Bob’s dad has long been the missing piece of the Bob’s Burgers universe. The show has never been shy about exploring Linda’s side of the extended family—her parents appeared way back in the second episode ever, and her sister Gayle also debuted in the first season—but the circumstances of Bob’s background were left to the audience to infer. Outside of the photo of Big Bob’s Diner that hangs in the living room, the sum total of our previous knowledge on Bob’s dad pretty much just comes from two episodes: the flashbacks to Bob’s terrible childhood in “Bob Fires The Kids,” in which H. Jon Benjamin provides the voice for the off-screen Big Bob, and the moment in “Uncle Teddy” in which Bob says his dad hates him—the use of the present tense there was the closest thing to proof that Bob’s dad is even still alive. (Bob’s mother, on the other hand, remains a mystery, although this episode at least makes it clear that she’s not been in the picture for some time.) To hold Big Bob back for this long might suggest that the show has something truly special in mind for his eventual debut.

As it turns out, “Father Of The Bob” is a fairly straightforward episode. I mean, it’s delightful, but this yuletide episode doesn’t aspire to the kind of format-breaking craziness of last year’s Duel-inspired “Christmas In The Car.” It does fill in some blanks in Bob’s past, using the flashbacks to 30 and 20 years ago to illustrate just where the seemingly irreparable rift between Big Bob and Little Bob comes from, but “Father Of The Bob” is fairly utilitarian in its use of the past; it doesn’t deploy the flashbacks to create the kind of poignant, interwoven narrative that Futurama was so damn good at. If anything, part of the brilliance of this episode is that, after a string of more experimental stories, “Father Of The Bob” tells a bog-standard Bob’s Burgers story, except it moves the usual antics from Bob’s Burgers to Big Bob’s Diner, with all the subtle differences that entails.

Now, some of the differences are minimal—big or little, a Bob Belcher is going to keep weird crap in his basement for the kids to mess about with—while others open up fresh spins on familiar kinds of jokes. The episode doesn’t fall into the trap of making Big Bob’s regulars into remixes of Mort and Teddy, though there’s at least a trace of Mort in Henry’s meek willingness to just eat whatever dish the irate Bobs end up putting in front of him. The similarity is more in the setting, as the restaurant counter creates similar rhythms for the interactions between the cook and the customers. Like Mort and Teddy, the trio of Carl Reiner’s Henry, Nick Offerman’s Pete, and Jordan Peele’s Max are so comfortable as Big Bob’s regulars that they interact more like squabbling children at the dinner table than patrons at a restaurant; past Henry is uncertain of whether he wants to try Bob’s “Baby, You Can Chive My Car” burger right up to the moment that Max samples one of the pickle wheels. Big Bob is such a gruff, outsize presence that he needs an extra regular to create the same kind of casual chaos that Teddy and Mort have with the junior Belcher, but the same dynamics are in play.

As for Big Bob himself, he’s more or less exactly what you’d expect him to be; honestly, apart from the recasting of Bill Hader, you could extrapolate precisely who Big Bob is from his off-screen cameo back in “Bob Fires The Kids.” Even the eventual reveal that Big Bob kept the first review of his son’s restaurant and is proud of Little Bob is too familiar to really be surprising; honestly, it would have been a much more shocking—and unwelcome—departure from our expectations of a Bob’s Burgers episode to not eventually reveal that Big Bob has a soft spot beneath that exasperatingly brusque exterior. “Father Of The Bob” then is a good example of why a show doesn’t need to be surprising to be successful. It’s entirely possible for an episode to be predictable and still good just as long as the episode finds satisfying ways to give us what we expect.

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This is where, as is so often the case, the show’s capacity for strong, compassionate characterization is its single strongest asset. This starts with the regulars, all of whom are on fine form. To work, “Father Of The Bob” needs Bob to be grouchy and Linda to be meddlesome, but the episode is careful to take the most generous view of both of these potentially negative behaviors: Sure, maybe Linda should butt out of Bob’s fractious relationship with his dad, but she’s just so damn committed to spreading the Christmas spirit. Plus, as Louise observes, Linda is pretty sing-y tonight, and there’s a very real possibility that that’s just code for drunk, especially once you learn Linda’s particular definition of “Christmas magic.” (Hint: It’s booze.) Linda’s Pollyannaish belief in reconciliation could be annoying if it weren’t so sweet in its motivations, and the same applies to the kids’ latest half-assed attempts to get their father something moderately nice. On this point, the show is also smart to have Linda and the kids rally while the Bobs work out their differences, just to remind us all that the characters genuinely do mean well underneath all the self-absorbed silliness.

And, with Big Bob turning out to be pretty much exactly what you would expect, it becomes all the more crucial that the episode knows precisely who Little Bob is. As is so often the case, our Bob is a creature of brutally low self-esteem, someone who is seeking validation not so much from his impossible father but from the universe—if nothing else, he’d really appreciate it if the cosmos could prove once and for all that he’s right and his dad is wrong. Bob is so desperate to notch this one little victory that it never even occurs to him to wonder why his dad is always so quick to criticize; through it all, he never questions the assumption that his father is the big success putting down the lowly screw-up, when it might be precisely the other way round in Big Bob’s mind. Well, let’s not go that far … but at least Big Bob admits that he’s not great to work with, and that Little Bob has built a life for himself of which he can be genuinely proud.

There’s a great bit of subtlety and nuance in the writing of their reconciliation scene, as Bob picks his apology very carefully: He rightly refuses to apologize for the content of any of his decisions, but he admits that he allowed his frustrations and his anger to make his and his dad’s “break-up” worse than it needed to be. As lessons go, that’s straightforward enough, yet it reveals a maturity and clarity that typifies what the show goes for with its pivotal relationships. Maybe “Father Of The Bob” isn’t surprising, but it’s satisfying in all the ways you would ever want a Bob’s Burgers episode to be.

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Stray observations:

  • Teddy is going to rock midnight mass-ketball. As we learned in “Dawn Of The Peck,” the guy looks terrific in shorts.
  • Big Bob loves Scandal. That’s a spin-off right there.
  • I’m still not at all clear how Louise’s house of mousetraps was supposed to be a gift. Still better than Gene’s bean bath though.
  • Sorry this review is going up at such an ungodly hour. I’m writing this on the road, and that threw off my schedule. Hopefully won’t happen again.

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