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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bob's Burgers plays the hits with a song contest gone awry

Illustration for article titled iBobs Burgers /iplays the hits with a song contest gone awry
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“Wag The Song” gives us a classic Bob’s Burgers setup, as the Belchers find themselves dealing with two of the show’s longest-tenured antagonists, Jimmy Pesto and Mr. Frond. Each of their stories are quintessentially them. Jimmy is so desperate for some more ill-conceived flash that he has installed an awning made of old Ferrari parts, while Mr. Frond is making another failed attempt to prove his guidance counselor bona fides by making a contest for students to write and select the new school song. The latter story at the school gets more attention in this episode, as is generally customary for whenever the adults and kids are put in separate stories, and we actually get a better sense than usual of just what Mr. Frond is trying to accomplish and how conflicted he is about the mess he’s made through his string of foolish oversights and unforced errors. He’s the perfect co-conspirator for Tina here, who isn’t quite as obsessive in this story as she was, say, “A Fish Called Tina,” but still proves plenty willing to break the rules in a mildly well-intentioned bid for Wagstaff immortality.

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This is an episode that benefits from just how simple and clear everyone’s motivations are. Tina’s inability to take a school photo because of her awful luck with the flu fits so seamlessly into her character that I’m only almost sure this wasn’t established seven or eight seasons ago. That’s a funny, nicely observed inciting reason for Tina to feel concerned she’s passing through her school years without leaving a mark. Bob’s Burgers has a reliably good read on its characters and their desires, and the show recognizes this matters to Tina without being the existential calamity that, again, her time as a failing big fish was. That more low-key approach makes it a lot easier for Tina to share the spotlight with her siblings and the other kids. Since Tina isn’t having a full-on meltdown—just, you know, a little sly compromising of her core principles—Louise and Gene can focus on their magnum opus, “The Pee-Pee And The Poo-Poo.” Plus there’s more time to devote to the other kids’ songs, which are all different breeds of hilariously awful.

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Poor Mr. Frond. Nobody sort of means well quite like he does. Louise recognizes the first of two obvious flaws with his student song contest straight away, namely that students will pick the winner through volume of their applause, so the winner figures to be the dumbest, silliest choice. But really it’s on him for missing the other big issue, that children typically aren’t good songwriters. Before getting into Mr. Frond’s scheme to fix this disaster, we get to hear the songs themselves, which prove perfect encapsulations of the various kids behind them. None of these are bad just for bad’s sake, as all track with the specific characters. Courtney Wheeler has some talent but overextends herself even as she should have known better—the most common reason for messing up in this show’s universe, I’d say. Jocelyn is pure vapidity, wanting just to say “Whoa” for the entire song because she’s heard that elsewhere and likes it. Tammy wants to game the system to win—giving her a broad similarity to Louise, not for the first time—but can only do so in the most direct and ridiculous way possible, by singing the name of every kid at the school. Regular-Sized Rudy is trying his best despite his physical limitations and his dad’s extremely Kirk Van Houten home like, which merge with him talk-singing about the school a la “Love Shack.” And then there are eventual winners Zeke and Jimmy Jr., who are just pure rambunctious chaos energy.

One of the unexpected wrinkles of this story is how sympathetic Mr. Frond turns out to be. Unlike, say, his attempts to cover up his bad planning in “Synchronized Swimming,” he appears to genuinely care about the kids here, in as weird and limited a way as that ends up being. Mostly, it comes down to what he says to Tina when she asks if they’re bad: They’re definitely not great, but at least they feel bad about it. In the past, Mr. Frond’s concerns have often appeared to begin and end with his own career aspirations, but here he is trying to clean up his own mess and spare the kids’ feelings as much as he can. To his credit, when Tina does the right thing and sings her actual, barely begun song, Mr. Frond accepts his defeat and declares Zeke and Jimmy Jr.’s song about wanting to be inside Wagstaff the winner—albeit with a desperate plea no one tell their parents. None of this is so far from the Mr. Frond we know, but these little variations help keep the storytelling fresh.

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There’s less of that with Jimmy Pesto, give or take his admission that he kept the awning mostly because he needs the simple joy of annoying Bob. But then, his whole point is to be the same irrational thorn in Bob under any circumstances. While that can be a bit much when it’s the main thrust of an episode—one of the show’s wiser course corrections was largely not doing those beyond the first few seasons—it works beautifully when it’s contained as the restaurant subplot. The awning is the perfect vehicle for this because it’s very plausibly the kind of faux status symbol he would think looks good—or, more accurately, makes him look good—and the problem it presents for Bob and Linda is simple yet intractable. The various attempts to solve it let the Belchers and Teddy do what they do best, which is lose it at varying speed. For Teddy, it comes as soon as he obligingly refuses to put down the cardboard, even as it burns his hand. Bob gets there next, as the attempt to shade the restaurant with newspaper instantly brings in a sympathetic passerby and a realtor eager to sell this clearly abandoned property. Linda is too distracted to ever get quite as worked up as her husband, but she does get into a whole debate with him about how best to throw bread at birds, so I’d say that counts.

“Wag The Song” is an ideal distillation of what makes Bob’s Burgers so reliably great. It knows all its characters, both the Belchers and the wider ensemble, so well that it needs only simple setups like the song contest or the awning to set them off. That could then feel repetitive, but the show avoids that trap by finding little wrinkles in its characters—here with Mr. Frond, and a little bit with Tina—to keep things fresh, and to rely on just how massive the show’s bench is to keep mixing and matching which students get involved in a given story. And it knows when to put more time into a story and when to keep it short and simple, as we see with the kids’ and adults’ plots respectively. That’s the core Bob’s Burgers formula, more or less, and while that can’t explain what makes the show special when it pushes itself and tries something wilder or more innovative, it does speak to just how this show has been so consistently good for a decade—and why the show could keep this going for years to come.

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Stray observations

  • As that last paragraph maybe indicated, I was going for a little summation of what I think the show is all about and how it works, as I’m about to be traveling for the next month or so, and it seems like now is as good a time as any to step away. As these ever later publish times indicated, I may not have strictly speaking run out of things to say about the show, but it’s definitely become exponentially harder to find new things to observe, so I’m ready to pass the baton once again. So, thanks for reading along with my Bob’s Burgers reviews over the past few years, and I’ll see you around!
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