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“The Gene Mile” has a beautiful starting point in the rite of passage that is the mile fitness test. The episode keys in on the two natural stories it provides for Tina and Gene. For the former, this is a tale of competition gone awry, with Jimmy Jr. talking a big game about running a nine-minute mile only to prove just the most spectacularly weird, uncoordinated runner. As for Gene, he finds himself dragged entirely against his will into pushing himself and proving he is capable of more than he would have thought possible. That said, the mile itself is more featured backdrop than the heart of the episode—the hushed mention of an eighth grader running it in fewer than eight minutes is one of the few bits of observational comedy the episode gets out of the run, though the race does set up lots of funny buffoonery from Coach Blevins and Mr. Frond. “The Gene Mile” decides early on that it’s not really going to be about the race—if it were, Louise and the rest of the gang wouldn’t have been able to escape it so readily—but it offers some fun, unexpected windows into the characters.

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I’ve talked enough times about how difficult Gene can be as a character. He’s at his most fun as a delivery mechanism for bizarre one-liners, and that essential randomness makes it hard to nail him down long enough for a character arc. What works well here, then, is that Gene doesn’t really make any choices once Mr. Frond catches him and forces him back into the race. He’s got to run, so he runs, and he would have stopped if Large Tommy hadn’t convinced him that stopping at all would spell catastrophe. He does absolutely end up deciding for himself that he wants to finish the race, but this isn’t something the episode has to dig deep inside Gene to justify. Instead, he just goes with the flow long enough that he then realizes he wants to keep doing it, even if that means delaying ice cream or getting back up after Mr. Wheeler stood in his and Tommy’s way or just generally trying hard at something for once. The result is that “The Gene Mile” is a sweet, winning Gene episode that doesn’t have to force its title character into a more active mode than we usually see him or than how he works best.

There’s a lot of that deft kind of character work on display here, and again Bob’s Burgers benefits here from its willingness to gradually nudge the status quo. That Gene and Louise’s gang would include Regular-Sized Rudy is no shock, but it’s still a little remarkable to see Courtney accepted so totally as part of the group, and I’m pleasantly surprised that the show has actually committed to Alex Papasian as Gene’s new best friend. What’s especially sweet about the group here is that it doesn’t feel like it was put together for any particular narrative purpose—Courtney does give the story the cat-tracking GPS and the galactically annoying dad, but beyond that she and Rudy and Alex are all just there because the Belchers enjoy their company and vice versa. The moment where Gene opts to smooth over any hurt feelings from Alex by giving him a big hug, only to be joined by Courtney and Rudy, is so goofy and earnest and depicts the Belcher kids—or at least Gene, given how Louise opts out—forming friendships we’ve rarely seen elsewhere.

A more typical dynamic is on display with Tina and Jimmy Jr. It’s always been an open question what Jimmy Jr. actually thinks of Tina, with his feelings veering from openly disdainful to basically dating depending on what the story needs. The main constant, and the big differentiator from what we see with Louise and Gene’s group, is that he’s usually way too busy thinking about himself to have time to develop a coherent opinion of his butt-obsessed admirer. What that means this week is that he’s focused entirely on proving what an amazing runner he is, so much so that he forgets little details like what running is supposed to look like, even vaguely. The octopus pinwheel that is Jimmy Jr. running is some of the funniest visual humor Bob’s Burgers has ever done, especially when contrasted with Tina’s compact, arms-down stride. It’s fun to see Tina actually be decent at something, as she proves the much faster and more efficient runner than Jimmy Jr. She’s also an adept trash talker here, for once managing to bait Jimmy Jr. into saying the setup to her taunt just before the race kicks off.

One of the basic building blocks of comedy is surprise. It’s not easy for Bob’s Burgers to manage that so deep into its run, but this is where all the subtle tweaks to the established status quo offer great little opportunities for gags. Louise is still riding an adult’s bike at long last, and she’s still way too self-consciously proud of her every little accomplishment, to the point that even Rudy comments on it. Tina is actually getting better at backing up her vows to show Jimmy Jr. she’s not to be taken lightly. Gene, as previously discussed, doesn’t really change, but look at who guides him along his weird path in this episode. That would be the newly named Large Tommy, one of the show’s longest-running background characters—per the show’s wiki, he can be seen holding up an “Eat cheeseburgers, not me-burgers” sign all the way back in “Human Flesh,” though his most memorable moment before tonight is probably his defeated sigh when Mr. Grant asks him if he really wants to be on student television.

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Speaking of adults being unnecessary jerks, “The Gene Mile” manages to make a bunch of kids sneaking off from the mile to go get free ice cream look like some of the more mature individuals around. Coach Blevins being fooled by an excuse note from Dr. Gooddoctor is a great little flashback, while the woman at the ice cream store speaks with the steely if haunted resolve of someone who has seen horrors and expects to see plenty more before this Free Ice Cream Day is done. Courtney’s dad is basically just officially the worst at this point, showing up to yell at everyone and demand answers for his missing cat. Even Bob crosses a minor line here, as he wants so desperately to go see the new version of Cake that he finally snaps at Teddy. His anger is completely justifiable—I’d call it long overdue, honestly—but it’s still shocking to see him turn on his customer and basically friend like that. Some of this might threaten to cross over into mean-spirited, but Bob’s Burgers remains smart about knowing what—and who—to take seriously. Teddy can be hurt enough that he will actually want an apology, but he’s too easily distracted by, well, pretty much anything to remain focused on his feelings for very long. All the other adults are just different manners of impediment to the kids getting what they want. It’s rather sweet that it turns out what the kids want isn’t free ice cream, but for Gene to get the one thing in his life he’s ever properly earned. Or, in Tina’s case, a chance to help Jimmy Jr. stretch out his glutes. Both are meaningful and beautiful things to want.

Stray observations

  • I don’t exactly know what I was picturing when Mr. Frond said he would be monitoring the race on his adult scooter, but somehow I was not prepared for him to be riding around on an old Razor scooter decked out in helmet and kneepads. I underestimate this show at my own peril.
  • The narrative collision of Gene and Tommy, the kids returning from the shop, Mr. Frond, and Courtney’s dad looking for the lost cat feels like it could have been some really great comedic chaos but didn’t quite find that final spark to be a really memorable climax. That said, what we got instead was Mr. Frond briefly prioritizing the safety of the cat over literally all other concerns, so I’m not exactly displeased with the scene we got.

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