When Bob’s Burgers debuted in January of 2011, most of the reviews of the pilot—including mine—centered on whether this odd, unassuming show would be the one to break Seth MacFarlane’s hegemonic hold over Fox’s Sunday nights. The pilot was a promising piece of television, but it didn’t immediately suggest what the show would become. Over the course of that first season and the too-short second season that followed, the show became one of the most consistently amusing on TV, with a sensibility that was nothing like any of MacFarlane’s shows or the warhorse that is The Simpsons, still trudging along after all these years.
Yet in its third season, Bob’s Burgers has found another level beyond even those first two years, to the point where it’s routinely the show on television I look forward to the most. It’s so enjoyable that most weeks, I simply turn off all critical faculties and let it wash over me. And the series almost always rewards that impulse, coming up with hilariously funny television that also possesses some of the sharpest storytelling on the program guide. When I reviewed the pilot, I compared Bob’s Burgers to some of the previous animated series from creator Loren Bouchard (specifically Dr. Katz and Home Movies), as well as King Of The Hill, the prior home of executive producer and co-developer Jim Dauterive. Yet the older the show gets, the less it reminds me of any of those series and the more it puts me in mind of an even larger target in the hearts of pop-culture fans: those first three seasons of The Simpsons, when the series made at least somewhat of an attempt to take place in something like our reality.
There are plenty of superficial similarities between Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons, right down to the number of kids in both families, but what unites the two series at this point is tone. It may be tough to remember after the show hit such a peak by doing anything to get a laugh in seasons four and beyond, but The Simpsons started out as an often deeply realistic portrayal of a blue-collar family doing its best to get by in a world that seemed to have increasingly less room for it. At the time, the show prompted nattering from cultural commentators about how its realistic portrayal of the struggling American working class depicted a country falling headlong into a recession. (Not for nothing did the president suggest America needed more families like the Waltons and fewer like the Simpsons.)
Bob’s Burgers seems far less likely to spur any tut-tutting from the aforementioned commentators, perhaps because animated sitcoms have become old hat at this point. Where Bart’s exploits horrified those who believed children might copy him, Louise Belcher (voiced by the great, seemingly unhinged Kristen Schaal) is essentially a time bomb waiting to explode all over everybody she knows. But we know what these shows look like now, and whatever Louise could dream up, though it may be technically worse than Bart’s rather Dennis The Menace-esque pranks, is a far cry from what Stewie on Family Guy or the South Park kids get up to.
What’s been missed in talk about Bob’s, however, is just how much it, too, is a product of the economic times it came to the air in. Where The Simpsons began as a story about a family just scraping by, Bob’s Burgers is about the same, with the added layer of being about a small-business owner fighting to keep his head above water in a world dominated by corporate monoliths and other threats to his very existence. Perhaps all of that is what keeps the show from the relative weightlessness of something like Family Guy, which is ostensibly about a blue-collar family but came to the world (both times) in a country riding high on unsustainable economic booms, therefore said blue-collar family almost never worries about anything. The Belchers worry about everything, and that gives the show the stakes its Sunday-night companions lack. When the family’s car breaks down in “Family Fracas,” the only immediate solution involves going on the titular game show to win a minivan. The need for money also drives the family to do some fairly strange things, like pretend that mother Linda and the three kids are actually the family of landlord Mr. Fischoeder in this season’s Thanksgiving episode.
Now, obviously, this is all very silly. There’s no real fear that the Belchers will lose the restaurant or run out of money. That would ultimately detract from the comedy. What Bob’s Burgers is very good at is raising the specter of stakes, while leaving the audience with the knowledge that the worst couldn’t possibly happen. (Again, shades of The Simpsons.) The show isn’t about the recent recession or about small-business ownership or economic problems, but those items inform the proceedings. Similarly, the series doesn’t accept as a given that the family members will all forgive and love each other by the end of any given episode, even as it knows that they will inevitably do just that. By taking the emotional stakes of the material as seriously as the show does—while never pushing them so far as to tip over into deadly serious drama—Bob’s Burgers creates a stable foundation for its comedy, one it can turn to again and again to drive the stories forward.
