefore, inconsistencies in plot or character can be a result of this combination of two styles. Whether written or improv, dialogue is filled with a lot of little witticisms and character moments. The actors are the ones running this show. The good news is that the voice actors are skillfully talented, and the show succeeds due to their work.
Although the animation style is simplistic, it is nonetheless bright and colorful, and this two-disc set shows off all those colors nicely. Audio is clean and clear, with the all-important dialogue coming through just fine. Every episode gets a jokey commentary, with the actors and producers riffing on each other as much as their show. The original demo shows early alternate versions of the series in two short pilots, which is interesting to see. The set also has audio outtakes, a silly music video, and a short cartoon with Louise talking about her family.
This has been a tough review to write. I enjoyed and laughed along with Bob’s Burgers, but I can also see how this is not a show for everyone. It walks a very, very fine line between “family sitcom” and “cynical anti-family sitcom.” It’s to the creators’ credit that they maintain this precarious balance, not to mention a lot of laughs.