No show does cacophony quite like Bob’s Burgers, and tonight’s “Can’t Buy Me Math” offers plenty of examples of this particular strain of the show’s brilliance. The show delights in smashing together characters with wildly different conceptions of the reality around them, and it’s skilled in mining all possible humor from the characters’ utter refusal to bring their views into agreement. Bob and Linda’s series of failed romantic gestures run on this, as Linda repeatedly insists that something is sexy and romantic despite Bob’s quite rational objections to her efforts. The dishrag-tainted strawberry is a kind of minor-key version of this, as that’s more a straightforward disagreement, and the show has to enlist Teddy to bring in that necessary extra dose of chaos. The better example comes later with Bob and Linda’s bubble bath, which is like a long-form version of the cutaway to their shellfish-poisoned first date way back in season one’s “Lobsterfest.” As far as Linda is concerned, the non-water, all-bubble bath is just about the most romantic damn thing imaginable, but Bob understandably has trouble ignoring how much the bubbles are stinging him in the eye. This isn’t like the strawberry, in which one person is right and the other person is—depending on your perspective—being weird or being a spoilsport. This is more like watching Rashomon play out in real time, only, you know, nothing like that.
What pushes that sequence over the top is the addition of Gene and Louise. This is another episode that is content to keep them on the sidelines, but it’s not as though the lack of their own dedicated subplot detracts from their ability to do what they do best. Their presence immediately ups Bob’s agitation, but his kids are far too self-absorbed to really care what quasi-amorous shenanigans their parents are up to. Instead, they devote their attention to divvying up the use of the toilet and announcing plans to make sandwiches once they are done here. The former is enough to break Bob’s attention on whatever was supposed to be the task at hand, and the latter does the same for Linda. Of the four characters here, at least three of them are just letting their id drive their actions through the scene, with each new line from one character providing an opportunity for the others to zigzag to a new motivation in their response. Even Bob, by far the most straitlaced of the bunch, can get distracted from the embarrassment of being caught naked by his kids, even if he just shifts to being disgusted by Louise’s casual admission that she pees in the bathtub. Trying to chart the logical progression of this scene would is beyond a fool’s errand, and that chaos is what lends the scene its comic unpredictability.
The show doesn’t always need multiple Belchers to sustain such crazed movement. In the case of Tina, “Can’t Buy Me Math” just needs to let her pick a topic and she will stay on it long after everyone else has lost interest. In her case, pacing is crucial, as she moves through conversation at a fraction of the speed of any other character, and that creates some hilarious divergences in what the various characters are talking about. Toward the episode’s end, she keeps circling back to Darryl peeing himself at recess long after she made her cogent point about the non-existence of dating leagues (though she does have to acknowledge the existence of bowling leagues). Earlier, she is so utterly unable to understand what Louise is referring to that a previously smitten Jimmy Jr. has no choice but to wander off in annoyed confusion. But the best illustration of this comes during Darryl and Tina’s playground meeting in which they hash out their dating accord. Tina’s overlong explanation of her dating status with Jimmy Jr. and her protracted warnings about how Darryl will fall for her are funny not just because Darryl is easily smart enough to understand what she’s talking about after one explanation, let alone five, but also because Tina remains so adorably single-minded. There’s a perverse confidence to her complete disregard as to what the other people are even talking about, and it remains the show’s best bit of long-term character development from its early days.
But it’s not just in Tina’s behavior that this feels like a latter-day Bob’s Burgers episode. I’m not sure the show would have had enough confidence in its early days to let Tina and Darryl’s plan work as well as it does. There’s a tendency when telling stories about kids in school to make the peripheral characters as unsupportive as possible, the better to play up the main characters’ status as social outcasts. It’s hard to imagine the first-season versions of Jimmy Jr. and Jocelyn being so completely won over by the cuteness of Tina and Darryl; the characters of, say, “Spaghetti Western And Meatballs” would have been far more likely to recoil at Tina’s general weirdness. Even more surprisingly, Tammy is a neutral to positive character here, when even as recently as “Tina And The Real Ghost” she was actively scheming against the eldest Belcher sibling. In a small way, the show is giving the Wagstaff students the same privilege it does to the Belchers: Each person has his or her own inner life and his or her own motivations, even when the story is not about him or her specifically. Tammy isn’t Tina’s nemesis, because that implies Tammy only exists in relation to Tina. Rather, Tammy is a frequent thorn in Tina’s side because she’s kind of awful on her own terms, and because their ambitions frequently overlap. But when Tammy has no particular interest in ruining Tina’s day, she’s perfectly capable of being nice, or at least not actively not nice.
And then there’s Zeke. It would have been moderately sweet if he had been so inspired by Tina’s big speech to ask out either Tammy or Jocelyn, but what we get is so much dumber and so much more inspired. The notion that Zeke believes he’s not good enough to ask out the 30-something, clearly married bowling shoe attendant because he’s too bowlegged is brilliant on its own terms, but far better is his realization that he’s good enough anyway, and that he’s just the right amount of bowlegged. It’s such an absurdly specific takeaway for him to have from Tina’s words, but that’s the joy of Zeke: Give him an inch and he will take the craziest damn mile you’ve ever seen.
“Can’t Buy Me Math” is a classic Bob’s Burgers episode, one in which I don’t even need to mention Bob’s climactic striptease to get across its general brilliance. But still: Bob’s striptease! Once again, chaos reigns over the show, as the admittedly limited sexiness of Bob’s dancing is enough to revolt the patrons at Jimmy Pesto’s and the assorted passersby (which of course includes Edith). That scene nails down the general brilliance of the Bob’s Burgers approach, as the situation once again spirals out of control, to the point that even a simple act as closing the curtains feels like a cosmic impossibility. That’s the funny bit. What makes Bob’s Burgers so endearing is Bob’s subsequent decision to just not care, to get back on that damn table and finish his striptease, onlookers be damned. It’s that crazy, cockamamie heart that provides just enough structure to make the show’s chaos as fun and as rewarding as it is.
- So, what’s Tina and Darryl’s relationship portmanteau? I’m partial to “Tiryl,” mostly because I imagine Darryl has some lengthy rants about how Battlestar Galactica (mis)used Chief Tyrol.
- “I used to be bad at math.” “Aw, grandma…”
- “Some of it may have gotten on the swing…” Aw, Darryl…
- “It’s the romance of the century! And it has nothing to do with yogurt!”