“The Gayle Tales” returns to the trilogy structure first used by last year’s “The Frond Files,” with the kids once again churning out a trio of fantastical stories that reveal as much about their own fractured takes on the world as they do any particular pop culture knowledge. Because this structure is so similar to its predecessor, the episode works overtime to bring out some differences. Unlike in “The Frond Files,” the kids are present here in the framing device, providing them more opportunity to comment on their own mad tales and those of their siblings. There’s also an attempt here to give this episode clearer stakes than those of “The Frond Files,” where there wasn’t much to the framing narrative from a character perspective beyond the late-episode revelation of how personally Mr. Frond takes his negative portrayals. Here, we find the kids competing for Gayle’s approval and working through their frustrations with their mom, who has grounded them for reasons that are only explained in the episode’s closing minutes. The result is an episode with lots of bustle and activity, but all that we get doesn’t add up to as much as it should. To its credit, “The Gayle Tales” is trying to be a lot more than a carbon copy of “The Frond Files,” but by missing the mark it ends up being something less than its predecessor.

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The most compelling aspect of “The Frond Files” and “The Gayle Tales”—and what separates them from most of the trilogy stories told on other animated shows like The Simpsons and Futurama—is that they are explicitly told from the kids’ perspectives, with all the absurd biases and preoccupations that implies. A more traditional anthology episode might well zero in on Tina’s love of all things romance and insert her into a Regency costume drama, and there would be plenty of amusing material to explore within that relatively limited version of the premise. The episode could still do a version of Gayle’s repeated protestations that she’s too shy for even the most rudimentary of reactions, and it could do the gag in which Gene—sorry, Eugenia—says they normally just leave Gayle there when she faints, but they should probably move her now that she’s on fire. These jokes are both translations of reliably funny Bob’s Burgers jokes into an unfamiliar context and humorous acknowledgments of the tropes of this kind of story. Throw in getting to see the characters transplanted into roles both expected—Jimmy Jr. as the rich object of Tina’s desire—and unexpected—Bob as a posh-accented, mildly foppish landowner—and this segment has more than enough to work.

But Tina’s story gains that extra bit of genius from the fact that it really is, in all senses of the term, Tina’s story. We learn that the poor sisters spend their time repairing garments to help those soldiers whose butts were shot off in the war, and it’s really damn important to Tina that everyone knows that Jimmy Jr.’s butt has remained undamaged. More than that, Tina’s status as the world’s foremost writer of erotic friend fiction means the family is rather obviously nervous about just how explicit she is going to get in her portrayal of this costume-period romance, particularly when she sets up the Bob analogue as the obvious romantic partner for Gayle. A limited roster of characters can always make it tricky to recast without things getting weird—consider the Simpsons trilogy that features a Hamlet segment, and the utter lack of secondary girl characters means Lisa has to be the Ophelia to Bart’s Hamlet—and the segment has some fun with that by playing around with Tina’s possible willingness to pair off her dad with her aunt, at least before Reverend Scott Bakula shows up.

The kids’ position as storytellers also lets the episode have some fun with being intentionally crummy. Gene’s Nashville-set music saga is the funniest in this regard, particularly in its portrayal of Lindette. The fact that she can’t sing at all and that her songs are uniformly terrible is all funny enough on its own, but Joe-Gene’s begrudging sense of awe when he admits that, yes, Lindette is really good is what takes this gag to the next level. Unlike the Gene story in “The Frond Files,” which was so delightfully insane that its story was entirely beside the point, this entry suggests Gene is at least vaguely aware of the list of tropes a successful story should have, but he’s not even remotely sure of how to incorporate such narrative beats into his story. The result are delightfully goofy moments like Lindette ordering Tina’s stagehand to put a rattlesnake into the guitar. Gene knows this is the sort of thing that ought to happen here, but he apparently doesn’t have any sense of what realistic motivation might lead the stagehand to acquiesce. (Not that there necessarily is one, of course.) The audience knows how lazy the storytelling here is, and that—along with Dan Mintz’s reliably funny monotone line read—is what makes that little throwaway moment into such a big laugh.

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Louise’s Game Of Thrones parody is probably the weakest of the three, if only because this is the one story in which the normal Bob’s Burgers vibe is most tamped down to make room for the pop culture gags—although I won’t quibble too much with a segment that features Louise and Gayle getting repeatedly captured and set free by a succession of nonsensically named local rulers. Louise’s story does also have what might be the episode’s most memorable moment, when a phalanx of ashen Teddys show up as the White Talkers. This is the story’s most clever spin on its source material, and the animation and sound design hit just the right balance between funny and actually kind of haunting. Beyond that, the story might well be hamstrung by Louise’s entirely in-character drive to tell the most efficiently Gayle-pleasing story she can: As awesome as the giant equine cats and the inexplicable reappearance of Scott Bakula totally are, there’s not a lot of Louise’s own idiosyncracies in this story, at least not compared to her siblings’ entries.

The more general issue with this episode is that, as a way to explore how the kids feel about their family members, “The Gayle Tales” ends up outsmarting itself. As narrative contrivances go, it’s clever to put the kids in a position where they have to shamelessly suck up to Gayle, and it’s fun to see the show’s biggest doormat thrust into the spotlight three times over. But the kids’ hostility toward Linda is less effective, because we don’t learn where this mutual resentment is coming from until the very end of the episode. With nothing concrete to motivate the kids’ issues with their mom, the episode quickly runs into an issue of diminishing returns: Lindette spraying everywhere is terrific, and Linda’s reappearance as Sir Bob’s obnoxious American wife is funny enough for its sheer brazenness, but Queen Linda just feels like the same joke in triplicate. The ultimate reveal of the kids’ transgression is also a little underwhelming, at least to the extent that any combination tampon and fart joke can be, and it doesn’t end up feeling worth diverting everyone away from their normal characterizations in an episode that already has the perfect excuse to mess with people’s personalities. As a whole, “The Gayle Tales” has ambition and jokes to spare, and that proves to be a good thing, as it’s enough to make up for the fact that it’s just a tad too complicated for its own good.

Stray observations:

  • “Louise, you haven’t watched Game Of Thrones, have you?” “No, what, I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Okay, that punchline went a long way to saving the Louise story for me. A very nice bit of meta business.
  • I’m a bit disappointed they couldn’t get the real Scott Bakula to voice himself, though I guess it does track with the voice they used for Linda’s vision of Tom Selleck.
  • Bob’s posh, lightly English accent was hilarious. It’s just great to hear H. Jon Benjamin take all the usual frustration and hostility out of his voice.

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