Photo: FOX

One of Bob’s Burgers greatest strengths is its ability to ground its outlandish comedy in psychology and motivation that feels true to the characters. That’s not an easy thing for a show to do, especially when that show is in its eighth season. As someone who’s been reviewing Modern Family for the last three seasons, I can assure you that character-based comedy that feels earned is difficult to come by when a show hits a certain age. Perhaps it’s the cartoon format, or perhaps it’s the fact that each character is so distinct, but no matter the reason, Bob’s Burgers has managed to avoid hollowing out the Belchers and putting premise and plot above character.

In other words, the plot of “Are You There Bob? It’s Me, Birthday” isn’t all that unique, but the way so much of the action and comedy is rooted in familiar character bits means the episode is a success. This is a hilarious half hour, jammed with subtle comedic bits and more over-the-top sequences (we’ll get to the vomiting in a bit). It all starts with Linda cutting Gene’s bangs in the kitchen. She thinks there’s something else she’s been meaning to do. In fact, she thinks there was something the day before that she missed out on. Then it hits her: it was Bob’s birthday, and the whole family forgot about it.

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This leads to the first great character moment of the episode, which is Linda having a complete breakdown. Her pained sobs go on and on and on, the laughs increasing as she refuses to stop, and as Gene joins her after getting a look at his horrendous haircut. It’s not only a great laugh, but a moment of sincerity. Linda is truly heartbroken, and that kind of earnestness is what Bob’s Burgers thrives on. The Belchers might bicker, and they might get themselves into some ludicrous situations, but they’re never really cruel to each other. They’re flawed, but not psychotic.

Of course, in typical Linda fashion, she quickly comes up with a plan to cover up her mistake, roping the kids into planning a surprise birthday party for Bob. To pull off the cover-up they need to get Bob out of the restaurant, and for once Hugo and Ron come in handy. When they come around for their health inspection, Linda makes a deal with Hugo: if he keeps Bob out of the restaurant until seven o’clock, she’ll call his parents and desperately ask if Hugo is single. “Oh, Hugo,” she says with a tremendous amount of pity when he makes his offer, but she agrees, which leads to the episode’s only other storyline. Usually the show balances three or four subplots at once, but “Are You There Bob? It’s Me, Birthday” is split evenly in two. It makes for a more focused half hour, and also allows for a more heartfelt climax.

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Essentially, Bob’s subplot is all about creating empathy, which leads to the final resolution that affirms that this family, no matter what, will always have each other’s backs. There’s a subtle bit of class commentary going on here that makes that resolution all the more heartening too. In fact, the class commentary pervades much of the episode. It’s hardly an overarching theme, but it’s certainly present. Work and wealth are central to each story, be it the way Bob can’t worry too much about a missed birthday because he has to work (and try to buy a vintage bacon weight), or how he runs into a former finance worker who believes he can open a restaurant just because he made lots of money in his previous job.

Those subtle but telling aspects of “Are You There Bob? It’s Me, Birthday” give the episode its charm. There’s few things better than an episode of Bob’s Burgers that puts Bob through the wringer before finding a way to bring the family together, affirming the family unit, however it’s defined, as a welcome bit of stability in a broken world. Before that moment though, it’s all hell for Bob. Not only does he have to spend an insufferable amount of time with Hugo and Ron, he makes a terrible deal with the former to try a wrap at a new restaurant opening up in town. It’s all a setup though, so that Hugo can make a point about the necessity of his job. After Bob watches the former finance guy flick rat poop off his counter and learn about the novel idea of refrigerating raw chicken—and after vomiting a truly unhealthy amount—he has no choice but to admit that Hugo’s job is important, and head home to confront the surprise party that he knows is coming.

Rather than go the route of true chaos, “Are You There Bob? It’s Me, Birthday” offers up a final stretch that’s emotionally effective. Before Bob heads home he realizes that even if he hates surprise parties, he should appreciate that his family cares about him enough to do something special for him. When he gets home though, he finds that Linda and the kids have had a similar realization. They’ve ditched the surprise party, which didn’t have any guests anyways, and set Bob up with a night on the couch, complete with dryer-warmed pants, a Western, and a steak. There’s no patented, disgruntled “oh my god” from Bob, just a simple, ecstatic “it’s perfect.” It really is too, as “Are You There Bob? It’s Me, Birthday” provides the kind of character-based conflict and resolution that makes the show such a pleasure to watch each and every week.

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Stray observations:

  • Burger Of The Week: “The Here I Am, Broccoli Like A Hurricane Burger.”
  • Gene balks at his mangled bangs for a number of reasons, but the best is “because I’m not an Icelandic punk rocker.”
  • Bob spends a lot of time thinking about the Bubble Master, a man who makes giant bubbles, and a lot of money, down at the wharf.
  • BaconItToTheLimit
  • Once they pull off their plan, Linda urges the kids to never speak of the missed birthday again. Gene: “Like the time I caught Dad flexing his lgs in the mirror!”
  • “I don’t know how you get through the day, Ron.”
  • “In finance there’s no inspectors. You just don’t need them!”
  • “Go put a canoli up your hole-y!”
  • Look, Bob’s Burgers has a lot of great final moments in its eight-season run, but Bob’s satisfaction at seeing a smug Jimmy Pesto get punched in the dick by a passing biker has to be among the best. “Can’t. Stop. Watching.”

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