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Sorry, Simpsons: Why ‘Bob’s Burgers’ is Home to TV’s Cartoon First Family

Sorry, Simpsons: Why ‘Bob’s Burgers’ is Home to TV’s Cartoon First Family:

I came to Bob’s Burgers late. Just last year, in fact. It happened despite years of friends and colleagues telling me how good it was, because I couldn’t get through the first episode. Several times I started that episode, watched about half of it, and thought I saw a familiar comedic pattern forming that I didn’t really care to experience in yet another form.

In the series premiere of Bob’s Burgers, titled “Human Flesh,” Bob Belcher (H. Jon Benjamin) is a man under seige. He’s just trying to run his struggling restaurant, and his family seems determined to inadvertently sabotage it. His son Gene (Eugene Mirman) is trying to hand out free samples that he just dropped on the street, his daughter Tina (Dan Mintz) is simultaneously working the grill and complaining about an itchy crotch, and his other daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) has changed the Burger of the Day to something called “The Child Molester.” Oh, and the health inspector, who once dated Bob’s wife Linda (John Roberts), is trying to shut the restaurant down by spreading rumors that Bob is serving human flesh.

As all of that unfolded, I thought I was watching what would end up as a somewhat exaggerated version of the “Sitcom Dad With an Obnoxious Family” story, and I just didn’t feel like seeing that again. Then, something beautiful happened: One day I kept watching, and I found a joy in the Belchers that I’ve never seen in any other cartoon family.

Over the course of five seasons (the sixth premieres this Sunday) on FOX, Bob’s Burgers has evolved and perfected its story of a dysfunctional family walking hand-in-hand through the chaos of their lives by embracing weirdness, humanity, and surprising subtlety. While The Simpsons found its stride by developing the show into a vehicle for biting and even prescient satire, Bob’s Burgers found its own groove by becoming a character piece. Even when the plots are outlandish – like the time Bob is chained to a pillar underneath a pier and nearly killed by the incoming tide – the show roots itself in the personalities of the family at its center, and I find myself watching not to experience the shenanigans, but to see how the characters will react to them.

The show achieves this with an impressively consistent effort to brush new details onto its characters with each passing episode. In the pilot, Bob comes off as a grumpy guy who’s just trying to get through his workday, and that’s because he is, and he’s also the bearer of various Sitcom Dad stereotypes like forgetting his wedding anniversary and resisting physical tenderness with his children. Then the show goes on, and Bob becomes the guy who bonds with Louise by staying up late and mocking crappy TV together, and the guy who toilet trained all three of his children because Linda couldn’t stomach it, and the guy who drives an hour out of his way on Christmas Eve because his wife needs a new Christmas tree. As the show goes on, these details start to run even deeper. Bob takes such pleasure in cooking that he sometimes speaks to his ingredients and makes them talk back. He grudgingly goes to a musical called “Cake” and comes back absolutely obsessed with synchronized patty-caking. He delights in participating in an online forum for burger enthusiasts, then becomes puzzled when it’s revealed everyone on the forum hates him because he has terrible online etiquette. Like one of the onions in his kitchen (I am so, so sorry, but I had to go for that simile), Bob is constantly revealing new layers.

The level of detail extends far beyond the show’s namesake, though. Linda Belcher could have existed merely as a source of constant blind exuberance to get on Bob’s nerves when he least needs it, but as the show’s progressed she’s been revealed to be a loving, nurturing mother and wife, as well as a woman with her own very individual mysteries. She craves adventure, but she also craves quiet moments on the couch with her husband. She often seems to exist in a bubble of endless love and encouragement, and then you find out that she used to throw rocks at cars just for the thrill of it. As the show’s gone on, Linda has become its heart, its maternal, touchy-feely center, but as she keeps evolving she’s also often proving to be the smartest person in the room.

In many of Bob’s Burgers’ best episodes, the Belcher kids prove to be the engine that drives the plot, whether through crazy schemes, school mishaps, or plain old Weird Kid Stuff. On another show, that would be a perfectly adequate purpose for them, and they could exist as merely quirkly plot devices, but not on this show. Each of the Belcher kids has their own root emotional state – Louise’s anarchic combativeness, Gene’s stream-of-consciousness wackiness, and Tina’s charming awkwardness – but the show finds plenty of room to branch them out and make them feel like real people. Louise is a whirlwind of intensity, happy to bribe, cheat and steal her way to whatever makes her happy, but when she loses her trademark bunny ears hat, or has to go to the dentist, all of her insecurities are revealed. Gene seems incapable of communicating like a normal human, until he offers up a surprising moment of wisdom like “Summer is awful. There’s too much pressure to enjoy yourself.” And then there’s Tina, Television’s Greatest Character, whose relatable awkwardness is absolutely crushing, until she hijacks another girl’s Bat Mitzvah to make herself queen for a day. I could write a whole essay just about her.

What this all adds up to is a show with a richness that extends well beyond its inital premise. Bob’s Burgers could’ve been a stale, predictable workplace comedy, and instead it’s become a vibrant, emotionally satisfying story about a family just trying their best in a weird world of their own making. Along the way, it also became one of TV’s best shows.

Bob’s Burgers returns this Sunday, Sept. 27 on FOX.

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