Bob Belcher may love Thanksgiving, but all available evidence suggests the holiday doesn’t love him back. “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” had an absinthe-addled Bob dodging bullets from the sharpshooting object of Mr. Fischoeder’s desire. “Turkey In A Can” had a sleepwalking, allergy pill-addled Bob dropping his turkeys in the toilet in reaction to Tina growing up too fast. “Dawn Of The Peck” had a booze-addled Bob—huh, Thanksgiving really is Bob’s prime addling time—abandoned at home while his family was being terrorized by feral turkeys down at Wonder Wharf. Tonight’s “Gayle Makin’ Bob Sled” depicts the first Thanksgiving we’ve seen Bob face sober, but the results are much the same, as the poor guy is again separated from his beloved turkey and put through one hell of an endurance test, one that’s equal parts physical and psychological. Gayle is pretty much at her worst here, faking an injury to get attention after a breakup that apparently never even happened, all while forcing Bob to pull her and the worst of her damn cats through a blizzard. Even by the heady standards of Bob Belcher suffering, this is brutal, brutal stuff.

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The thing is, though, looking at all four of those Thanksgiving episodes makes it painfully clear why Thanksgiving has it out for Bob. The holiday just pushes to the next level the show’s fundamental dynamic. Bob is an artist with food, and Thanksgiving is the ultimate gustatory holiday, one that demands hours, even days of careful preparation and cooking. That ought to be the greatest day of the year for Bob, and that’s absolutely how he views it, but there’s that annoying detail about how Thanksgiving is also about family and togetherness and all that crap. And, well, Bob loves his family, but as he long since made clear, they’re terrible, all terrible. Thanksgiving takes time to get just right, and Linda and the kids aren’t even remotely capable of sitting still and staying out of trouble long enough for Bob to get everything the way he wants. All the rest of the year, Bob has a little more perspective on that, but on Thanksgiving? Bob allows himself this one day of the year to dream of the perfect meal, and so Thanksgiving ends up punching him in the face every single year.

Though Bob’s entire family represents trouble here, Gayle is the worst of the bunch, given Bob doesn’t even really consider her to be family in the first place. That means anything he does for her just an indirect favor for Linda, and that’s only going to amp up the general resentment he feels. I suppose you could argue Bob is kind of a jerk to Gayle in spots here—he doesn’t exactly hide his murmurings about how ridiculously sad his sister-in-law’s life is—though these are pretty minor offenses, and the punishment is completely disproportionate to the theoretical misdeed. Sure, Bob is pretty bad at hiding how much more he cares about cooking than family time—“How’s the turkey? I mean how are the kids?”—but that’s about it. All of which is to say that this is one of those episodes in which Bob suffers for no particular reason beyond the fact that it’s really, really funny to put Bob through hell and see how he reacts. He always has just the right balance of hope and cynicism to make his ordeals entertaining for us sadists in the audience.

Look at when Bob finally rescues Gayle’s cat, Mr. Jim Business. Much as Bob has no love lost for either Gayle or her cat, and much as Bob doesn’t like making a fool of himself for no good reason, he still takes it upon himself to serenade the cat with some jazzy scatting, climb the tree when that doesn’t work, and finally get hold of the thing only to have his allergies—the lynchpin of last year’s Thanksgiving episode!—act up, with Mr. Business then sending him flying out of the tree. Make no mistake: Bob is a damn hero, but he’s also got to be the saddest hero imaginable. When he does fall down, he’s under no illusions about the fact that he’s fallen from a height of at least 10 feet, and there’s a very good chance he’s grievously injured. But he still has just enough hope to at least try to get up, even if it does immediately end in failure.

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Those are the two sides of Bob on display, really. When sufficiently inspired, he is willing to go to the most absurd lengths in pursuit of perfection, typically of the culinary variety. But when it does become clear that there’s just no point in continuing, when everything is just kind of irreparably screwed up, he tends to be willing to throw in the towel and relax, assuming he hasn’t gotten hopped up on booze or absinthe or pills. His reaction to Linda and the kids’ gloriously failed effort to finish Thanksgiving dinner on his behalf says it all, really, as he briskly agrees with the general sentiment that they should under no circumstances actually eat the half-cooked, sewn-together turkey.

“Gayle Makin’ Bob Sled” is a fine episode, wringing plenty of laughs out of Bob’s latest round of holiday misery and the ongoing mess that is Gayle. If there’s any particular critique of this episode, it’s that it’s more a remix of past character beats than anything especially new. As I discussed earlier, it’s practically an annual tradition for Bob to suffer through the holiday he inexplicably loves, so that’s all fine, but there’s a degree of familiarity to the Gayle jokes here, from her vague attraction to Bob to her absurd devotion to cats that don’t appear to like her all that much. The episode doesn’t go for any big lesson for either Bob or Gayle, which is probably for the best—the last thing any show needs is more half-assed moralizing—but it does mean the episode struggles a little bit to set itself apart from Thanksgiving or Gayle episodes past. This is a solid, funny episode, but it doesn’t quite attain the classic status of its Thanksgiving predecessors.

For the record, not every episode needs to be a classic—indeed, not every episode can be a classic, pretty much by definition. “Gayle Making Bob Sled” is an episode that can just lean on what’s already been established about Bob, Gayle, and the rest of the family, and it’s going to get plenty of laughs just from having Bob drag a fake-injured Gayle through the snow while Linda and the kids freak out about even the most basic (and, in fairness, the far more complicated) aspects of Thanksgiving dinner preparation. This is where the show’s commitment to and specificity of character pays off. This isn’t just the story of a grump and an eccentric tromping through the snow. It’s the story of Bob and Gayle, with all that suggests from everything we’ve learned about them in episodes past. That makes all the difference.

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Stray observations

  • “I would kiss Thanksgiving. Its kiss would be salty and delicious.” “Like a mermaid’s!”
  • “Oh, she fakes injuries when she’s sad. Or happy. Or bored. Or injured.”
  • “I’m dead. Cut me open and sleep inside me.” Aw, Bob is so generous!

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