What’s most interesting about all of this is the way that the show borrows from the major television animation influence of the last 10 years: the 11-minute series of Adult Swim. Bouchard’s Home Movies ran in that bloc for many years, despite having little in the way of the over-the-top absurdist humor the imprint’s programs have become known for. (Similarly, King Of The Hill has run in the bloc for several years now.) Perhaps the foremost thing that sets Adult Swim shows apart from more traditional animated comedies—even something like South Park—is that the characters on those shows rarely seem to be having conversations, instead competing in some sort of punchline beatdown. At its best, this creates something unlike anything else on TV, where the punchlines build on each other in wild and weird ways, so that each tops the other, even though not a one logically follows from the other. At its worst, this creates cacophony, something that looks like a TV show and seems like a TV show but ultimately devolves into a bunch of shouting.
What Bob’s has done is take this basic writing method—particularly in the storylines featuring the three kids—and implant it into the middle of the storytelling from The Simpsons’ third season. The stories are more rigorous than they are on most Adult Swim shows. They would almost have to be, given that they’re double the length. Yet for the most part, the story structure is basically an excuse for the show to let the characters bounce off of each other in weird ways. The series quickly realized that the three kids—Schaal’s Louise, Eugene Mirman’s Gene, and Dan Mintz’s Tina—have very different comedy vibes. Louise is combustible, explosive. Gene is excitable, occasionally scatological. Tina is low-key, dreamy. Putting all three of them together results in scenes where they talk past each other, Adult Swim-style, but seem to understand what they’re going for, in the style of the other Fox animated comedies. The actors’ chemistry is such that it’s completely believable that they’d have long, digressive conversations like this, but also totally follow each other through what’s happening. In short, they feel like siblings, constantly pushing past each other and trying to top one another, but always coming back to a baseline of real affection.
It’s that affection that carries the show. The basic story setup is essentially the same as Simpsons and Family Guy, so the writers count on viewers’ familiarity with those programs to carry them through the show’s more Adult Swim-esque elements. This gives the show a patina of being something fresh and new on the network-television scene, while simultaneously being very warm and comforting to viewers who may have grown up on the earlier two programs. Most network television is about the balance between lighting out for more original territory while not going so far as to isolate the audience. In its third season, Bob’s has managed this walk perfectly, particularly in its best episode, “Mother Daughter Laser Razor,” which sends Louise with mother Linda (played by the adorably overbearing John Roberts) to a spa day, while Tina asks her father (H. Jon Benjamin, continuing to prove he’s one of TV’s best voice actors) for help shaving her legs. They’re simple, Simpsons-esque stories, grounded in believable human emotion, then taken to absurdist heights.
But even better, Bob’s Burgers is good at so many different kinds of jokes that it sometimes seems to take on the rhythms of a night out with funny friends. It has at least one surrealistic musical sequence in nearly every episode, whether it involves Thomas Edison and an elephant singing a duet or old-person swingers sexing it up in a swimming pool. It features grand visual gags. It features elaborate movie and pop-culture references (as in the wild, weird E.T. riff “O.T.: The Outside Toilet”). It plays around with tropes of both the genre it’s in and the genres of stories it’s seen before. It even has a ridiculous number of puns, more than any television show should be able to get away with in this day and age. It takes all of this, blends it with a genius ensemble cast that rattles off the show’s weird-ass punchlines with aplomb, then builds it on a foundation of real drama and stakes. It feels so impeccably constructed that to take it apart seems as if it should ruin the magic trick of every episode, yet it all seems so easy that it almost doesn’t matter. Bob’s Burgers has always been a good show, but its third season has placed it in the rarified air of TV’s best, a near constant assault of humor, heart, and old-fashioned showmanship.