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Of all the possible late-stage Bob’s Burgers developments, here’s one I really didn’t expect: Nine years in, and the show has finally figured out Gene. “Drumforgiven” follows the recent “All That Gene” as the second episode this season to focus the emotional crux of the episode on the middle Belcher, and between them a clear blueprint has emerged as to how to tell Gene stories. What’s especially exciting is that those two episodes offer a consistent picture of what it means for Gene to experience an emotional crisis, so it’s not just that a couple good episodes independently came up with ways to wring some feelings out of a character who otherwise is best-suited to delivering Dadaesque one-liners. I actually feel like I now know who Gene is better than I did even a few episodes ago, in much the same way the show figured out how to make audiences connect with Tina early in the show’s run, and then again with Louise a few seasons later.

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So, based on these episodes, who is Gene? He’s a kid with dreams and boundless, if forever unfocused energy devoted to pursuing those dreams. When reality crashes down around him, though, he withdraws into a muted, forlorn version of himself. What’s interesting about that is the role Gene plays in this episode and “All That Gene” is actually pretty minimal, as the whole point is that he disengages from those around him. Both Louise in this episode and Linda in the earlier story go to absurd, self-defeating lengths to do right by Gene because they don’t know how else to reach him when he’s so sad. In theory, having Gene act like this might seem as though it would short-circuit opportunities to reveal more about the characters, given he doesn’t really interact with anyone. But even just the fact we know the electric drum set—to say nothing of his insecurity around whether his younger sister actually believes he can take care of himself—matters that much to him is a key departure from earlier Gene-centric stories like, say, “Gene It On”, where the one-off guest character very obviously cared about cheerleading but it wasn’t at all clear what it meant for Gene himself.

Because the episode can give Gene a proper emotional arc, everything else just works better. Louise’s defense of her brother plays as precisely that, an act of over-the-top and probably unnecessarily protective love for her brother. There’s actual pathos as Gene psychs himself up to talk to Dino, the owner of the Ocean Avenue Hifi Emporium. Bob’s Burgers can absolutely be funny enough to get by without any of this stuff, with Louise simply operating as an agent of chaos and Gene remaining more or less his usual weirdo self even after Dino bans him. But the fact the episode takes this time to establish those dynamics just makes everything flow easier. The story has a clear momentum, building to the satisfying resolution in which Gene actually articulates to Louise what bothers him so much about her trying to help him. The focus on Gene’s emotional distress even provides free jokes along the way, like when Zeke shows off more of his surprising inner depth when commenting on Gene’s sadness.

The other half of this episode, in which Teddy keeps making far too big a deal of doing work for Jimmy Pesto behind Bob’s back, is just as good. I’m not always the biggest fan of Teddy, especially when the entire joke for his appearance takes the form of him yelling, but this is one of the show’s best executions of that particular joke. He’s just so completely unreasonable at every turn, escalating without cause as Bob struggles to understand what, if anything, he ought to do. We get what feels like a rare Mort appearance here, as the restaurant’s other regular customer attracts Teddy’s ire when he judges the mortician is trying to steal his spot as Bob’s best friend. These kind of scenes tend to work best when it sounds like all involved—principally H. Jon Benjamin as Bob and Larry Murphy as Teddy—are just winging it, improvising their shouting matches to deliver something that just barely stays on the right side of coherent. It’s very possible all the jokes here, even a moment that feels especially ad-libbed like Teddy missing the door and trying to exit through a wall, are in the original script, but the whole thing just feels so free and loose, which adds to the overall comedic effect. It’s also a nice little contrast to the main story, which gets some of its strength from how clearly and logically all the characters are presented.

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And here’s the best part about this Gene episode: “Drumforgiven”, like “All That Gene” before it, is a really strong, funny episode. That’s true of the Gene story, plus all the business with Linda, Bob, and Teddy. My biggest laugh-out-loud moment of this entire season came when Linda confidently declares “A woman knows” when a man has had a sex dream about her. She is in similarly fine form later in the episode in the scene around the dinner table, where she insists on playing peacemaker right up to picking and immediately resolving a fight with Tina. This is one of those episodes that puts every character in a position to be as funny as possible, no matter how small their role might be, and a lot of that comes from how recognizable the characters are. All four Pestos illustrate that. Andy and Ollie remain as delightfully bizarre as ever, given enough time to weird everyone out without overstaying their welcome. Jimmy Pesto shows up right at the end after lurking in the background of Bob and Teddy’s storyline, there to be his usual obnoxious jerk self and try to get a rise out of his rival. And then there’s Jimmy Jr., who just so desperately wants to have an excuse to play Chris de Burgh’s “Lady In Red” as part of a scheme.

“Drumforgiven” is a hell of a great way for Bob’s Burgers to kick off a new decade. Some of what we get here feels familiar, especially on Bob and Linda’s side of the episode, but done with the kind of goofy energy to head off any risk of staleness. And then, the episode gives us more of a Gene we have seen precious little of before, but in a way that feel like it expands the show’s possibilities rather than contradict anything. Maybe Bob’s Burgers only figures out a Belcher kid when it absolutely needs to. The show first showed its true potential when it got inside Tina’s head, and its mid-run development of Louise helped keep the show fresh and surprising five or six seasons in. Now, in season 10, it’s finally time for Gene to shine. I’m very pleasantly surprised that I’m able to say that I can’t wait to see where the show goes with him next.

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Stray observations

  • Bobcat Goldthwait is on hand to give what is by his standards a pretty subdued performance as Dino. I do like the little realism that Gene challenging Dino to a battle of the drums goes, well, exactly like you’d expect a kid taking on an adult to go.
  • One thing that does occur with Gene: His withdrawing inward whenever he’s feeling sad does feel a little like how his father represses emotions he isn’t prepared to feel—which in this episode might have included some of what he said in his fake fight with Teddy, depending on how much you believe Linda. Anyway, it’s cool that Gene’s emotions make some sense in terms of where he might get that from.
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