Image: Fox

“We’re helping you guys record yourselves sleeping just like every kid in every family does.”

Since the return of Roseanne, those involved with the show have gone to great lengths to point out how they’re bringing a sitcom about a sardonic working-class Everyfamily whose spats are built on a foundation of love to a TV landscape that, apparently, sorely needs it. It’s an interesting claim given the number of shows about working-class families, or sitcoms that tackle political issues (One Day At A Time, Fresh Off The Boat, Black-ish), but particularly so given Bob’s Burgers, which has spent several seasons balancing absurdity, class commentary, and family warmth, with the occasional stab of pathos in case things are in danger of getting too light. (Teddy setting out crackers and cheese for Bob, who can’t bear to sit and visit on the couch that’s still stiff from disuse, is a three-act Greek tragedy in under sixty seconds.)

It’s never been a better time for Bob’s Burgers to lean on some small-scale, mundane family dynamics, just to prove a point. And boy, “Cheer Up, Sleepy Gene” wears its heart on its sleeve.

Gene is often a surreal joke-topper in the background of the Belcher family antics; swallowing dead men’s teeth, casually dismissing life debt, writing musicals. He can skew so surreal, in fact, that you can feel the shift in focus when circumstances drag him back into the horrifying minutiae of real-world childhood. And there’s nothing more horrifying than a sleepover to a kid who’s always been preternaturally happy at home.

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Tina and Louise regularly have tension between the comforts of home and the thrill of adventure. But for Gene, home has always been where the heart is—and when Alex invites him over, it’s an unwanted gesture of friendship that practically overwhelms Gene with the normal-kid insecurities to which he’s often immune. Things are immediately so bad that Tina gets to play big sister: “Wow, that’s a big step from the last time you got invited to a sleepover and you asked if we could move away for just one night so you wouldn’t have to go,” she praises, and then gives the most comforting rundown of a sleepover an anxious kid could ask for—including a heads-up about the inevitable strange toothpaste. Even Linda’s peculiar methods of motherhood, more intense for Gene than for the girls, is on his side. (In a lot of shows, kids talking about their mom with things like “I think if you say her name three times, she’ll appear anywhere” would be the punch line, and not a promise.)

Some of this, of course, exists to highlight Alex’s high-key, low-stakes, one-sided resentment of his parents. Gene is definitely not the Belcher to take into the woods for illicit camping, and he enjoys zero minutes of the sleepover even before things take a turn, but even that isn’t as upsetting to him as the specter of a kid turning his back on his parents. He’s still at the point where Bob’s attempts to treat him like an Everytween are met with the quietly stunned cri de coeur of millions of kids dropped off at their first sleepover: “He’s really leaving. That son of a bitch is really leaving.”

The episode itself is low stakes all over; there’s no sense that Gene and Alex would ever get caught in the woods, or even sneaking back into the house. Largely, this is because all three Belcher kids were in Full Effectiveness Mode. It’s also because Alex isn’t particularly memorable, which feels like the thing keeping this episode from greatness. (The show might agree, given that there seems to be no real push to establish either him or his parents as hilarious drop-ins for future appearances—they’re no Larsens.)

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But it also feels low stakes because this is less an episode about the plot antics, which are fairly TV standard, and more about Gene’s anxieties and perceptions as he tries to adjust to a world wide enough to include a new family, even for a night. It’s everything he fears, less because of the steamed fish and more because of the family dynamics, which are much cooler than back home, a rhythm so strange to him that he somehow ends up the voice of reason. (It seems to baffle him as much as anyone else.)

By deliberate contrast, Bob and Linda are back at home, borrowing music-bootleg audio equipment to record the Great Belcher Snore-Off, which requires both Tina and Louise to help set up the recording device, and ends with both of them deciding the status quo is perfectly fine—even better than the alternative, really. Tina and Louise might object (that is some snoring), but they’re busy having the sorts of adventures that are familiar to Bob’s Burgers and always feel like a throwback to sitcoms of an earlier era, where the idea of running around at night on adventures was the norm, and not a prelude to disaster. (Tina’s biggest and only argument for waking up their parents when Gene and Alex show up soaking wet on the doorstep: “But they would love this. They’re so good at telling us to change out of wet clothes.”) But Louise and Tina are resourceful, and Gene and Alex even remember to Parkour the squeaky stairs on their way back up; the kids are alright.

There are plenty of comments in this episode about what’s “normal”: Louise about the recording device, Bob about Gene’s maxi-pad backpack, Gene about Alex’s family. But “Cheer Up, Sleepy Gene” is a straightforward and a squishy one. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, like leave your trash-bag Alpine resort and sugar packets, or accept invitations to sleepovers, because growing up is inevitable and will be absolutely full of things you don’t want to do. But otherwise, don’t worry; the shenanigans are window dressing. Bob’s Burgers believes that whatever makes you happy without hurting those around you is your normal. If you can help someone, try. And if it’s scary, you can always come home.

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Stray observations

  • “Let’s just lay down and pretend we’re dead.” Stop stealing my moves, kids.
  • This is a standout episode for intense body noises. Good almost-barfing and earthquake snores, everybody.
  • There are some great visual touches in this episode; I particularly enjoyed the stylized crayon-color sleepover fantasy sequence, and the bird’s-eye shot of Gene and Alex in the circle of light in the rain.
  • The episode’s darkest, best moment: “I thought all adults snored. It’s just the sound of them dying.” “Aw, we’re dying.”
  • “Wow, I’ve never seen someone cry and eat peanut butter at the same time.” Stop stealing my moves.

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