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A sweet Bob's Burgers proves that Bob isn't totally useless... yet

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Bob’s Burgers likes to make its Thundergirls episodes so delightfully convoluted. “Tina Tailor Soldier Spy,” the first showcase episode for the show’s Girl Scouts stand-ins, took both its name and a key bit of its plotting from John le Carré. The latest, “Motor, She Boat,” isn’t pulling from quite as complex a source, but it is built around some tricky scheming by the devious Troop 257 and the forever oversharing Karen. The episode only turns out the way it does because attention is paid to all the characters’ unique motivations, which Bob admits sound preposterous even as he correctly deduces all of them. It’s not just that Troop 257 wants to win the boat race at any cost. They want to use the fact Karen told them about how she kept a lost pug and dyed it blonde to throw off the scent so that they can blackmail her into catching them cheating, which then Karen can use to get her much-wanted promotion to regional leader and steer all the best cookie leads to Troop 257—it’s always about the cookies with Troop 257, as Tina notes.

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This isn’t the first time the show has tried plotting out an intricate scheme like this, and these tend to get exposed because the perpetrators are too lazy or too incompetent to pull it off. Karen certainly qualifies as at least the latter, as her compulsive oversharing leaves her little ability to think on her feet and deflect attention when, say, Tina discovers and goes to tell her about the plot she’s already in on, or when Patty’s boat doesn’t have the motor she expected to expose in front of Thundergirls bigwig Julianne. Bob’s Burgers is willing to do villains, including in this episode—Troop 257 feels genuinely menacing when Tina stumbles on them swapping the boats after Rena’s diversion with the squirrel and the sash—but I wouldn’t say Karen really qualifies. She’s just a self-absorbed weirdo, the perfect adult foil to facilitate the kids’ more dramatic schemes. And it’s in that attempt to justify how any of the show’s theoretical grownups would let the kids get away with any of their behavior that “Motor, She Boat” has a lot of fun.

While Troop 257 has control of Karen because their goals align and because they have dirt on her, it’s much simpler with all their dads and Troop Leader Bethany. They’re all terrified of them and just desperate to be in the girls’ good graces for even a moment. That need is key to the success of Bob’s plan—which he freely admits is just a copy of Rena’s plan, because the good guys tend to be every bit as lazy and incompetent as the antagonists on Bob’s Burgers, just more endearingly so—as all the dads clamber up the tree in a bid for the girls’ passing attention. Harder for Troop 257 to control, it turns out, is Bethany, who breaks with her own charges because their obsession with selling the most cookies leaves no room for simpler joys like crafts and such. What’s all so delightful about this is how ridiculously small, occasionally even petty, everyone’s desires are, at least if you describe them literally. Wanting to focus more on crafts than cookies really shouldn’t be grounds for betrayal, but then to describe it as “betrayal” at all means taking this competition and generally being a Thundergirl as seriously as Troop 257 and Tina do.

“Motor, She Boat” gets us to invest in the proceedings just as much as the adults do, and that’s its real cleverness. Yes, this is all very silly, yet it still feels, well, if not exactly realistic, then at least truthful. “Motor, She Boat” is all about adults trying to relate to kids in their world, which inevitably means a bunch of people who really ought to be old enough to know better investing in things that only matter when you’re still a kid. The episode gets a lot of its laughs from that dynamic, along with simply letting Karen talk way, way too much. But how adults relate to their kids also drives the more emotional storytelling, as Bob tries to come to terms with the fact that Tina may not need him to help her anymore. Worse, she actively doesn’t want his help, especially with anything to do with tape. Tina’s propensity for sudden outbursts is a real gift for this story, as she can mumble and ignore her dad’s protests right until her emotions overcome her, which can happen at literally any time. From that we get Tina blowing up at her dad about their shoddy boat just as he’s raising unrelated questions about Rena’s diversion, leading to the quintessential Bob moment of him admitting he would at least like to hear the squirrel’s side of the story.

What’s clever about the episode’s handling of the story is it doesn’t make too big a meal of its eventual resolution. Bob, for all his idiosyncrasies, is still one of the few actual adults in the show’s universe, so he reconnects with Tina not through some over-the-top scheme to prove he can actually tape just fine, thank you, but by just being a good dad. He listens to and believes Tina about Troop 257 when her own troop ignores her, and he figures out what Karen might be up to and comes up with a plan, as bad as it might be, to put a stop to it. And, most sweetly, he is completely jubilant when Tina takes second place in the race itself, forgetting about Troop 257’s scheme to just focus on his daughter’s accomplishment. It’s a sweet, simple story, and one that does feel like at least a small progression from how we’ve seen Bob and Tina before. Much like “Carpe Museum” all those years ago established what deep down Bob means to Louise, “Motor, She Boat” feels like a good baseline for how Bob can still support and help Tina as she grows up.

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Linda, as we discover in the B story, isn’t even remotely there yet, as she drags Gene and Louise to a fire department open house they outgrew years ago. This subplot tantalizes is with the prospect of Gene as a ribs-eating, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-watching firefighter, but even that isn’t enough to distract him or Louise from boredom for very long. While the rest of the episode pulls humor from adults descending into the kids’ world, here a lot of the fun comes from just how dull and pedantic the firefighters are. Seriously, don’t come to the station to make light of backdraft, or confuse a fire chief with a captain. Here again, the episode is content with a relatively low-key resolution, as only on the walk home does Linda recognize that, yeah, Gene and Linda are too old for that tour… just in time to find them both holding her hand, and to invite Bob and Tina to get in on this. That’s the perfect end to an episode like this, with the whole family together. A little more literally than I might expect, but that’s the magic of Linda for you.

Stray observations

  • Thanks to Les for subbing in for me on last week’s episode, and thanks to you all for your patience on the lateness of the review—I ended up being too exhausted to get it done last night, so my apologies for that.
  • I’m really quite disturbed by whatever Karen brought as a snack. All we know is... they’re not raisins.
  • Say whatever else you will about the Thundergirls command structure, that Julianne seems pretty on the ball.
  • That the firefighters all love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one thing, the fact the fire captain actively avoids spoilers is what really makes the gag.
  • Poor Mike, nobody wants to go to the post office open house.
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