It’s kind of impressive just how unusual it feels to see the Belchers split up along gender lines. I mean, I don’t even particular care about any deeper implications of that statement: It’s just that, for whatever reason, these are combinations of characters that the show has very rarely gone to. The most basic explanation for this is that the show has repeatedly positioned Gene as his mother’s son and Louise as her father’s daughter, with both children struggling to interact naturally with their less favored parent. And, when Gene or Louise does have concentrated interactions with Bob or Linda, respectively, that unusual dynamic tends to be the overriding focus of the episode. Think “Beefsquatch” or “Mother Daughter Laser Razor.” What sets this episode apart is that Gene legitimately wants to learn from his father in a way that he very rarely does, and Louise and Linda get an unusually strong bonding moment from their shared moral slipperiness, specifically with respect to helping Tina bluff her way through her book report. All this means that “Lil’ Hard Dad” feels fresh in a way that the show can’t always claim, and we haven’t even moved past the setup yet.

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Key to all this is the notion that Bob could conceivably be any of the kids’ role model. We know how much the kids love him, even if that love is mostly of the “buried deep down” variety, but respect is rarely a key feature of the interactions between Bob and his kids. Even Tina, who rarely joins in with her siblings in mocking their dad, abstains more because it’s outside her skillset and because she tends to look on her parents as vaguely cool, vaguely embarrassing older friends. Maybe that’s all because Bob tends to shuttle between three basic modes: the sad sack pragmatist, the unexpectedly enthusiastic supporter of his kids’ crazy schemes, and the raging nutcase. The first of those is worthy of respect, but it’s not hard to see why the kids wouldn’t go for that. The second helps explain why the kids tend to like Bob so much, but it isn’t really conducive to respect. As for the third? Well, it’s got passion going for it, and if there’s one thing the Belcher kids respect, it’s passionate insanity (and possibly insane passion). It’s just that Bob so rarely freaks out over something the kids can wrap their heads around, instead expending his precious emotional energy on apparently meaningless things like, say, video game high scores or, as we see tonight, remote-controlled helicopter refunds.

What bridges that usual gap between Gene and Bob is the former’s awed reaction to the latter’s quick thinking. This is a delightfully silly way to jump-start their bonding plot, particularly because it doesn’t really end up paying off in any substantial way. Instead, “Lil’ Hard Dad” takes the clever tack of just having it be an arbitrary thing that sets off Gene’s sudden bout of hero worship. And because Gene’s motivation is essentially random, it’s even easier to let Bob do the heavy lifting in selling this sudden turn, as he takes the tiniest excuse to suddenly develop a high opinion of himself. He’s wise enough to recognize initially that no good can come of encouraging Gene’s silliness, yet he can’t resist patting himself on the back for saving Tina or for noting just how damn stentorian his voice sounds, even if he could do without the fart punctuation. A fully invested Bob is always a fun Bob, and the particular innovation of this episode is that he proves too much even for Gene, which really is some kind of feat.

But before the episode gets Gene and Bob to realize the ridiculousness of this jaunt, their utter commitment to the principle of the thing lets them proceed through the plot in unexpected ways. Under normal circumstances, Terry the clerk would be the kind of guy Bob would find utterly ridiculous; in particular, the regular Bob would find the idea of a combat RC helicopter showroom worthy of nothing more than mildly peeved mockery. This time around, however, Bob is so invested in defeating Sheldon that he joins Gene in an awed “whoa,” and he is unbothered by the prospect of Terry getting close to him in order to instruct him in the ways of RC helicopter war. (To the show’s credit, Bob’s lack of discomfort with close male contact isn’t all that remarkable, but the fact that it’s rooted in his total devotion to crushing Sheldon puts another atypical spin on a familiar situation.) The actual battle is a perfectly pitched bit of absurdity, with Bob and Sheldon proving ideally matched in their respective madness and the Hobby Hole workers supporting this lunacy with their own brilliantly insignificant gripes. Even by Bob’s Burgers standards, this is all about nothing, which makes Bob’s insistence that it’s all about the principle of the thing simultaneously accurate and hideously dumb.

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As for the story with Linda, Louise, and Tina, the episode gets some great initial mileage out of Tina freaking out over her inability to read a book, with Dan Mintz again displaying just how far he’s come in his ability to push and expand the contours of Tina’s monotone. It’s still more endearing that Louise and Linda bond over their shared antipathy for reading, as all the usual Linda quirks that drive her younger daughter crazy—her singing, her dancing, her general Linda-ness—now seem entirely palatable when done in the context of helping Tina cheat her way out of actually having to read Call Of The Wild. There’s a fun dynamic that pops up between Linda and Louise, vaguely akin to good cop/bad cop as Linda calmly but firmly tells Louise not to keep slapping her sister, but really both are more or less simpatico in their desire to transform Tina into a lean, mean, book-report-bluffing machine. We’ve been waiting for those two to find a project for a while now, and leading Tina away from the straight and narrow is a perfect one, especially when the end of the episode makes it clear just how easy it is to dupe teachers like Ms. Jacobson, even if Tina did go off-script.

“Lil’ Hard Dad” is a fine episode that keeps a particular focus on the Belcher family, with only the helicopter hobbyists and the cameos from Jocelyn and Teddy at the end distracting from the dedicated exploration of the Belchers’ own unique brand of crazy. This isn’t the kind of hugely ambitious episode that redefines what Bob’s Burgers can be, but it doesn’t need to be. This episode succeeds because it identifies unusual ways to combine the five core characters, and those interactions are just unfamiliar enough to add that extra zip to the gags. Plus, the episode prominently features Bob and Gene hiding (sorry, “regrouping”) in a dumpster from remote-control helicopters, not to mention Tina donning oversize tap shoes and a wheelbarrow to help bring out the essence of Call Of The Wild. It’s really hard to argue the charms of an episode that can claim all that.

Stray observations:

  • Sorry this is up so late. I’m fully aware of my worst-ness.
  • Jocelyn has some scorching hot takes on A Tale Of Two Cities. I approve.
  • Best Teddy cameo ever? Best Teddy cameo ever.

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