Once “Best Burger” snaps into place, it’s terrific. Bob’s Burgers has long struggled to know quite what to do with Gene as a character—he’s an asset as a ready source of one-liners and farts, but that isn’t quite the same thing as emotional depth—but “Best Burger” unexpectedly pulls out one hell of a story for the Belcher boy, as he faces up to just how much of a colossal screw-up he is and strives to get things right, just this once. The climactic sequence, in which he races through the food festival as every imaginable gastronomic temptation is thrust at him, is the ultimate gantlet for Gene, and I honestly was more than a little shocked that he didn’t succumb to all that deliciousness. Hell, even when he does make it back to his dad and launches into a time-chewing monologue about his filial admiration, he manages to shut up just long enough for Bob to complete the black garlic burger. Gene is the perfect failure throughout so much of the episode that it’s surprising—and very sweet—that Bob knows that they came up short despite Gene’s efforts, not because of them. Besides, the moral victory belongs to the Belchers: Everyone wants to eat Bob’s delicious burger, and Gene gets to make a well-earned trip to the hot fudge carwash.

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Gene and Bob’s story strikes just the right balance between being funny and being poignant; about the worst you can say about it is that “Best Burger” takes a little while to wind its way to that specific story. Structurally, tonight’s “Best Burger” shares a lot in common with the season premiere, “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl.” Both start relatively late in their stories and use flashbacks to fill in the gaps. And, much as the earlier episode toyed with the idea of unreliable narrators before ditching that in favor of more linear storytelling, “Best Burger” struggles to justify why this specific story needs to be told in this way. I mean, there are absolutely some valid reasons for the episode to take this tack, but they are fairly prosaic: The day of the competition works best as the sole time period for the story, but there are a few too many expository details that need to be fleshed out with cutaways to the recent past.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but the flashbacks do end up undercutting the effectiveness of the first half of “Best Burger.” One excursion to the past does give us an absolutely sensational joke, as we find out that Bob and Linda only signed up for the competition because they were drunk on what was almost certainly cheap red wine. It’s a great gag not just because it feels so real—always a hallmark of a successful Bob and Linda moment—but because it’s perfectly timed: There’s the quick cut back to their discussion, the two engage in fast tipsy banter about how they’re going to do it, and Louise immediately yells at them. We’re not in the flashback long enough to lose the thread of the main plot, and that allows “Best Burger” to maintain enough comedic momentum to have Bob and Linda react to their own drunken foolishness, albeit while recognizing that at least it got Gene to do those ballet lessons.

The other flashbacks—Gene forgetting the black garlic and the kids getting banned from Figjam—play more like full scenes that just happen to step outside of the episode’s otherwise linear plot. In isolation, they work fine, but they do throw off the pacing of the episode. The other issue is that this constant movement in time obscures until quite late in the story just what the big character story is going to be: Gene’s quest to prove that he’s more than the Belcher who always genes out. One of those flashbacks does strongly hint at that story, to be sure, as the black garlic incident is all about his inability to pay attention. But neither Bob and Linda signing up for the competition nor the kids losing their Figjam privileges connects to that story, and there’s so much movement here that it’s easy to assume that the whole thing is just going to be a “mad caper” kind of episode, one driven by nothing more substantial than the race against time.

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Make no mistake: A straight shot of misadventure could have worked great, and the climactic pedicab chase featuring Mickey and Ron is more than enough proof that Bob’s Burgers doesn’t need to reach for deeper character beats to tell effective stories. But “Best Burger” does decide to tell one of the series’ best Gene plots, as it forces him to struggle with the wacky inattentiveness that is normally played strictly for laughs. Tina says it best: “I don’t want to say you screw everything up, but maybe Louise does?” It’s not that any of the other Belchers are really any more dependable, but only Gene is quite so perfectly reliable in his undependability. Louise can be bribed into competence, this time with the promise of a day off, and Tina and Linda both mean well, sort of.

All three Belcher women are limited in their ability to help Bob chase his dumb dreams, but only Gene can be counted on to go chase his own, even dumber dreams. What makes it worse is that Gene honestly doesn’t even realize how useless he is. That makes for a particularly tough contrast with Bob, who is always so keenly aware of how everyone around him lets him down. But in one of the smartest little moments of “Best Burger,” Bob realizes the kids are going to come through with the prized black garlic: “We’re going to have everything we need. No more excuses. I’m terrified!” In his way, Bob needs Gene to mess up so that he doesn’t have to face up to his own blunders, which makes it all the more satisfying when they win (with a brief layover in losing, admittedly).

And really, even if nothing else about this episode were working, the ensemble is strong enough to carry “Best Burger” by itself. Bill Hader’s Mickey is showing up a lot this season—I’m not complaining—and his cursorily explained second job as a pedicab driver suggests he’s becoming the show’s roving, all-purpose scalawag. (Possibly rapscallion, depending on the needs of the plot.) Jimmy Pesto puts in an appearance here where he doesn’t technically antagonize Bob, instead getting to mistreat his sidekick and remind everyone just how awful his food is. In Thomas Lennon’s Chuck Charles, Bob’s Burgers gets to demonstrate just how much of an asset it is to have an established emcee character who loathes the Belchers; “Best Burger” can zip right to Chuck showing his utter disdain for Bob and Linda with only the bare minimum of context. And then there’s Ron: sweet, innocent, library-visiting, pedicab-splurging Ron. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him—this may be his first speaking appearance since season three’s “My Fuzzy Valentine,” which aired almost two years ago—but he reminds us all just how useful an ally he is in a crisis, what with his willingness to fight and to block people. Honestly, the fact that Bob’s Burgers can get me to cheer the return of a character as minor as Ron is just about all you need to know.

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Stray observations:

  • “I mean, I mostly read it. I looked at all the pictures.”
  • “Your wife is a lucky woman, Bob.” “Thank you!”
  • “I will fight Manny, or Ray, but I prefer to fight Ray, because he’s smaller.”
  • “They got nice ties in Thailand?” “I love you, Manny!”

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