Let’s start at the restaurant. The Bob, Linda, and Teddy subplots tend to follow a straightforward formula: Linda and Teddy get worked up over something, Bob grumbles over them getting worked up over what is, in fact, nothing. This week’s example of the form is clever in giving us some actual mystery—just what is going on with that lady sitting in her car? Most of the time, the adults’ subplots are built around actual, concrete happenings in the restaurant, or around the singularly weird topics of discussion that Teddy and Linda fixate on. This is a bit different, as a woman silently sitting in her car all day is just enough of a mystery to get both the characters and the audience wondering. Few of us would go to the same place Linda does, assuming the woman is there to murderously settle gambling losses an amnesiac Linda saddled her with. But then, few of us are Linda. Such is our blessing and our curse.
The eventual resolution is clever, in that it keeps the story simple. I had wondered whether the woman might be a former owner of the property or have some other emotional connection to the property. Instead, the episode reveals she’s an agoraphobe and that she just figured Bob’s restaurant is quiet enough for her to face her fears safely, a point Bob doesn’t argue. Given the episode is already juggling a beautifully convoluted plot elsewhere—and we’ll get there shortly—it’s a good choice to let Linda and Teddy get at least some of the ridiculousness out of their systems before segueing to sweetness. That’s sweetness on a Belcher curve, admittedly, but the three adults all come together to make the woman feel as welcome and unnoticed as they can. Teddy and Linda are much too bighearted and curious to ever leave her alone, to say nothing of weird: the former screaming about how he can’t find the spot on the counter he’s supposed to be staring at splits the difference perfectly between hilarious and terrifying. But it all works out in the end, with the woman promising to be back. The episode takes it as read that Bob and company would celebrate this, though Teddy does feel the need to ask if anyone else found her a bit annoying.
As for Gene’s main story, it’s its own low-key kind of perfect. I’ve written in the past about how tricky Gene can be when tasked with carrying the story. He doesn’t generally want things, and those things he does want—endless attention, a fart noise-based music career—are some combination of obnoxious and unfeasible. But there’s something about Courtney Wheeler that brings out the leading man in him, which is not something I would have ever guessed way back when “The Unbearable Like-Likeness Of Gene” aired. As fantastic as that episode was, it didn’t really suggest Courtney had much potential as a recurring character, if for no other reason than both the script and voice actor David Wain went into overdrive to make her as insufferable as possible. But what all her subsequent experiences have suggested, and tonight’s episode entirely confirms, is that the problem isn’t with Courtney, who is perfectly fine when left to her own devices. It’s her dad.
Doug Wheeler is at his hilarious worst here. His manipulation is admirably straightforward, appropriate for a decently intelligent if deeply misguided adult trying to fool a child into doing what he wants. When he visits Gene in the rain, he doesn’t offer some sweet lies about how Courtney still wants him or how roller dancing glory is his for the taking or whatever. He just straight-up tells Gene that the only logical way to get his friend Alex back is to give him diarrhea, and he says it forcefully enough that Gene buys it. Previous episodes have shown Doug going too far and being far too willing to live through his daughter, but “Roller? I Hardly Knew Her” takes that to a new extreme. As ridiculous as his plot to eliminate Alex might be, it feels plenty plausible that a parent might do something like this. Part of what makes this work is the details on the margins, especially all the interactions with Alex’s mother. Doug’s off-stage reprimanding of Alex’s mother for being too intrusive on his coaching makes it all the more satisfying when she learns he tried to have her son poisoned and starts chasing him down.
It’s all deeply silly, of course, but tonight’s episode keeps locking in on those little moments of truth that make the episode’s humor work. Gene, Courtney, and Alex all occupy a specifically, exquisitely awkward age between kids like Louise, who are young enough to still view the world with terrifying certainty, and those like Tina, who are still plenty awkward but occasionally gain confidence from the wild swings of puberty. Alex puts its best when Gene asks if he likes Courtney: He likes every girl in their grade. That line saves the episode from having to figure out if it wants to do anything with Gene and Courtney’s on-again, mostly off-again thing. But it also doesn’t sacrifice any specificity, as the episode is still capturing something true about how weird and nerdy all these kids are. Alex knows he’s a loser, even when he’s roller dancing with Courtney, but he’s not about to turn down a chance to do some light touching with a girl, any girl.
That all leads us to what is the real trick to a successful Gene episode: He has to be the most dynamic, heroic character of his story, all without making the other characters too lame or repulsive to want around. In Alex, Courtney, and Doug, tonight’s episode manages to strike precisely that balance. Alex is so dorky and unathletic he makes Gene look cool. Courtney has shown herself to be some kind of kindred spirit with the middle Belcher, but she’s not going to go for the big day-saving gesture like Gene will. And Doug is a huge piece of work in this episode, but the very fact the episode is so upfront about his villainy makes the whole thing work. He’s so relentlessly awful here, and John Michael Higgins is so skilled at making that awfulness entertaining, that the whole episode comes together beautifully.
- You… you could probably talk me into playing a round of Robo-Wizard Quest. I’m not proud.
- The sequence near the beginning where Doug and Courtney demand Gene lift her is a good barometer of how well this episode will work for you. Everything about it—the performances, the pacing, the direction—is geared to make that moment as annoying as possible without totally crossing the line. But, you know, if it does cross the line and just come across as really annoying, this may not be the episode for you.
- Thomas Middleditch is great fun as Alex. The character is so relentlessly truthful about himself and his shortcomings!
- Teddy’s continued insistence that Bob’s last name is Burgers will never, ever get old.