Tonight’s episodes almost certainly weren’t intended to run as a double feature, instead ending up paired as yet another quirk of Fox’s ever baffling scheduling. But it’s fun to consider the parallels between “Aquaticism” and “Ain’t Miss Debatin’.” Both feature Louise hatching an absurd scheme. Both find a bunch of adults who really ought to know better not just going along but getting actively swept away by the childish silliness. Both feature just crushingly awkward romances between would-be couples who barely have any idea what they’re doing. Sure, some similarities are more superficial than others – I’m not claiming I’ve cracked the Bob’s Burgers storytelling code or anything. But tonight’s episodes illustrate how the show doesn’t necessarily need to be a fount of endless creativity to work. In fact, the show can unlock an endless variety of stories from a relatively limited number of scenarios and narrative building blocks just by having different characters react, or by having the same character be affected in different ways.
Take Louise’s two madcap plans. The whole Aquaticism caper is the definition of harebrained, as the Belcher kids and Judy the aquarium owner fast realize how in over their heads they are. As Bob points out, making up a fake religion to fool the IRS is a nasty combination of immoral and illegal, even if he can’t get anyone else in his family to agree with the fact that this whole idea is, you know, super obviously fraud. In this instance, Louise functions as a narrative catalyst, slipping into her traditional role as chaotic force of nature. She pushes an uncertain Judy into going ahead, offers what is by default the most convincing lies to Agent Flanley, organizes the singles mixer, and comes up with the absurd baptismal ritual in an effort to get rid of him. It’s only at the very end, seemingly won over by the sheer effort she’s put in, that Louise recognizes what Tina finds so special about the aquarium. It’s a nice emotional beat to end on, but it’s an epilogue, something that stands apart from the story told up to that point.
On the other hand, Louise’s story in “Ain’t Miss Debatin’” ends up being driven by her very genuine personal commitment to telling Meatman’s story. Bob’s Burgers is often at its most fun when it freely flips between treating Louise as master manipulator of adults and presenting her as just a little kid. On the one hand, Louise shows her next-level understanding of her parents’ psychology when she wins them over for her 60-dollar stop-motion project, appealing to her father’s love of meats and her mother’s love of being included in things. Yet it’s clear that this silly little movie and especially its main character genuinely mean something to her, to the extent that she recoils at the idea of recasting her rotting hero. By having Louise care just as much as her parents—and Teddy and even Hugo, as the story develops—Bob’s Burgers gets to drop that thin layer of irony or detachment on display in “Aquaticism” and go all in on this shared silliness. It’s not that one approach is better than the other, as each episode gets plenty of laughs, but rather that the episodes end up offering amusement in different ways, with a touch more heart on display in the second episode.
Admittedly, the main story of “Ain’t Miss Debatin’” is Tina’s entry into the world of middle school debating and her non-romance with Henry Haber. Since I had wondered a few episodes back about whether Tina and Jimmy Jr. were more or less an item at this point, it’s dashed sporting of Bob’s Burgers to go ahead and confirm that, yeah, that’s pretty much the case, with the pair cycling through varying degrees of on-again and off-again (though mostly off-again, I’d wager). This isn’t the first time Tina has dealt with an admirer she feels no particular attraction for, but this episode pushes that notion forward by having Tina favor Henry’s steadiness and general competence over any mushier consideration. It’s a little heartbreaking to realize just how conditioned Tina is to assume she will be stood up on a date—only when Tina considers the complete opposite of Jimmy Jr. does the show get to make it completely explicit how lousy he is. (Though that little exchange does kind of elide Josh, who was a great would-be boyfriend for Tina.) Henry’s solidly unremarkable efforts to ingratiate himself with the rest of the Belchers is a great bit of business, especially when it instantly earns Louise’s blessing.
Putting Tina on the debate team is inspired, as it lets the show illustrate how animated and forceful a speaker she can be, but only under the right circumstances. Those circumstances, it turns out, involve being righteously pissed with Jimmy Jr. Her resulting invective about the awfulness of the metric system and a succession of increasingly ridiculous debate topics offer some good gags, made all the better because we so rarely get to see Tina have sustained bursts of passion like this. “Ain’t Miss Debatin’” could have easily ended up being too convoluted for its own good, with Henry’s efforts to get Tina on the team and then woo her overlapping with Sasha’s own scheme to derail Tina by pairing her up with the incomprehensible New Zealander exchange student. There’s a bunch of moving pieces there, but the episode pulls it all together by keeping the action centered on a rock-steady foundation: Tina’s love of boys, especially their butts. Henry and Sasha both have their own motives and desires, but they remain secondary to Tina’s endless fascination with hunky teens.
The romance in “Aquaticism” is rather more pathetic, as Judy and Agent Flanley fumble toward having one or possibly two coffees. In its basic structure, Flanley’s arrival recalls the crooked insurance adjuster in “Tina-saurus Wrecks,” although the IRS agent proves if anything too upstanding for his own good. The common link is that neither man is thinking about his actual duties, because if they were the Belchers’ deceptions would fall apart in an instant. Here though Flanley isn’t just willing to go along with the scam, but rather he actively buys into it. That the religion is so transparently fake only throws into higher relief just how sad Flanley is, but the episode approaches this with a kind of gentle acknowledgment. Sure, his acceptance is ridiculous, but Bob’s Burgers presents touching the marine life as a genuinely moving experience—even Louise proves to not be immune, after all—and treats Flanley’s growing devotion as a frustration to their efforts to get the scam over with rather than something especially sad in its own right. There’s no real way to write a character like Flanley without making him the butt of the joke—he does end up getting bitten by a bunch of jellyfish after everyone begs him to get out of the tank—but Bob’s Burgers manages to not get too mean-spirited about the whole thing.
Both of tonight’s episodes are great, solid little entries in the show’s canon. “Aquaticism” works more by introducing a couple new characters and exploring how they fit into Louise’s scheme, whereas “Ain’t Miss Debatin’” uses a bunch of characters we’ve previously met like Henry and Sasha in unexpected combinations. There’s no grand shared theme to pull out of tonight’s double bill, as it’s not as though there were ever one intended to be, but the two in concert illustrate just how much variety a “typical” Bob’s Burgers episode can have. Without stretching the show’s format much at all, and even when sharing a few of the same structural elements, these two episodes feel wildly different, albeit with each offering a fun, funny half-hour.
- Everything about Teddy at the singles mixer was perfect, especially his mostly flubbed explanation that he remembers Bob and Linda from services but doesn’t yet know them socially.
- Henry has his pluses, I guess, but he’s still a bit of a creep for using debate protocol to get Tina to convince herself to go on a date with him.
- That kid’s accent did sound appropriately New Zealander, but I’m about 95 percent sure that his vocabulary was more Australian. As a self-appointed antipodean expert, this obviously upset me greatly.
- I think Linda and that wine-drinking debate coach would get along just fine.
- Bringing in Hugo at the end there is a nice payoff to the passing reference to him earlier in the episode, and it’s sweet to have him take an honest interest in helping the Belchers finish the movie, even if his creative vision is terrible.