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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tina Belcher casts a spell on tonight’s Bob’s Burgers

Illustration for article titled Tina Belcher casts a spell on tonight’s Bob’s Burgers
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Mr. Ambrose is such a bizarrely wonderful asset for Bob’s Burgers. He’s technically an adult, which lends his absurd suggestions and demonstrably awful advice a thin sheen of credibility. “Teen-A-Witch” doesn’t ask the audience to take even remotely seriously that Tina is an actual witch, but it does need to provide something that can let us suspend disbelief and not believe this is the dumbest plotline imaginable. If, say, Daryl lets Tina in on the secrets of witch powers, the whole concept is a little too silly to buy into. But Mr. Ambrose simultaneously yelling and whispering about being a witch gives Tina permission to buy into the whole thing completely and not look like a total moron in the eyes of viewers because, hey, someone who really ought to know better is even more into it than she is. His role as instigator for tonight’s main plotline also justifies the use of Jackie the crossing guard as Tina’s unlikely adversary in the dark arts, with Mr. Ambrose indicating that they are—or were, in Jackie’s case—part of the same coven, which I’m sure was in no way the saddest thing imaginable.

Billy Eichner is probably best described as an acquired taste, though I would say Mr. Ambrose is one of the most generally accessible uses of him as a performer. As ridiculous as his character is, he still makes total sense: Mr. Ambrose is just bored out of his damn mind. The man is prepared to do absolutely anything to relieve the boredom of being cooped up in the library with all those stupid books. If that means he has to tell Louise (and everyone else, per his own words) about Topsy the elephant, then so be it. If that means he has to singlehandedly cook up all the drama on the cheerleading team, then so be it. And if that means turning on Tina to being a witch, then that’s fine too. He’s a deeply weird guy stuck in the kind of silly go-nowhere job that it’s easy to see attracting deeply weird people, and that gives his character a logic that might otherwise be missing. His being a witch in the first place makes perfect sense, even before you get into the fact that he bikes to school with a little dog in the front basket. Mr. Ambrose could just be messing with people because he’s bored, but he’s been bored so long that he’s now legitimately invested in his wastes of time. That’s all a terrifically fun setup for his role in the episode.

Tonight’s episode also makes excellent use of Tina. We’ve seen the confident, trash-talking side of Tina long before now—it remains one of my favorite aspects of “Family Fracas,” which I’m going to go ahead and declare underrated—but it’s turned up to 11 for tonight’s Halloween-centric fun. Her insults to Daryl and Peter are the perfect embodiment of the mixed results of Tina’s new transformation. Sure, her line about Daryl and E.T. is a solid enough burn, but then she nonsensically rehashes that same line when mocking Peter. Tina betrays perhaps a pinch of uncertainty in that moment, but generally she’s totally convinced by her newfound bravado. This is where Bob’s Burgers can still reap the rewards of so clearly establishing the awkward, mild-mannered Tina of the first couple seasons long after her characterization has shifted toward something brasher. No matter how often the show pushes Tina in this direction, it’s still unexpected—and, without much extra stretching from there, really damn funny—to see Tina being so mean and haughty to people.

“Teen-A-Tina” also feels unusual in that it’s one of the very few episodes where Tina is basically the bad guy from the start. Even when there was an episode actually called “Bad Tina,” the eldest Belcher child had her heart in the right place whenever Tammy wasn’t forcing her otherwise, give or take an occasional snide side comment to Linda. We’ve seen flashes of a more selfish or rude Tina since then, but it’s unusual for an episode to jump straight into Tina wanting to do something as self-centered as wanting to win the costume contest at any cost: After all, Louise isn’t wrong when she suggests Tina should just wear her sore loser costume for another year. This isn’t Tina being led astray by some bad actor or some weird perversion of her normally kind and well-meaning instincts, most of which do admittedly involve some form of weird perversions. Instead, this is Tina doing the wrong thing because her character is just straight-up flawed, which makes for a refreshing departure from what we’re used to seeing.

“Teen-A-Tina” lacks some of the more ambitious storytelling that distinguished previous Halloween efforts like “Full Bars,” “The Hauntening,” and especially “Fort Night,” which I’d be willing to hear arguments as the show’s single best episode. (I probably wouldn’t agree, but I’d hear them.) Its main story really just takes Tina, gives her an unusually selfish motivation, and teams her with two of the silliest adults the show could possibly offer. Watching her go mad with pretend power and then recognize the error of her ways is a simple arc but a damn effective one. And the show gets all the little details right, each of which opens up more opportunities for laughs. Tammy steals Tina’s “hot mess” costume idea and immediately pretends she came up with it, keeping their rivalry going. That costume theft offers a simple reason to introduce Jackie the crossing guard long before her true significance to the plot becomes apparent. The show comes up with plausible enough explanations—including Linda going to sleep after Tina casts her spell because, well, she’s tired—for Tina’s successful witchcraft before having her realize the truth. And every last one of the costumes, from Louise’s Mr. Frond to Rudy’s Marcel Marceau, is a terrific visual gag. This is pretty much the epitome of a solid Bob’s Burgers episode.

And hey, we even get a cameo from Kevin Kline as Mr. Fischoeder! Bob going slowly mad over his stolen pumpkins is just the kind of self-contained side story that H. Jon Benjamin was put on this Earth to sell, even if I’m not sure I was prepared for the trouble in paradise between Jimmy Pesto and Trev the bartender. On some level, having the episode end at Mr. Fischoeder’s hitherto unmentioned Jack-O-Lantern display feels like either the writers had no idea how to end the episode or the episode was running a bit short, if only because it’s weird to wrap up the main story and then spend a couple more minutes focused exclusively on the supporting tale. More likely, this is just Bob’s Burgers not sweating the structure—which is totally fine by me, especially when we get Mr. Fischoeder guest spots—and just ending on some fun gags about Bob being extorted for photograph money and Teddy (or Freddy!) delivering a whole bunch of stolen bikes. Done too often, this kind of out-of-nowhere ending can feel dangerously random. But Bob’s Burgers has built up such a clear sense of all its characters, even larger-than-life ones like Mr. Ambrose and Mr. Fischoeder, that it can go to these sorts of ridiculous places without undermining the show’s sense of reality. And hey, when it’s all in the service of an episode as fun as “Teen-A-Witch,” I’m not complaining.


Stray observations

  • I’m about 90 percent sure Ms. LaBonz helped send an innocent man to prison. But hey, she needed to get to the mall!
  • A Chewbacca cheerleader costume does sound kind of great. Though fair’s fair: That sand witch costume was adorable.
  • I appreciate the lengths Bob was prepared to go to convince his family to just bring him some salt while he kept watch over the window. He should have known not to rely on them for a damn thing, though.