“Sliding Bobs” manages to have the best of all possible worlds. On the one hand, it’s another of the show’s increasingly common crazy trilogy episodes, in which we see a common theme developed through each of the Belcher children’s uniquely fractured perspectives. This is an episode that gets in goofiest possible Robocop pastiche, a tragically hairy romance, and a deeply self-referential callback to the show’s very first episode. That’s more than enough material for a fantastic episode! But if you strip all those bits away, you’re left with a core story that is just the five Belchers sitting around the house, spending time together as a family. So many of the show’s best moments in the preceding five seasons have been built around just letting the Belchers bounce off of one another, and all the scenes in the apartment represent some of the purest distillation of that that we’ve yet seen. I mean, the closest thing to a plot here has to do with Bob’s thinning mustache and possible testicular failure. That’s a perfectly sturdy premise to hang an episode on, and it frees up the rest of “Sliding Bobs” to embody what The Simpsons long ago identified as the perfect episode of television: “A realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots!”

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Pretty literally on that last point, actually, given how Gene’s story gives us Bob and his incredible bionic mustache. Now, in the all-important interest of ethics in Bob’s Burgers journalism, let me go ahead and say there’s no way I could be objective about this first segment. It doesn’t just feature my two favorite recurring characters in Gary Cole’s Sergeant Bosco and Kevin Kline’s Mr. Fischoeder—it reveals the two men are actually one and the same, so there’s no way I’m not going to find this whole sequence hilarious, if only for how much Cole and Kline commit to selling such an insane plot.

Those characters are especially well chosen, as Bosco’s firmly established apathy and Fischoeder’s general loopiness make them the perfect characters to carry Gene’s absurdist tale about a world in which young Bob was clean-shaven. The actual plot, with its nonsensical conspiracy and endless array of mustache-bound gadgets, is ludicrous in precisely the way one would expect from a story by a creative, if slightly unhinged 11-year-old kid. Yet within that surreal context, Bosco and Fischoeder still behave in ways that are recognizably them. We see the same thing with how the kids’ stories treat Bob and Linda. Robostache’s persnickety commitment to enforcing every law isn’t a million miles away from Bob’s occasional efforts to play the disciplinarian with his kids, and Gene captures the spirit of his father with Robostache’s fumbling, decidedly unromantic attempts at complimenting Linda. He also cuts to the core of his mother when he reintroduces her by having her sing about her ambivalence toward marrying Hugo. I’d be shocked if the real Linda hadn’t sung pretty much exactly that song before leaving Hugo for Bob.

Even better, the other Belchers get to give real-time commentary on the story. It’s so endearing that Gene can talk about robotic dingdongs—buggy or otherwise—with his parents. Linda, as we would expect, casually accepts that such cybernetic members would have their technical problems. Bob might take more of an issue with the dingdong issue, but he’s just as an avid listener, gleefully spotting the precise moment in Gene’s story where Mr. Fischoeder is hoist with his own petard. Gene may be telling a crummy, nonsensical story, but that doesn’t mean his parents aren’t invested in its outcome.

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By contrast, Louise’s story is considerably closer to the voice of a typical Bob’s Burgers episode, albeit in the context of a werewolf romance. Linda and Bob are almost exactly themselves, although both characters are a bit more sharp-tongued than usual, which makes sense considering which of their kids is giving them voice. Unlike Gene, Louise has more of a sense for how to craft stories, perhaps because her sociopathic streak makes her the ideal shaper and destroyer of fictional lives. Again, if you can get past the inherent ridiculousness of Bob’s magic hair growth, there’s a pretty compelling narrative logic to Louise’s story—right up to the point where she clearly gets bored, exiles Bob to a freak show, and throws Linda in jail after a failed attempt at being a nun.

As Louise makes clear at the end, she’s just going for verisimilitude: Whatever story leaves Bob with the least amount of dignity is the one worth accepting as true. From a creativity standpoint, the Louise segment is probably the weakest of the three, but it feels churlish to make too much of a criticism when it’s as funny as it is. What her story lacks in self-referential deconstruction—you know, that thing that all 7:30 p.m. comedy audiences are urgently demanding!—it more than makes up for in great interplay between Bob and Linda, especially when Bob admits he is a little excited about going for a walk.

The setup for Tina’s closing story is a particular highlight of the episode. Tina, the Belcher most devoted to the concept of destiny, is desperate to prove that Bob and Linda would have ended up together. Here, the previous segments’ strength of character, even in ridiculous contexts, pays off. Robostache and Werewolf Bob and Linda felt like the real Bob and Linda, which makes it all the more striking when Tina tries to force the two together just because. In a particularly clever move, it’s the rest of the family that points out the shortcomings in her storytelling, which eventually forces Tina to accept that a clean-shaven Bob just wouldn’t have hit it off with Linda—setting off a truly incredible trip to a terrifying parallel universe.

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As a stylistic exercise, retelling the first act of “Human Flesh” with Bob and Hugo having switched roles needs no justification, but what elevates this above a bit of general cleverness is how much this is all informed by who Tina is as a character. This story is her expression of a sudden existential crisis, and she unnerves the other Belchers by coming up with the darkest possible versions of themselves, like a princess-obsessed Louise and a quiet, withdrawn Gene. Her counterpart’s line about how she might be interested in Jimmy Jr. in an alternate universe works on … what, how many levels? I’m counting at least three, maybe four, and a big reason it’s funny in so many different ways is that it isn’t just the writers being clever. It’s Tina being clever, yet also expressing her heartbreak at the very thought that a world could exist in which her parents wouldn’t end up together.

“Sliding Bobs” doesn’t strain for poignancy, and indeed it largely defuses any effort to tease out a larger theme by having Bob and Linda immediately confirm whatever take on fate Tina can comfortably accept. But it’s still an episode that works equally well in terms of comedy and in terms of heart, and both of those go back to the show’s firm understanding of its characters. No matter what paths their lives take and no matter how ridiculous their situations might be, the Belchers are always going to be the Belchers, and that fact is really all the show needs to lean on to churn out great episodes. As ever, it’s so good to have Bob’s Burgers back.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, we finally saw Ginger! Sort of!
  • Gene is right: German tourists would love Mr. Fischoeder’s park.
  • “Even your testicles are failures.” “They’re trying!”
  • “NOT THIS AGAIN, RON!” Best Hugo cameo ever.

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