Bob Belcher is such a fun stick in the mud. Tonight’s “Wag The Hog” recognizes from the off that there’s a basic problem with its premise: Realistically, Bob is the only Belcher that Critter would ever call if in a jam—funny as it is to imagine a biker gang leader having Louise on his butt phone speed dial, that’s more the kind of thing Louise would dream of than would plausibly happen—but Bob is also the only Belcher who would turn down such a ridiculous, possibly felonious request. This is where Bob’s Burgers is at a narrative disadvantage compared with its Fox animation stablemates; a quarter-century in, it’s hard to imagine a request that wouldn’t send Homer Simpson off on some zany caper, and sudden, borderline-inexplicable changes of mind are such a well-worn running gag for Homer that they’re basically a character trait. As with most creative decisions, there’s nothing inherently right or wrong about Bob being a more consistent, less elastic character, but what it does mean in the case of tonight’s episode is that it takes a little bit of extra work to get tonight’s episode in motion.
Some of that setup ends up being more perfunctory than I would have expected: Some of Ben Garant’s performance as Critter suggested he was laying on thick the desperation of his situation in a last-ditch effort to sway Bob, to the point I thought he might just be lying about having gone straight and was just using Bob to get out a jam. Similarly, the heavy emphasis on how Critter’s bike is, though not itself stolen per se, mostly composed of stolen parts feels like it’s building toward Bob running afoul of the law—we could have had a Sergeant Bosco appearance, which is always great!—and that mysterious fellow in the fancy pants and loafers tailing Bob made it seem that Bob was about to join Critter in the slammer. But, nope, Critter really has gotten himself an actual job and a domineering 19-year-old supervisor, and the whole bit about the motorcycle’s stolen provenance only matters in story terms as a way to lower the stakes instead of heighten them, as it’s the main reason Bob can’t get the cops involved when Carl steals the bike out from under Kenny.
Not that I’m complaining! Making Critter not just a con but a conman would make Bob’s Burgers mean in a way that it rarely is in non-Jimmy Pesto situations, and Bob going to jail, even temporarily, over Critter’s bike would push the show into territory either darker or more ridiculous than it’s accustomed to exploring. What’s so smart about “Wag The Hog” is that the episode understands its own particular strengths. Other shows could take a premise like “patriarch protagonist helps his biker gang leader pseudo-friend sell a semi-stolen motorcycle” and spin it into the wildest story imaginable, and I can think of plenty of shows both animated and live-action that could nail the crazier take on this setup. But Bob’s Burgers is happy to be almost low-key in its handling of the premise, letting Critter and the Belcher kids handle the more surreal duties while Bob and the finance dorks Carl and Kenny behave more or less how you would expect an actual human to.
It’s worth noting that a whole lot of Bob’s Burgers episodes aren’t grounded in the way “Wag The Hog” is. With the exception of holiday episodes, which the creative team appear to give a little more license for all-purpose insanity—forget a historically over-the-top holiday like Halloween, look at “Dawn Of The Peck” and “Christmas In The Car”—the craziest premises tend to involve splitting the kids and the parents, as each set of Belchers can talk themselves into a given situation having outsize stakes as long as the other set isn’t there as a moderating influence. Bob wouldn’t naturally want to get involved in Critter’s doubtless shady dealings anyway, but he might get a little more wrapped up in the situation without his kids there to remind him he’s primarily a dad.
And that’s where “Wag The Hog” is so clever, because it very gradually lets Bob loosen up in a way that works primarily as a character move. As he explains at the end to the One-Eyed Snakes, the reason he had any fun today is because he had his kids with him, and we see tangible signs of that through the episode, particularly when he starts getting into character as an eyebrow-eating biker tough. Bob isn’t coy about the fact that he would rather be doing pretty much anything else but his, yet there’s also no one in the world he would rather be doing this with than his kids. As these things go, that’s a fairly nuanced character move, and “Wag The Hog” deserves credit for being one of the more thematically sound Bob’s Burgers episodes, with Bob and Critter both trying to convey to the One-Eyed Snakes the true meaning of fatherhood. (Also, yes, the episode is as reliably funny as ever, and that’s a huge reason this all works so well. Just let me talk about how damn thematically sound this is and we can all move on and post quotes in the comments, the way nature intended!) The fact that Bob’s takeaway is so low-key, rather than some grand slice of smarm about how a person only truly knows themselves after procreating or whatever the hell, is what makes this all work, as Bob and Critter are just honestly grappling with the good and the bad parts of their paternal reality, rather than reflexively arguing being a dad is the best thing ever.
Also deserving of praise is the episode’s direction. Most of the time, the direction of Bob’s Burgers episodes is unobtrusive in the very best way: When handling conversations between the Belchers, the show uses the animated equivalent of a moving camera to highlight which character is the focus in a given moment and confer more energy to scenes than the lazy proscenium staging that dominates Seth MacFarlane’s oeuvre. (Which is not to dismiss those shows out of hand—I’ve said nice things about American Dad in the past. But it’s really hard to argue those shows aren’t lazily staged, even if you think they have strengths elsewhere to offset that.) “Wag The Hog” doesn’t go in for too many flourishes, but it makes them count. The rudimentary animation of Critter’s explanation of the plan is a nice way of signalling that, nah, this particular meth-cooking biker isn’t going to get Bob into too much trouble, though the split-screen for the subsequent phone call underlines Critter is ridiculous yet at least sort of dangerous, while Kenny is just a total dork. The episode also busts out some unusual angles when Louise is confronting Carl to remind us just how little she really is and how silly it is to imagine her posing a threat to anyone, followed by Sidecar being shot from below and in slow-motion to make the baby look like damn Godzilla.
“Wag The Hog” isn’t a revolutionary episode, and it’s also the best possible argument for why the show shouldn’t always be trying to be that. It’s just a solid slice of Bob’s Burgers fun that works because it’s clearly established who its main characters are, especially Bob, and it trusts Bob to just be himself in a moderately outlandish situation and generate laughs from there. The fact that Bob’s mere presence drags that premise back toward the mundane only makes the story more fun, rather than less.
- Feels like there’s been a bit of turnover in the One-Eyed Snakes since “Ears-y Rider.” I miss that one biker who praised that sweet Macon crank.
- I’m not totally sure what I think about Linda’s subplot. It’s very Linda, I guess, but I can see why a contingent of fans would argue that’s not a good thing. I think we’re overdue for a good Linda episode, honestly, just to remind us why she can be such a great character when used just right.
- “Selling a probably stolen bike is not a fun activity. Going to the zoo is a fun activity.” “Oh, I love the zoo! So many animals!” “Yep, yep.” H. Jon Benjamin’s delivery of the “yeps” is what makes that exchange.
- “Great, now everyone in jail knows. I’m probably going to get picked lat for riots and stuff.”
- “Critter just texted.” “From the butt phone?” “I’m waiting for a fart fax.”