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Bob’s Burgers: “World Wharf II: The Wharfening (Or How Bob Saves/Destroys The Town—Part II)”

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The great challenge for “World Wharf II: The Wharfening (Or How Bob Saves/Destroys The Town—Part II),” even more so than its immediate predecessor, is that it tells a story that isn’t an entirely natural fit for the Bob’s Burgers format. The story is built around Bob being in mortal peril, and the primary character question for both Felix and Fanny is whether each will follow through with his or her threats to kill Bob and Mr. Fischoeder. Pushing the envelope quite this much inevitably means that the show is going to brush up against the limits of its format. Case in point: At a certain point during Calvin’s taunts of his younger brother, in which he confidently proclaimed that Felix would never follow through with his elaborate murder plot, it occurred to me that a natural comedic and narrative subversion would be for Felix to shoot Calvin right then and there. I would never argue it’s the only way that scene could have played out, but the mere fact that such a dark, brutal violation of the show’s chosen tone is even a possible way to punctuate a scene suggests just how out of the show’s normal comfort zone “World Wharf II” truly is.

Such tension is inevitable when telling a story as experimental as this, and Bob’s Burgers strains to match the show’s usual goofiness with the very real, very lethal danger Bob finds himself in. So many episodes take place entirely within the Belchers’ safe little bubble, a place where they and all the town’s other weirdoes can hang out and have misadventures that only matter inasmuch as the characters believe that they do; “The Equestranauts” stands out as a particularly good recent example of that form. What makes “World Wharf II” so tricky is that the rest of the Belchers don’t know that they’re not in a typical Bob’s Burgers episode, and the episode has to somehow move its two tonally jarring plots toward a happy midpoint. This is a little different from, say, “Christmas In The Car,” which more directly juxtaposed the terror of Bob’s situation with the obliviousness of his family.

Thankfully, “World Wharf II” proves quite adept at bringing the various Belchers’ antics to a point of convergence. The immediate decision to dispense with the gun and instead open with Bob and Calvin tied up under the pier makes the still deadly threat feel much more ridiculous; when a story is in danger of getting too serious, it’s never a bad idea to have your psychotic villain borrow a move from the Snidely Whiplash playbook. (It’s also wise for the episode to begin precisely when it does, as it’s an open question how Felix managed to tie up Bob and his brother while still presumably holding them at gunpoint; I can only guess that Calvin never cared enough to try to overpower Felix, and Bob can be pretty bad in a crisis.) The interplay between Bob and Mr. Fischoeder carries much of the episode, with some quality gags mined from the latter’s complete refusal to take any of this seriously and his general disgust with Bob’s cellphone. Indeed, Bob’s place on his show has often been to be the one character who will respond to the latest over-the-top mess like an actual person would. It’s appropriate that this most serious of stories would require him to be paired with arguably the show’s most ridiculous character, and Kevin Kline is reliably brilliant at bringing just the right amiably blasé tone to cut the tension.

While Bob and Mr. Fischoeder have a fairly straightforward set of goals—Bob desperately tries to use his crappy cellphone to reach Linda, Mr. Fischoeder comments derisively on these attempts—the rest of the Belchers find themselves in a more complex plot. It’s never easy to sustain comedic momentum while having characters slowly work toward uncovering a piece of information the audience already knows. Linda and the kids end up functioning decently well in this tricky scenario, as their gift for endless tangents leaves them plenty of room to riff on the slow quest to understand just what the hell Bob is trying to communicate to them. The show can lean on its ability to construct jokes that suggest entire new worlds about its characters: Tina’s photographic butt memory, Gene’s lost dream of breadstick rope, Louise’s willingness to slap her mother and remind her that she’s got “two kids and a Louise to take care of,” and Linda’s sadness that Bob might have tried blow without her, when they had already agreed they were going to do it once together. The restaurant scenes’ more random one-liners don’t feel as sharp—perhaps because Bob’s Burgers relies on Bob’s exasperation to help the rhythm and timing of those gags—but “World Wharf II” benefits immensely from how much time the show has spent developing its core characters, both as individuals and as a unit.

That particularly pays off in the climax, as the Belchers deeply confuse, then annoy Fanny and the Fischoeders (now there is a band name) with their repeated statements of love for each other. If this show is ever going to give us a thesis statement, then the one on display here will do nicely: The Belchers are a motley collection of sadsacks, heavy drinkers, bunny-eared sociopaths, overeating narcissists, and butt-obsessed zombie-lovers—or is that zombie-obsessed butt-lovers? These are all weirdoes, and it’s not hard to see why any of them individually could be kind of terrible. (Except Tina. Tina is the best.) But they genuinely care for each other, and the show genuinely cares for them, and that spirit extends to the entire town, at least most of the time. Bob survives because his wife and kids aren’t so self-absorbed that they don’t feel motivated to rescue him; it’s telling that even Louise registers some genuine concern as the search wears on.

Still, Bob’s Burgers isn’t an entirely positive show. As loving and nurturing as its universe generally is, “World Wharf II” reminds us that the show does have a mean streak, and so much of it can be traced back to one man: Calvin Fischoeder. As charmingly eccentric as he is, and as great as Kevin Kline is in the role, this episode reminds us just how good Mr. Fischoeder is at ducking the consequences of his own actions. It’s hard to feel too broken up over Fanny’s arrest, but the fact that Felix escapes justice doesn’t sit right; yes, he sort of does the right thing in going back to save those he tried to kill, but he’s only free because of his brother’s capricious whims. Mr. Fischoeder really is a bastard, and that becomes especially apparent when the show also reminds us that Bob is incapable of even the slightest monetary victory, as his family helps scuttle the hush money negotiations. But questions about Mr. Fischoeder’s true villainy can wait until next year; besides, we’re getting away from what Bob’s Burgers is really all about, and Linda offers a helpful reminder right at the end: “The Belchers are a land family. We should be together in a restaurant, not under some dumb wharf. Let’s go home.” That sounds like just the right message to end a season on. Well, either that or the crouton party in Bob and Linda’s bed.


Stray observations:

  • “Bad Things Are Bad,” don’t think I forgot about you! The sequel to “Nice Things Are Nice” pulls in an impressive group of cameos, from Andy Pesto to Zeke and Tammy to Regular-sized Rudy to Randy the documentarian. Never does the episode feel quite so much like a season finale as during that number, as the quick drop-ins from various side characters makes it feel like the show celebrating itself. After the past four seasons, I’d say it’s earned it. Also, the song is very, very funny, and oddly sweet in that way that is just so, so Bob’s Burgers. I don’t really have anything more to add, but I was a fan.
  • Is this the last we will see of Fanny? More to the point, is this the last we will see of Milo and/or Otis?
  • That does it for the fourth season of Bob’s Burgers. We’ll be back in the fall for season five, which sees the show move to 7:30 as part of the revamped Sunday night block. Such a move could maybe feel like a cause of concern, but King Of The Hill—the show’s most obvious spiritual predecessor—did run in that slot for six of its 13 seasons, so I’d say there’s no immediate reason to worry.