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Bob's Burgers reminds us there is no greater love than a girl and her goose

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Since returning to the Bob’s Burgers beat earlier this season, my general sense of the show is that it’s, well, pleasant. That already connotes a criticism, and that’s not my intention. It’s just that the show has figured out a reliable formula not just its jokes or its stories, but also for each of its characters. Bob or, say, Tina doesn’t vary wildly from episode to episode, and we’ve been following these characters long enough that it’s possible to guess the broad brushstrokes of how they will act as soon as the episode’s plots snap into focus. This is yet another trait the show shares with its spiritual forebear King Of The Hill, which in its later seasons generally retraced a lot of the same beats in its stories, because there were only so many ways Hank or Peggy or Bobby were ever going to react to the latest low-key ridiculousness unfolding in Arlen. Whatever these shows sacrifice in unpredictability or quick-hit gags they make up for in being able to present and develop characters who feel recognizable, even real, from week to week in a way that most similar animated shows struggle with.

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But it’s that context that makes an episode like tonight’s “Every Which Way But Goose” so wonderful. Tina shatters audience expectations of her in this episode, because whatever else I might have thought her general interest in all things boys and butts would lead her, I didn’t think it would end with her reenacting her very own version of the myth of Leda and the Swan. (Fine, fine, now that I’ve typed it out, it feels way more plausible. But still!) The more conventional way for the eighth grade dance scenario to play out—how I initially guessed it would, honestly—would be for Tina to be gung-ho about joining the dance committee, only to find all her zombie-themed ideas stymied by her foes, probably Tammy. That’s a fine premise, but it’s not one that would necessarily reveal things we previously didn’t know about Tina. Where tonight’s episode goes, however, shows what happens when Tina is pushed beyond her Jimmy Jr. breaking point, showing an aggressive side of her we’ve rarely seen since, well, she first met Tammy.

The Tina of that episode though was angry and distracted because she was being blackmailed. Here, on the other hand, she shows the genuine teen angst of someone furious that everyone alternatively lets her down or doesn’t understand. That she places all her hope and attachment in a goose named Bruce is an unusual manifestation of those hurt feelings—admittedly less unusual for Tina than it would be for literally anyone else—but the key is how shocking and new it feels to see Tina display such volcanic emotions at all, especially in such a sustained way. What’s especially funny is that Tina is most typically herself in this episode when she’s hanging out with the goose, which only heightens the contrast.

The way her relationship with Bruce plays out recalls Gene’s more parental love for the Jon Hamm-voiced talking toilet from “O.T.: The Outside Toilet.” The episode is generally consistent about the basic fact that no, of course Bruce doesn’t actually reciprocate human feelings for Tina, with its sudden refusal to honk the moment she tests him an amusing confirmation that, yeah, this is almost all in Tina’s head. Key word there is “almost, though, as the old coot from the seaplane landing and the go-kart races informs her that Bruce does appear to have developed a real attachment to her. The climax at the dance somehow manages to present both Bruce and Jimmy Jr. coming to Tina’s aid make sense without ever being in danger of violating suspension of disbelief. Again, it helps that the show is happy to pivot Bruce back to regular goose at a moment’s notice, much to Jimmy Jr.’s painful chagrin.

Jimmy Jr. is also especially well-used here. He’s perhaps the least consistently developed of the extended main cast, specifically in how much his interest in Tina fluctuates from episode to episode based on the demands of the plot. “Every Which Way But Goose” appears to be headed in one direction with his inexplicable coldness toward Tina, only to find something almost touching in his plight. As you would expect with Jimmy Jr., it involves dancing and his butt, with an especially tricky move from Save The Last Dance to tie them together. When he finally reveals the terrible truth to an uninterested Tina, I actually felt sympathy for Jimmy Jr., which I’m not sure the show has ever wrung out of me previously. Whatever question there was about how much he cares about Tina feels resolved by just how much butt- and goose-related pain he puts himself through in this episode.

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The parents’ story also does a fine job of taking seriously a character often treated as a throwaway source of jokes. I struggle to think of many, if any genuinely mean-spirited Bob’s Burgers gags, but it’s fair to say that Gretchen is a character the show cares relatively little about. It’s fun then to see her considered with some seriousness, even if the origin point for the story is her need to find a wedding date who won’t get deliriously drunk and stupid at a family wedding. The episode gets to eat its cake and have it too, as it first cycles through a whole bunch of ridiculous Gretchen behavior with her dreary Perfect Pair dates before pointing out that such behavior is what makes her who she is, and a good friend would respect that. Linda is at least coming from a kind-hearted place in wanting to find the right person for her friend, even if she utterly tramples on said friend’s wants and privacy in service of that goal. The resolution, with Linda offering to be the ideal fun but presentable date for Gretchen, is a sweet capper to a story mostly built off a couple of the show’s sillier characters being silly while Bob just mutters off to the side.

“Every Which Way But Goose” is a delightful episode. It’s the kind the show can only do on occasion, else its impact would be lost. This is the kind of jolt Bob’s Burgers ought to give its characters every so often, and Tina especially is a great character to see pushed outside of her nomal, muted emotional register. It’s hilarious to see just how off their usual orbit everyone is thrown by Tina’s acting out, with Gene and Louise struggling to know what even to do with their sister’s inexplicable and, yeah, disturbing goose lust. As ever with Bob’s Burgers, we get to a happy ending eventually, even if Tina is more than a little ticked that Bruce moves on quite so quickly, but the journey out and back is longer and stranger than we typically see. This is why, even nine seasons in, Bob’s Burgers still feels special.

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Stray observations

  • “Hey Dad, what are you going to wear to Gene and Mom’s wedding?” “A suit, I guess.”
  • “My foot is a urologist!”
  • “She’s pretending to spill mustard on herself.”
  • “This guy does seem kind of boring. I mean, he says his interests are reading and naps.” “What? I like those too. Except the reading.”
  • “I’m going to go pee. Angrily!”
  • “Guess I wasn’t sad and desperate enough.” “Aww, Bruce, you’re a sensitive guy!”
  • “Software engineer? Call me when you’re a hardware engineer!”
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