Tonight’s Bobs Burgers has an intriguing dilemma before it. On the one hand, the episode introduces Tina’s imaginary horse Jericho, voiced by none other than America’s sweetheart, Paul Rudd. As castings of nonhuman guest stars go, that’s right up with bringing in America’s more broodingly masculine sweetheart, Jon Hamm, to play a talking toilet. The key distinction between the two, however, is that the talking toilet didn’t just exist in Gene’s imagination, a fact that allowed it a more versatile role in its episode. Jericho—and here comes the “on the other hand”—can only ever talk to Tina, and the show has to be careful in just how often the two do interact, lest Tina come off as, well, a bit delusional. “The Horse Rider-er” does get to a point at the end where Tina riding her imaginary horse in front of everyone plays as an endearing, heartfelt moment, but this necessitates a long gap in the middle of the story in which we don’t see Jericho, which by extension means we don’t get to hear from Paul Rudd.
At first glance, having Tina and a spooked Plops tear off from the main group of riders looks like it could be just the excuse the show needs to bring Jericho back into the story, with her imaginary horse commenting on the many shortcomings of its real counterpart. And while I trust Bob’s Burgers enough to think the show could have made it work, I also trust the creative team enough to suspect the fact that that’s not the direction they pursue is evidence of how hard it would be to have Tina talk to Jericho for extended periods without looking like she’s suffered a mental breakdown. That may sound like a silly thing to be worried about, given her father once got so hooked on pain pills he became convinced he was a character in a video game, almost murdering a couple jerk kids in the process. It can be hard to know what represents the Bob’s Burgers universe stretched beyond its limits. Tina in particular may require special finesse, as she’s both a relatively serious character and one with an overactive imagination, so her digressions into fantasy may come off as a trace more real than those of the other characters.
The thing is, though, the middle portion of this episode felt like it was missing something. I’m not saying it was specifically missing Jericho, but consider how Tina’s story arc begins and ends. Once the family tells her she’s going to the local horse camp, she tells Jericho that this will be the end of their time together, and she kind of just assumes he won’t be there anymore once she has ridden a real horse. At the big riding demonstration at the end, she and Jericho have their emotional reunion, as she decides she would rather ride an imaginary horse that loves her than a real one that hates her and is just generally a pooping jerk. That setup and that conclusion appear to the two sides of a little redemption arc for Tina, in which she recognizes her error in judgment by pushing Jericho away and reembraces him. Some of Tina’s initial behavior at the stables does suggest a hubris story, as she goes out of her way to answer all the instructor’s questions in a way that rides the line between overenthusiasm and just wanting to show off.
All of which is to say that it’s damn rare for Bob’s Burgers to present Tina as anything other than the hero in her stories—especially when you factor in all the Louise stories where Tina is the clear if oft-ignored voice of reason—but this might have been an occasion to show her being straight-up arrogant and receiving a comeuppance from Plops. As it is, she just kind of get paired off with a dickish horse, and the episode is okay without ever resolving the Plops part of the story. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the folly of attempting a high-level technical critique when I have to keep typing “Plops” over and over, but what the hey.) As ever, this isn’t about saying the episode should have done this or that, but telling a version of this story in which bad things just kind of happen to Tina without her really doing anything to deserve them—even if only in karmic terms—makes her feel like a passive participant in her own story, and it neuters some of the impact of her returning to Jericho at the episode’s conclusion. Having her more actively push Jericho away and arrogantly convince herself that she’s the one to win over Plops—as opposed to the relatively meek, unassuming way she embarks on this futile task—might have given her a more fleshed-out arc, but it’s just one of a bunch of ways the main story could have had a little more spark to it.
I say the relatively weak storytelling only partially neuters the impact of the episode’s conclusion, and the reason it still works relatively well is because of the reactions of the crowd, particularly of Tina’s family. The sweetness of the Belchers is on fine display in the episode, as Gene and Louise spurn Linda’s latest admittedly insane maternal scheme of Restaurant Camp—not Camp Restaurant, dammit!—only to rally round her in an effort to save the camp. What makes this so great is that Bob instantly switches out of his usual rational curmudgeon role to play the part of the camp owner, telling them the show they put on better be amazing. This story doesn’t need much, and Linda’s emotional hairpin turns are admittedly more than a little silly, but the mere fact that both she and the kids go on emotional journeys and recognize where they might have been doing something wrong helps flesh out the story overall. Restaurant Camp is a ridiculous thing that exists only in Linda’s overly exuberant mind, but she, the kids, and even Bob infuse it with meaning because it becomes a vehicle for things they do care about, namely their relationships with one another.
“The Horse Rider-er” is a solid episode, and one that I liked more than my critique of the main story might suggest. This is a good example of a pleasant, effective Bob’s Burgers episode, one that doesn’t necessarily do anything egregiously wrong but also doesn’t quite do those crucial things right that would push the episode into that next echelon. But hey, we’ve got Teddy freaking out over the fryer situation, Bob going all-in on his role as the camp’s owner, the world’s most bored riding instructor, and Paul Rudd as the voice of Tina’s imaginary horse. I can only argue against an episode with all that so much, you know?
- Jimmy Pesto, once again doing his all to win father of the year.
- I do like the detail of how ticked off Tina was to see Jocelyn and Tammy there. And while it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to see Tammy—Jocelyn seems fine, honestly—this again feels like a bit more foreshadowing for an in-the-wrong Tina that we never really get to.
- I’m guessing those who really deeply feel for Bob and his financial burdens aren’t going to be super-crazy about this episode. We should probably sit down at some point and figure out which episodes are most brutal to Bob financially speaking. Pretty sure “Family Fracas” is going to top that list. Even if it’s not the single biggest loss monetarily, it’s got to be the cruelest.