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Bob's Burgers offers a sweet portrait of its two trickiest characters

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With “All That Gene,” Bob’s Burgers pulls off its most difficult task, and the clue is in the name: This is a really, really good episode all about Gene. Much of why Gene is the hardest Belcher to build stories around is on display here, starting with the fact that he’s always on to the point of obnoxiousness. Tonight’s episode digs into what it would mean for Gene to try his hand at performing and be completely, unequivocally rejected. Until now, his forays into acting and other performing activities like cheerleading have all happened at Wagstaff, where his more-is-more approach has the perfect audience in, well, middle schoolers. But here he’s joined the cast of the closest thing the town has to legitimate theater, a production of A Potluck In The Grass by Alabama O’Callahan—which are truly wondrous fake show and playwright names, respectively. The harsh response of Donovan, the show’s director turned de facto star, to Gene’s antics is enough to break the spirit of the most boisterous Belcher, leaving Linda to fix the mess she inadvertently created.

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That’s the other thing that makes “All That Gene” remarkable. It’s not just an excellent Gene episode, it’s an excellent Linda episode, too. Indeed, while Gene’s love of his particular notion of performing is at the heart of the story, he isn’t the character who drives the plot forward. That’s his mom, who saves his failed audition by promising Donovan that she will sell out all 50ish remaining tickets for the show’s opening night and work as a stagehand. Unlike most instances where Linda is dazzled by even the dimmest of bright lights, here she keeps her focus squarely on supporting Gene, whatever it takes.

The only slight problem is Gene’s completely unsuitability for the role of Quiet Eli, which is why she had to make such outrageous promises in the first place. This is Linda operating with the very best of intentions, but being caught even in a well-intentioned lie undermines the whole foundation of her relationship with her son, which is being completely, over-the-top supportive of everything he does. The sad thing is, there’s no reason to think Linda isn’t sincere when she tells Gene that he’s a better singer than Adele. I have zero issue believing that that’s something she believes. But even the most ludicrously sweet, maple syrup-soaked treat can’t repair that trust once it’s shattered. It’s only when she convinces him that the Gene Show is exactly what she and the show’s elderly audience most want to see that Gene pulls out of his funk.

Those are some pretty serious stakes, especially for the two loudest, zaniest Belchers. That’s a big part of why “All That Gene” works, as it doesn’t treat the idea of Gene or Linda having complex feelings as too ridiculous to contemplate. Previous, superficially similar episodes have made that mistake. The flawed “Gene It On” is this episode’s most obvious forerunner, and it illustrates this issue perfectly. Gene has some feelings about cheerleading, but they are way less strong than those of his rival, as though the show can’t quite imagine Gene properly caring about something—other than a talking toilet, I guess, that’s been clearly established. Linda meanwhile, is so caught up in reliving her nonexistent past glories that she loses all sight of anyone else, least of all Gene. I don’t come away from that episode with a sense of Linda and Gene as mother and son, whereas “All That Gene” is entirely concerned with that.

As such, the episode is happy to lean on the other characters for a lot of its gags. Mr. Ambrose is the ideal familiar local to show up in the community theater production, especially one as complicatedly horny as this one is. His lack of filter and tendency to narrate events from his own unique world—his being a Billy Eichner character, in other words—are a ready source of gags, plus he’s an entirely logical candidate to spill the truth about Linda and Donovan’s deal to Gene for no reason beyond, well, why wouldn’t he? It’s also great to see the return of Sharon Horgan’s Kathleen, the widowed Irish accountant who may be a little sweet on Teddy, and in whom Teddy is brutally, hilariously unsubtle in his affections. I believe this is the first time a theoretical love interest for Teddy has made a return appearance, at least once you eliminate the murderous one. Whereas previous episodes that have delved into Teddy’s romantic life have made that the main focus, here it’s a tiny side plot, which almost feels like progress for the poor guy. At least this episode doesn’t have to call into question the very existential possibility of him dating someone—though given how hilariously atrocious he is at as little as saying hi to Kathleen, maybe that does still bear revisiting.

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Before wrapping up, let’s take a second and sketch out the Belcher family’s various combinations, because it speaks to what’s so good about this episode. Most stories that divide the family do so along generational lines, with the adults getting one story and the kids getting the other. When the show wants to explore the specific character dynamics, these are all well-defined. It’s easy to contrast the impulsive, happy-go-lucky Linda with the cautious, perpetually tired Bob, as it is with any one of the kids and the other two, depending on who is getting the story’s focus. When the show mixes and matches kids with adults, we’ve seen the show mine stories from how Bob struggles to relate to Gene and how Linda doesn’t always connect with Tina or especially Louise. Both the Belcher daughters connect well with Bob—again, Louise is the more extreme case here—and those pairings have given the show some of its most fertile terrain to explore. In the case of tonight’s episode, that admittedly is just a joyful obsession with tweaking Bob’s love handles, which is about as slight as side stories get but still does everything it needs to do. It helps that H. Jon Benjamin’s yelps are so funny, as is Bob’s efforts to avoid any such further attacks.

The one big under-explored connection then is Gene and Linda. We know from various episodes that these two are close, with Gene seeing so much of his love of performing in his mom’s exuberance. But what does that bond mean when it leaves the confines of the Belcher residence? It’s taken 10 seasons for the show to really dig into that question, which has to be some sort of testament to how tricky Gene and Linda episodes are. Even here, the episode keeps it simple at the end. Neither Linda nor Gene necessarily learns anything from their journey like, say, Louise did with Bob way back in “Carpe Museum.” Here, rather, the point is just to reaffirm that these two make perfect sense together, and that whatever disappointments or rejections Gene might encounter, his mom is always going to support him 100 percent. Those two are happy to be weirdoes together, and honestly, that’s a beautiful note to end on. The smile on Gene’s face when he realizes his mom really does believe in him is one of the purest moments of emotion we’ve seen from him in the show’s entire run. That look alone justifies the episode’s journey up to that point. That “All That Gene” has a ton of fun jokes along the way is a hell of a bonus.

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Stray observations

  • Teddy still believes the family’s last name is Burgers. Teddy is the best.
  • “He’s so handsome.” “Great body…” Linda and Bob, appreciators of the Rock.
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