Bob’s Burgers has long left it uncertain just how Jimmy Jr. feels about Tina. In his first featured appearance in “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?”, Jimmy Jr. existed almost entirely as the object of Tina’s birthday-themed affections, with his shrug just before they kissed suggesting he didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about his admirer. Subsequent episodes have made it clear how annoying he frequently finds Tina, and how readily, even cruelly he can take her for granted—even an episode like “Two For Tina” presented Jimmy Jr.’s sudden advances more as a peeved reaction to Josh’s actual caring than anything else. But, to the extent that Bob’s Burgers has developed Jimmy Jr.’s feelings with some consistency, it’s possible to see a genuine interest in Tina that he is far too awkward to deal with in any sensible way. As “Ex Mach Tina” puts forth, that interest may not necessarily be in Tina herself, but rather a more selfish—albeit understandable—impulse to have someone listen to all the confused thoughts and feelings that all the musoems in the world can’t fully process. But then, Tina has always mostly wanted Jimmy Jr. for his butt and his dance moves, with personality running a distant second.
There’s a definite logic to the notion that Jimmy Jr. likes Tina better when she’s not physically present. In-person with Jimmy Jr., Tina is the oddest mix of confident go-getter and total pushover, simultaneously pushing hard for Jimmy Jr.’s affections and letting him dictate the terms of everything. Jimmy Jr. has always responded most favorably to Tina when she was at her most unambiguously confident, whether it’s when she was addled on coffee in “The Unnatural” or when Louise was talking on her behalf in “Gene It On.” But otherwise, Tina’s energy is pretty damn all over the place, and so it’s not all that surprising that someone who consistently responds well to strong personalities—consider also Jimmy Jr.’s near worship of Zeke—wouldn’t know what to do with someone who is so forcefully into him yet generally so unwilling to press the issue. This episode, then, presents an alternative setup, in which Tina’s admittedly somewhat odd physical presence can no longer throw Jimmy Jr. off. And, with that out of the equation… Jimmy Jr. proceeds to walk all over Tina, using her on-screen image as just a repository for his poorly articulated frustrations.
The best case here is the one Tina settles on at the episode’s end, in which Jimmy Jr. was using the robot to short-circuit their obvious awkwardness between them without ever properly dealing with it. And sure, that’s possible. But there’s no real sign in “Ex Mach Tina” that, when push comes to shove, Jimmy Jr. actually cares about anyone other than himself, and that he only cares about Tina to the extent he likes having someone around who is so completely interested in all the deeply boring pubescent crap he’s working through. On the other hand, Jimmy Jr. does want to walk Tina—sorry, robot Tina—home from school, and he does give the screen a big kiss, to the horror of all the other Belchers. So maybe Jimmy Jr. is capable of something approximating romance, but only in a selfish sort of way that’s entirely on his terms? Yeah, that sounds about right. He doesn’t want a girlfriend, he wants an accessory that can listen and nod. He pretty literally gets that in robot Tina.
Chewing over this sort of stuff is just sort of a natural instinct after reviewing the show for a few years, but it speaks to what makes Bob’s Burgers so consistently strong. The Jimmy Jr. of this episode doesn’t just act differently because the story needs him to in order to be maximally funny. Tonight’s version of Jimmy Jr. is a progression from what we’ve seen previously, but it’s possible to connect the dots with how he’s been used before. That attentiveness to his long-term character makes it still better when he drops new little details about his difficult home life, finally confirming for the first time—give or take that one moment in “The Belchies” when Jimmy Pesto thought his sons were with their mother—that his mom is still around, albeit moving on to new, generally all right guys. All the pathetic crap Jimmy Jr. pulls in this episode is eminently logical, a direct extension of what we’ve seen from him for six seasons. It’s just that Bob’s Burgers finally came up with a way to get Jimmy Jr. comfortable enough to open up to Tina, and the fact that it was this scenario makes his entire person all the more hilariously sad.
Speaking of which, I will always love when Bob becomes wildly passionate about something he has zero talent for. As such, his quixotic effort to find a banjo moment made for a hell of a side-story. It says a lot for how much I root for Bob that I briefly thought that fantasy sequence in which he was a natural at the banjo could possibly be real, but nah—he’s so terrible at it that Teddy briefly switched to getting his food to go. Bob is generally the most realistic Belcher, so to see him desperately try to get his family into his banjoing against all evidence to the contrary made for some wonderfully funny moments. Some of these were nicely small-scale, as when he repeatedly failed to recognize that Linda was obviously still awake as he started strumming. Credit to Bob’s Burgers for finding a workable dual payoff to both Bob and Jimmy Jr.’s story, as the show’s two main H. Jon Benjamin-voiced characters briefly teamed up for musoems with instrumental accompaniment. (Still not a song, damn it!) That’s some perfectly pathetic resonance between the two characters.
“Ex Mach Tina” is a wonderful little 2017 premiere for the show, finding just enough of a twist on one of the show’s more well-worn pairings to feel nicely fresh. And even if Tina herself didn’t get much new to do here, the episode still found some funny bits of business with her repeated irritation with Linda for barging in. Throw in Gene and Louise creating an entire sad-sack life for their robot security guard alter ego and the trio of Zeke, Jocelyn, and Tammy getting dangerously close to peak stupidity, and you have the makings of a fine episode. Tonight’s Bob’s Burgers is judicious in its innovation, recognizing it can roll out a largely standard half-hour as long as it can find one logical, character-developing tweak to the normal setup. In theory, giving Tina a remote robot could be the kind of forced wackiness that might herald creative exhaustion, but here it’s strictly a means to an end, which is to get Jimmy Jr. and Tina talking like they never have before. Bob’s Burgers knows precisely what it’s doing, and it’s damn hard for the show to go far wrong when it’s this in control of its (non-banjo) instrument.