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Bob’s Burgers returns with a spotlight for one of its best new characters

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Tonight’s 10th season premiere gives us a real contender for the worst thing the kids have ever done. Don’t take my word for it: Bob himself tells the kids he’s never been angrier with them than he is after discovering they lost his big anniversary present to Linda at the waterpark. He even bans them from attending his funeral! What’s so brutal about this particular predicament is how unsolvable it feels. As Bob observes, the ring is so small and the waterpark is so big, and the kids’ efforts to retrieve it feel less like a grand season-opening caper than just a refusal to acknowledge the inevitable. The episode can’t resist the ending coda, in which we learn the engagement ring will be taking up permanent residence in a bird’s nest right outside the Belchers’ window, but beyond that flourish most everything about how the scenario unfolds feels all too real.

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Of course the kids would root around in the secret present hiding spot and open whatever they find. Of course they would play around with the ring until it got stuck on someone’s—Gene’s, it was always going to be Gene’s—finger. Of course they would refuse to ask an adult for help even after all that nerdy sunscreen failed to remove it. And of course Gene would then forget about the ring while working on his plan on letting his bones slowly dissolve in the lazy river. I don’t know if I ever managed to string together quite that many thoughtless, idiotic decisions when I was a kid, but each of them rings true. That’s where Bob’s Burgers deploys its specific kind of realism to such great effect. A nighttime treasure hunt at a waterpark really ought to feel contrived, yet as presented in “The Ring (But Not Scary)”, it’s the most logical thing imaginable. The only danger with the show’s authenticity is when it touches a little too closely on the family’s poverty, a point noted repeatedly over the past decade. And yes, I do feel a little sad and queasy knowing Bob still has all those $15 payments ahead of him for a ring he never even got to give.

But what cuts against that, and indeed what makes the episode’s horribly plausible portrayal of the kids messing everything up so palatable, is the magical presence of Nat Kinkle. (Pronounced just like it’s spelled, why, what did you hear?) Full disclosure: “V For Valentine-detta” is one of the episodes I missed while on a break from watching and reviewing the show, so this is my first encounter with the town’s most awesomely self-realized limo driver. Jillian Bell is a complete delight as Nat, her performance perfectly pitched to match the writing’s characterization of Nat as someone who meets all of life’s challenges with resolute enthusiasm. Nat gets a lot of the episode’s best lines and most extended bits, like when she individually greets all the members of her old cannabis and scuba women’s group, complete with quick explanation of the emotional struggles that come with her commitment to sobriety. But there’s also all the little details the episode gets right about Nat, like her predilection for calling Bob things like “Robert” or “Mr. B.” I don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone call Bob by his presumed real first name—and it really is entirely possible his name is actually just “Bob”—and it’s such moments that capture Nat: She’s always here to do the right thing, even if she’s operating on a slightly different wavelength from everyone else.

Image: Fox

If the episode had less fun with Nat, it’s possible she could come across as a mere plot engine. After all, she’s mostly there to bridge the gap between the kids’ dumb mistake with the ring and the preposterous solution that absolutely needs an adult to work. For the kids to get into the waterpark at all, they need someone with a connection on the inside and a willingness to get them there at a moment’s notice, preferably without asking for anything in return, as there’s already plenty going on in this episode. Nat makes all that possible just by her previously established trait of being a big fan of Linda’s and, by extension, the kids. There are some other characters in the show’s extended repertoire who might go along with such a ridiculous scheme—Mickey, maybe, and certainly Teddy—but their whole deal, especially Teddy’s, is that they make any situation worse. Part of the point of “The Ring (But Not Scary)” is that the kids have already made things as bad as Bob could possibly imagine. As such, tonight’s episode needs someone who can make being calm and competent funny, and that’s where Nat is such a uniquely brilliant character for the show. Plus, she’s given the most wonderfully fishlike animation when she dives back into the water to tell her friends the hunt for the ring is over.

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The other fun decision tonight’s episode makes—and it’s a fairly fundamental one—is to actually bring Bob into the main story. A lot of stories revolving around the kids trying to fix a mess they have made will leave the parents on the sidelines, perhaps busying them with some ridiculousness in the restaurant. That structure still works after 10 seasons, but it’s one of the show’s more familiar narrative formulas, so I’m always happy to see Bob’s Burgers subvert expectations and have Bob discover the ring is missing as early on as he does. A big advantage of that choice is it lets the show explore the dynamics between Bob and the kids, even as he is barely on speaking terms with them. The episode actually tries some subtlety as it resolves that particular conflict: Bob never explicitly forgives them, but the kids’ desperate apologies—to say nothing of Tina pleading that Bob is actually “a land dad”—make it clear just how much they are affected by their father’s feelings. We also get so many wonderful reminders of just how much of a weird mess Bob is in his own right, from his searching the waterpark in his underwear to his nervously addressing the owner of the park as “Your highness.”

Image: Fox
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Besides, bringing Bob into the heart of the episode means the resolution can focus more on him and Linda than the kids. There’s less really to be said of them beyond simply that they screwed up. But Bob gets to tell Linda how much she matters to him, and Linda gets to assure Bob that material reminders like a giant honking ring matter so much less than what they already share. It’s a sweet, thoughtful ending. What happens after said ending is quintessential Bob’s Burgers, as the waterpark owner decides to celebrate the couple by reopening the park for all the unexpected visitors… just as a pink eye-stricken Aunt Gayle has jumped into the lazy river. By the very particular accounting of Bob’s Burgers, I’m pretty sure this counts as an outright happy ending. It’s certainly a lovely beginning for this latest season.

Stray observations

  • It’s snuck up on me, but my favorite running gag in the show might be Linda always yelling “Stay out of my room!” before leaving the kids in the house.
  • The whole subplot with Linda and Gayle is a nice reminder of how those two actually work as sisters. As ridiculous as each of them is—and yeah, Gayle is considerably more so—they do love each other, assuming one isn’t trying to force the other to take their necessary pink eye medicine.
  • The show has trained me well, because as soon as Bob mentioned his and Linda’s anniversary is 9/3, all I could think is, “Right, nine is divisible by three.”
  • “Nerd alert!”
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