Bob’s Burgers isn’t nearly as cynical about adulthood as it could be. As “If You Love It So Much, Why Don’t You Marionette?” argues, people might give up on their youthful dreams and enthusiasm, but nothing is ever gone forever. In Esther, the episode’s Edith Cranwinkle-looking puppet theater owner, the show gives us one of the most unpleasant antagonists it has ever come up with, right up to the point it redeems her after an epic puppet battle. It’s always uniquely hard to watch when a character takes aim at Louise. She is, after all, nine years old, and the fact she so often acts as the proverbial agent of chaos is only the result of the general agreement of everyone involved—starting with Bob and Linda, who are the least-equipped to contain her. So it’s extra jarring when an adult says no to her as fully as Esther does, almost as though she’s denying a core part of the show’s reality. Then, of course, reducing Louise down to the little girl she actually is means that Esther is the kind of person who would be super mean to a kid for basically no reason at all.
Balancing out that unpleasantness is the return of Ron, who cuts a hell of a figure in the all-black garb of the puppeteers. The town’s assistant health inspector is the perfect established character to have volunteering at the theater, as his day job also depends on his being the calm, kindly voice of reason while an unreasonably petty person yells at a Belcher. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Ron—almost a year exactly, and we have to go back another full year for his next most recent appearance—so it’s extra fun to see him back, continuing to do the right thing and supporting the Belchers in their minor insurrections. The episode also gives us Dot in the soundbooth, who sure looks like she’s going to be a bundle of sad quirks until she’s just so straightforward about everything. Yes, it’s weird and gross the way she eats while essentially suffocating, and the titles of her beats are a lot to deal with, but the kids have it right: The beats themselves have their merits! Mostly, she’s just happy to be where she is, offering Louise what information and help she can because, well, why wouldn’t she? And maybe she overplays her hand slightly at the end there with how loud her mixes are and how foggy the stage gets, neither of which ends well for Esther, but it’s hard to take too much issue with such enthusiasm.
Indeed, this episode is something of a Rorschach test: Depending on how charitable you’re feeling toward its characters, people like Dot or even Ms. LaBonz on the bus represent either the crushing failure of growing older or people who are happy with their situation. Ms. LaBonz has generally been a generic annoyed teacher for much of the show’s run, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes conflate her with Ms. Schnur, the principal’s secretary. Sure, Ms. LaBonz is just sitting on the bus playing the show’s Candy Crush knockoff. But she’s made it all the way into the 540s, dammit, and she clearly counts herself among those who just kept on getting awesomer as they grew older when Louise asks her what happens to people when they become adults. Yes, the joke is at her expense—it would take a truly Herculean bit of mental gymnastics to argue that moment is somehow empowering for her or whatever—but, as is so often the case on Bob’s Burgers, she is portrayed with just enough kindness that the joke doesn’t come across as too mean-spirited. She’s bored and cynical, sure, but she’s not miserable in her situation, at least as she doesn’t miss any of those doubles.
This episode feels indebted to the likes of “Carpe Museum” and “Hawk And Chick.” The former link is strengthened because, yep, they’re both about sending the kids on a field trip, but that one also has Louise considering what her future could hold. “Hawk And Chick” is an even stronger link in that sense, as Louise’s disappointment in the lame ways adults sometimes act threatens to break her. This episode’s opening, as she struggles to maintain the usual passion as she plays with her toys, sets up a simple but effective parallel with Esther’s own disillusionment, especially when she reveals the puppets stopped talking to her. Being a kid matters to Louise in a way it doesn’t for Tina, who is obviously quite intent on maturing into a butt-obsessed young woman, or for Gene, who is mostly just concerned with farts. That means it’s easier for Louise stories to have the feel of an existential threat—if she doesn’t save Esther from herself, or at least put on a way better puppet show than that drivel about stamps, then all hope is lost, forever. That’s very true to the mindset of a nine-year-old, and the episode is happy to take Louise and her plight seriously.
Indeed, the story is focused enough on the more dramatic aspects of Louise’s situation that it doesn’t really go for too many laughs, at least not from her directly. Instead, the episode leans on all the other kids from Wagstaff to provide the laughs. Zeke is his usual boisterous, irrepressible self, and it’s a nice touch to present him and his eternal wrestling buddy Jimmy Jr. as the wizened veterans of this awful field trip. Regular-Size Rudy doesn’t get to rekindle whatever it is he and Louise have—I miss when he was seemingly the one human on the planet Louise vaguely cared about, but oh well—but he does provide some pained running commentary over the fog effects. We even have Mr. Frond being way, way too enthusiastic about the puppets, which after the last couple Mr. Frond stories is a welcome reprieve for the poor guy.
Bob’s story almost feels like it connects with what Louise is going through, though I struggle with how much I really want to argue Bob helping a ferret-owning weirdo flier for a rave is really about regaining the joy of youth. And yet, and yet… when Linda instructs him on the art of the flick and he takes such obvious pride in his newfound ability to put fliers in people’s hands, he is so damn happy about it. These Bob subplots have such a simple formula, as he finds himself talked into helping someone in some preposterous situation, much to his frustration, only to realize he’s having way more fun than he thought possible. Sure, he proves the Icarus of distributing fliers while wearing a silly hat, as he brags about his newfound skills to Jimmy Pesto just as a car drives by and he loses all of them. There, admittedly, is where Bob’s story breaks from Louise’s, as he is just content to give up on his weird passing dream and get back to work—at what, it has to be said, is his weird lifelong dream of being a burger cook. And there’s definitely no arguing that the burgers are always talking to him. Huh. Guess I can see why Louise cares so much about people and their dopey dreams after all.
This isn’t the first time this season that Tina and Gene realize they kind of completely left their sister hanging. Time to step up your game, Belcher siblings!
I always appreciate how spectacularly unconvincing a liar Ron is. He’s just too fundamentally decent a guy to be properly deceiving about that spider!
Thanks for being understanding about another morning review—I got back in late from a flight and thought it would be more possible than it proved to be to get this posted on something resembling on time.