Give Bob’s Burgers credit for this: We’re seven seasons in, and the Belchers are still poor. In the world of animated comedy, consistently keeping a family teetering on the financial brink isn’t easy. Look at The Simpsons, which started out with the titular family as similarly strapped for cash but soon enough reached a point where Homer would happily take a thousand dollars out of his wallet if a joke demanded it—by that show’s seventh season, he’s doing that multiple times in (great) episodes like “The Day The Violence Died.” Now, you could quite reasonably say that Bob’s Burgers isn’t as much a spiritual successor to The Simpsons as it is King Of The Hill, which was similarly able to remain roughly the same level of grounded across more than a dozen seasons, but here’s the thing: Hank’s job selling propane and propane accessories for Buck Strickland kept him and his family financially secure in a way Bob could only dream of.
The Belchers’ working-class poverty has its advantages, in that it’s always there to provide grist for stories. It’s an essentially serious thing that can be the scaffolding for the most outlandish situations, whether it’s Mr. Fischoeder’s latest ludicrous antics or the next round of squabbling between Bob and Jimmy Pesto, or whatever else. But because Bob’s Burgers has gotten the audience to buy into and sympathize with the family’s financial hardship, it’s difficult for the show to pull off the ending of an episode like “There’s No Business Like Mr. Business Business.” In attempting to articulate some kind of moral to this particular story, Bob understandably can’t get past the fact that Gayle’s unconditional love for her distressed cat comes not at her own monetary expense, but his. It’s sweet and all that Gayle cares more about Mr. Business than money, but as Bob says, it’s not her money that she doesn’t care about.
This is a hard punchline to pull off, because everything about the way Bob is written, animated, and performed is designed to engender empathy for him and his various plights. The dialogue makes it clear he knows full well the absurdity of what’s going on here, and his body language and H. Jon Benjamin’s delivery confirms how difficult it is for him to let all that money slip through his fingers without even trying for it. Yet he still begrudgingly does the right thing, and that’s part of why it’s hard to feel anything but bad for Bob here. If Bob’s Burgers weren’t so effective in getting us to care about the characters, be it in service of emotional moments or more deeply felt jokes, it wouldn’t be such a piss-off when the story is so damn cruel to Bob.
Gayle can be a particularly tricky character in this regard, because she’s absolutely worthy of sympathy in her own right. This isn’t precisely the same thing as, say, “Family Fracas,” when those rapscallions Chuck Charles and Jimmy Pesto conspired against Bob. As annoying as Linda’s sister can be, nobody has a harder time with Gayle than Gayle herself, which is part of the reason Bob is only willing to push her so far. And tonight’s episode tries to find a more uplifting note to end on—which, because this is Bob’s Burgers and Bob’s Burgers is one of the best shows on television, involves the Belchers eating cat food and Bob pointing out how much better they are at eating said cat food than a bunch of dumb cats.
Given that kind of comedic brilliance on display here, it feels churlish to be too hard on the episode. Suffice it to say this: Any Bob’s Burgers episode that makes a big deal of the family’s dire financial straits, offers some longshot scheme out of the red (or, in this case, a reasonable enough way to get Gayle to borrow less money they can’t spare), and then has Bob abandon said plan for flimsy reasons is going to have at least one moment that’s really frustrating to watch. The question then is how much that annoying stretch casts a pall over the rest of the episode. Bob’s Burgers has been smart in recent seasons in given Bob a few, well, wins feels wrong, but at least a handful of non-losses, so it doesn’t feel quite as inevitable that the latest plan will end in disaster. And “There’s No Business Like Mr. Business Business” is smart to have Bob go a little mad—or possibly just feeling the effects of mixing those allergy meds with alcohol, as he always does—in his training of Mr. Business.
And hey, there’s always John Oliver as a prissy English cat agent to kick around. Oliver is such a natural fit in the world of Bob’s Burgers that it’s almost surprising he hasn’t shown up until now, and he fits in nicely with the show’s occasionally ramshackle, improvisational feel, particularly when he’s screaming about how Linda and Gayle have a shot on the attacking Mr. Business and they ought to take it. He’s the best kind of Bob’s Burgers guest character, in that his every line of dialogue suggests a fully realized life outside of the Belchers’ purview, and it’s generally the saddest shit imaginable. As we hear with Karen and see with, um, Fluffy, Ian spends most of his time abusing his sacred duty as a cat agent to date a succession of—I’m just going to go ahead and safely assume—emotionally fragile cat ladies. That, and whatever skills he might have as an agent for cats and other animals, he still gets immediately attacked by one would-be client and utterly fails to land the contract for another. The man is a disaster, in the very best way.
Tonight’s episode has enough going for it that it avoids too many demerits for writing itself into a corner. There have been several better showcases of Bob and Gayle’s odd little relationship, but the episode is a minor-key success for all the things it gets right. The fact that Bob gets completely winded going up a single flight of stairs is a wonderful bit of brilliance, particularly when he can’t at all guarantee that he isn’t about to keel over right there. And, of course, there’s Tina and Gene’s illicit love of cat food, which is treated with just the right mix of revulsion and casual acceptance. Sure, it sounds awful every time Tina points out that they are just going around eating cat food, but hey—if it tastes good, why fight it, right? If I felt like really straining, I would probably equate the kids’ love of cat food with my enjoyment of an episode that once again puts Bob through the emotional and financial ringer for no good reason, but, nah. This was a good, solid episode, and that made that particular frustrating stretch more bearable. It’s not my favorite narrative move on Bob’s Burgers, but the show has a way of balancing these things out.
- I appreciate that Bob can come around to literally anything the rest of his family likes. Whether it’s Gene’s trash-based fashion or the joys of eating cat food, he’s always willing to admit when he’s wrong.
- Between his character tonight and Professor Ian Duncan on Community, maybe it’s time John Oliver takes the hint and accepts his destiny has always been as an Ian.