It was inevitable Bob’s Burgers would do an episode like tonight’s, just because it’s such an obvious premise. The overriding thing that defines Bob is his willingness to chase his dream even when his restaurant barely makes enough for his family to scrape by, so it’s kind of surprising it’s taken six whole seasons for the show to imagine what would happen if someone suddenly offered to make all his financial woes a thing of the past. The trouble is that it’s such an obvious storyline that “Pro Tiki/Con Tiki” ranks as the most predictable episode in the show’s history. A veteran television viewer could probably guess at most of the plot as soon as it’s established Warren Fitzgerald, Bob’s best and probably only childhood friend, is coming to visit and has lots of money, and a more casual watcher could still probably work out the whole thing once Warren offers to invest in the restaurant all while promising Bob will be left alone to do his thing.
There’s a readymade outline for this episode. Friend offers Bob money. Bob accepts money. Friend starts changing the restaurant to bring in business. Bob hates the changes and has second thoughts. Bob gives back the money. Everything goes back to normal. That’s a perfectly fine starting point for an episode, but it’s far too familiar to go as is, which means the creative team has two main ways to make tonight’s episode stand out: narrative swerves in which the story or the characters don’t behave as we would expect, or a bunch of really terrific jokes to keep the audience laughing through a cliched storyline. And, well, we definitely don’t get the former, as that basic outline describes pretty much exactly what we get with “Pro Tiki/Con Tiki.” What character beats we do get tend to be obvious, as Bob and Warren realizing they both want some measure of what the other has is the most straightforward way to resolve the conflict and have them end the episode as friends. But that’s set up as the big reveal of the episode, when a plot move as well-worn as that really ought to come earlier in the story so that it can set up further exploration of more specific ideas. Instead, tonight’s episode is weirdly content to be the most generic possible version of this story.
That’s a shame, because there are at least hints of more show-specific angles the episode could take. The idea that Warren Fitzgerald has turned Bob’s restaurants into the kind of place Jimmy Pesto would like is one worth exploring, as it goes right back to another core idea of the series, namely that Jimmy is the mirror image of Bob, the brilliant businessman with terrible food. Still more crucial is the moment where Linda raises the entirely reasonable objection that there’s no way in hell Bob would give back all that money to Warren without first discussing it as his wife. That valid point ends up getting lost in the tussle between Bob and Warren that comes immediately after, and it makes the emotional side of the subsequent plot beat in which Warren says Bob already has the perfect partner ring awfully hollow. The show typically does such a good job of balancing out its characters, so it’s strange to see this episode be so entirely focused on Bob, especially when his seething discomfort is exactly what you would expect.
Ultimately, there’s probably no sensible way the Belchers could have kept the money, seeing as that really would be life-changing money for them, but to have that decision be Bob’s alone undercuts the theme of family that’s meant to be so important to the series and specifically to this episode, what with Warren making such a big deal about Bob’s wonderful life and all. There’s probably no good way to get Louise on board with giving back the money, but what if the episode had seen Bob take on board his family’s wishes, make an honest go of things at Linda’s request, and then, with at least Linda and Tina on board, opt to give back the money? As ever, I’m not saying the episode should have been that specific thing, because I’m not here to rewrite the episode. I just throw that out there as an example of a more complex version of what we get here.
I’ve spent most of this space thus far looking at the first way the show could have fashioned a working episode from such a familiar premise, but that still leaves the second option, of just throwing a whole bunch of jokes at the story and rolling from there. And, well, if you think New Geneland is the funniest gag ever—and I mean, really, it’s not far off that mark—then that might be enough to do it. But Bob’s frustration is such a slow burn that it doesn’t offer the usual laughs of a Bob freakout, with only the world’s least friendly banker making an impression among the regular supporting players. This may be an instance where the show’s commitment to character, something I’ve often praised it for, works against it. Shows like, say, American Dad can start from seemingly predictable premises because they’re not encumbered by things like character consistency, freeing them up to make bold, absurd choices. Bob’s Burgers doesn’t have that kind of room to maneuver, and so an understated narrative isn’t going to leave much room for big gags.
Still, “Pro Tiki/Con Tiki” isn’t a complete misfire. Chris Parnell is a low-key delight as Warren Fitzgerald, and probably the smartest decision the writers make here is in allowing his character to engage in the looser, more lifelike banter the Belcher family gets to do. His claim that his bones are made of steel and he’s now immortal or his comic attempt to cover up Gene’s request for fries feels like the weird riffs that we typically only hear the main cast engage in, so he Warren instantly comes across as more of a person on equal footing with Bob than some larger-than-life guest character. As ever, the episode could have done more with this setup, but no need to keep beating that particular horse. Warren is a fun character and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again in an episode that has a clearer sense of what to do with him.
Tonight’s episode is the other side of the coin of the other recent disappointment, “Sacred Couch.” That episode took a weird, fuzzy premise and meandered through it. “Pro Tiki/Con Tiki” takes maybe the most obvious previously unused premise and does practically nothing to develop it. The result in both cases is a curiously lifeless episode, as the sluggish narrative construction doesn’t provide the right kind of environment for the jokes to produce more than occasional chuckles. There’s a version of this episode that is an all-time great, but it would likely need to be a daring story, one that subverts audience expectations and mines much of its humor from those apparent incongruities. Hell, maybe this needed to be a two-parter: I could see myself being far more on board with the slow burn of Bob’s issues if it had led to a cliffhanger as, say, Warren went to war with Bob over control of his restaurant, rather than a pat ending and a quick reset. But that isn’t what we get, and what I can say about what we do get is something we very rarely see on Bob’s Burgers: It’s just kind of boring.
- Maybe this is its own kind of cliched, given how often the show uses songs whenever Bob experiences some temporary life change, but I do think a musical number or two could have given this episode a little extra pep.
- I should also point this out given my praise of the direction in a recent episode: Tonight’s staging felt weirdly lifeless. A lot of long side shots when Warren and Bob were talking. The animation usually does a better job of helping tell the story and imparting energy than what we get here.
- For all my issues with everything that comes before, Bob outflanking Louise because she’s not the ruler of New Geneland is just a perfect little moment. A nice image to go out on until we meet again in two weeks.