Bob’s Burgers episodes rarely meander quite like “Sacred Couch” does. While that titular couch is at the center of tonight’s episode, there’s a ramshackle quality to how the various parts of the episode connect, as the story veers from Louise’s sabotage to the visit to the Sofa Queen’s store to the final confrontation with everyone’s favorite local teen rock band, the Couch Burners. That disorganized feeling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this narrative approach is a little odd for a show that is frequently capable of tightly constructed stories. The different chapters of this episode are so disconnected they play more like vignettes, with all the business with the Sofa Queen, her jester brother-in-law, and Tina and Gene squeezing into high chairs having a different, more sketch-like cadence than the scenes set back at the Belcher home.
One way to think about the oddness of this episode is to try to figure out whose emotional arc is most important. In terms of how far she comes and how seriously the episode takes her journey, Louise really has to be the right answer. She goes from being a stone-cold sofa hitwoman to being totally wracked with guilt at her assassination of her childhood fort. And while the show can have Louise undergo hairpin emotional turns, here “Sacred Couch” takes the time to lay out just why Louise has her change of heart, with both Kristen Schaal’s voice work and the animation working hard to sell the earnestness of Louise’s reaction. All of which is great, but Louise is relatively unimportant during the Sofa Queen sequence. Yes, there’s a moment of terrific character nuance when Louise realizes the Sofa Queen is the only person who can talk down Linda, and she even goes to the trouble of addressing her highness politely, but beyond that Louise is mostly at the store for Bob and Linda’s little fight.
I’m hesitant to dismiss Linda’s feelings for the old couch as irrational—for one thing, that totally implies it’s wrong to feel sad about the loss of a possession for no reason, and I’ve cried over the loss of way too many random things in my time for that to be something I could plausibly argue—but it’s probably fair to say her whole mindset here is under-explained. Linda here is an emotional wreck because, well, sometimes Linda is just an emotional wreck for no particular reason, and Linda is such a strong, borderline overbearing character that that is going to wear thin real fast if her feelings are never contextualized. I guess there’s an argument here that her emotional arc here only matters in terms of things it gives Bob to react to, but that doesn’t feel quite right either. Linda’s big meeting with the Sofa Queen is amusing enough, but the joke of the scene is very much at Linda’s expense, as the busy, largely indifferent Sofa Queen tells Linda gently but firmly that she needs to snap out of it. (With a bit of blaming of Bob thrown in for good measure, because of course.)
As ever, the standard caveat with analyzing the plot or character setup of a comedy show applies here: None of this really matters if the episode is funny, either because those storytelling decisions that feel wonky in isolation actually work perfectly to support the episode’s comedy, or because those weird narrative choices just don’t matter because the audience is too busy laughing. And, well, keeping in mind that comedy is subjective—I mean, everything we do here is subjective, but comedy most of all—I just can’t go that far with “Sacred Couch.” This is a fine episode, with some good particularly strong material for Louise and some nice supporting turns from Wanda Sykes, Jordan Peele, and Keegan-Michael Key. The business with the highchairs and the Sofa Jester’s barely hidden underhanded sales tactics—which converge nicely when he says the store’s “You break it, you buy it” policy means he’s fine with Tina and Gene trying to force themselves into the chairs—is especially fun, with a delightfully silly capper as the jester reveals he too tried forcing himself into the highchair. And I do love the Couch Burners’ haunting ballad, in which these young poets remind us that if we love something, set it on fire.
So I don’t criticize this episode for its shaggy dog plot structure because of some sort of reviewer’s snootiness about how stories ought to be told, or whatever. Rather, my issue goes back to what most would call the central task of a show like Bob’s Burgers, which is to be funny. While it’s tempting to think of an episode’s individual jokes as isolated moments, that’s not really how they function. They are instead ordered and assembled into this particular 22-minute package, and the story itself provides the context in which those jokes can work either better or worse than they otherwise might. Mostly, this is about somewhat ineffable qualities that I’m borrowing from physics, stuff like “momentum” and “energy.” The fact that “Sacred Couch” feels undercooked as a story means the episode wanders from joke to joke, leaving each funny bit isolated instead of enhancing the jokes by making them feel like parts of a larger whole.
All of which is to say an episode like “Sacred Couch,” which does plenty of things right and contains more than its fair share of laughs, illustrates in its missteps just how strong the best Bob’s Burgers episodes are—sometimes it takes seeing an episode’s narrative misfire to appreciate how well-constructed a more typical half-hour really is. But make no mistake: “Sacred Couch” isn’t a lazy episode just because it doesn’t anchor its story as well as other episodes do. Indeed, there are some wonderfully inventive moments on display tonight, most notably when the show comes back from the commercial break to depict a fighting Linda and Bob moving around the store, with a solid half-minute of the action depicted from directly above their heads. This is the kind of weird, offbeat choice—one that totally works, and is a rarely seen move in primetime animated comedy—that makes me think the rambling structure of the rest of the episode is, if not necessarily what the writers set out to accomplish, then at least something with a degree of intention behind it. “Sacred Couch” is an experiment in weird, offbeat storytelling, and even if it doesn’t quite work, I’m glad Bob’s Burgers is the kind of show that always feels like it’s trying its best to explore new territory.