Does continuity matter at all when we assess a show like Bob’s Burgers? That’s an honest question. Part of the fun of an episode like “Hauntening” lies in seeing just how far the story can stretch the show’s reality, but I’m not at all sure this story reaches the show’s previously established logical breaking points. To put that more concretely, “Hauntening” succeeds at least in part because of the self-conscious outlandishness of its premise. Ordinary haunted houses fail to scare Louise because her coldly analytical mind can’t help but see the unimpressive reality behind the trick. She doesn’t see the sense in essentially agreeing to be scared just for the hell of it, and she lacks the skittishness and the overactive imaginations of her siblings that allow them to be scared. That’s a fine character trait to build an episode around, though it’s a little abstract, which helps explain why the opening scene devotes so much time to laying out just where Louise’s head is at, and why the Belchers and their friends (or maybe just their best customers) would devote so much time and resources to giving her the scare she always wanted but never gotten.
So does it matter at all that we know full well that Louise has been really, truly scared before, in ways that very closely resemble the kind of experience she has here? We know she and her family once spent Christmas being terrorized by a depressed guy in a candy cane truck, and we know the Belchers once spent a rainy night in a house with someone who was almost certainly a murderer, even if Louise departed in ignorance of that fact. And let’s not forget that past Halloween the kids spent trapped in their fort under Millie’s watchful, psychotic eye. Given that those heightened, horror genre-inspired scenarios all actually happened within the universe of Bob’s Burgers, it feels just a little weird, maybe even a little underwhelming, for the show to tell a horror story that is as resolutely low-stakes as “Hauntening.” The Belchers have encountered and barely survived legitimately dangerous people in their time, having experiences that no other family is likely to have. As such, can the reality of Bob’s Burgers once again contract to present the story of something an ordinary family might do for its daughter, albeit a family willing to go to lengths far more elaborate and complex than you might expect?
I don’t think continuity matters in and of itself. The show isn’t somehow inherently better or worse because every story we’ve seen can be made to fit into some larger, internally consistent narrative. “Hauntening” wouldn’t be better if one of the Belchers randomly alluded to “Christmas In The Car” or “Housetrap” just to prove the show remembered those events had occurred. Bob’s Burgers is an episodic show, which means the fairest way to judge it is to ask how well the show’s creative decisions served the episode-specific story. How the show engages with or ignores the audience’s awareness of the larger Bob’s Burgers universe can be a part of that. So if you watched “Hauntening” and didn’t think once about how it recalled similar, albeit more heightened scenarios from the show’s past, then none of this matters. But “Hauntening” did leave me underwhelmed, and part of that, I suspect, is how much time the show spent setting up a controlled, low-stakes version of horror plots the show has already explored.
For all that, though, “Hauntening” has some considerable charms, and the character-based part of that does very much speak to how the show can build on its previously established relationships. While the precise contours of Louise not scaring easily might be a bit wonky here, this episode more generally taps into how joyous it can be to see Louise really, genuinely feel something, particularly when that’s wrapped up in honest—if always pained!—expressions of love for her family. Getting Louise to lower her guard lets the show tap into some of its richest emotional veins, and “Hauntening” is particularly clever with respect to Kristen Schaal’s performance. In the early going, Schaal pitches Louise as essentially a miniature adult, spluttering in puzzlement about how anyone could find Halloween scary.
Over the course of the episode, though, she shifts, first to her more familiar hellion role and then into what she fundamentally is, which is a little kid, and in this case a scared little kid. This is also a great episode for Louise being brutally honest in her comments and provoking similar candor right back: Look at how readily Bob admits that, yeah, being old is scary, or that the kids jumping out of a bunch of leaves was way more effective than his and Linda’s elaborate haunted house. Those exchanges would be amusing enough if they were just between two strangers, but it becomes properly hilarious because of our familiarity with Louise and Bob’s personalities, perspectives, and mannerisms, not to mention Schaal’s and H. Jon Benjamin’s performance. It’s not that a viewer is ever likely to think of the success of that scene in terms of character continuity, but that doesn’t invalidate the role it plays in the storytelling and joke-making processes.
Indeed, so much of what works about “Hauntening” comes back to what I wrote last week the show could always stand to do more of, which is to just bring the whole Belcher family together and let them bounce off one another. The episode makes the decision to let the Belchers be incredibly actors, perfectly capturing how they would actually react in this situation without at all tipping that this is all meant to scare Louise. Again, that maybe clashes with what we’ve seen in previous episodes—like Linda could pretend to do anything for that long without breaking into song—but the trade-off is we get lots of the family at its most endearing. There’s Bob musing whether the street is Poplar or Popular. There’s Linda noting how comfortable her bald cap is. There’s just so much discussion of Bob’s butt. And “Hauntening” features the optimal use of Gene: inexplicably half-naked and talking about his farts. Best of all, letting the rest of the family act naturally lets the show keep its focus on Louise as she not so quietly begins to completely freak out.
In any larger context, “Hauntening” is an odd episode, one that takes the usual Halloween episode remit to go completely crazy and instead offers something that only appears to be that. But you know what? The larger context only matters to the extent that it affects the viewer’s enjoyment, and the impact here is relatively minor. This isn’t the most finely structured Bob’s Burgers, as evidenced by the fact that the main story came up a couple minutes short, and so the last bit of the episode is devoted to the Boyz 4 Now video that just dropped. That could feel tacked-on or superfluous, except there’s every bit as much effort put into that video as any of the ones we saw in their original episode. Even better, “Hauntening” has the entire family sit around and offer running commentary on the video, with the episode even remembering that Louise is totally obsessed with Booboo. Again, continuity doesn’t matter … but that’s not to say a well-chosen continuity reference can’t tie together an episode just beautifully. “Hauntening” makes some weird choices, but as almost all of them are in service of the funniest, most affecting episode, it’s not too difficult to forgive any clumsiness.