Bob’s Burgers

For my last post I tried to figure out what I disliked about the pilot of what sounded like a great show; now I’m trying to figure out what I love about the pilot of a show that sounds hopelessly derivative.

The first time I saw the pilot of Bob’s Burgers, when it debuted on January 9, 2011, I was bored to tears. Hearing H. Jon Benjamin‘s voice and not LMAO off is actually a little disorienting. But his character, Bob Belcher is just a dumpy, boring guy; another animated oaf with a family of five. I’ve only stuck with the show–and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this–because it’s sandwiched into the middle of Fox’s Animation Domination. Ratings are good but critical reaction is less than stellar.

Somehow, the show has grown on me, and when the pilot re-aired recently, I found myself cracking up. It’s definitely one of those shows–like The Office–that gets funnier the more you feel like you know the characters.

The pilot is set during Labor Day weekend, as the Belcher family restaurant is prepping for it’s grand re- re- re-opening. The whole family is part of the act; the three kids are left in the restaurant to welcome the onslaught of business while husband Bob (Benjamin) and wife Linda (John Roberts) grind meat–not a euphemism–in the basement. We also learn that it is Bob and Linda’s anniversary, which he has forgotten, and she optimistically reads his ignorance as a ruse. From their conversation we learn that they have worked hard for their little family business, even on their wedding night–again, not a euphemism.

One of the primary tasks of this pilot is to establish its mashup of family and workplace comedy. Many of the jokes stem from the supporting characters’ dual roles as Bob’s offspring and employees. “My crotch is itchy,” reports Tina. Bob’s response: “Are you telling me as my grill cook or as my daughter?”

Like King of the Hill, for which Executive Producer Jim Dauterive was a writer, the show has a slower pace than the Seth McFarlane panoply has conditioned us for. The charters even talk a little slowly. What’s gotten really old, though, is shows with fat guy protagonists who mistreat their wives and kids.

Bob’s kids are horrible. They were described (accurately) by an IGN reviewer as “two Barts and a Milhouse.” The eldest, Tina, (Dan Mintz) is the Milhouse, shuffling around scratching her genitals and mumbling.

Louise: “She’s autistic, she can’t help it.”

Tina: “Yeah, I’m autistic.”

Bob: “You’re not autistic, Tina.”

Middle child Gene (Eugene Mirman) is the showman, happily donning a giant burger suit and using a noise-maker to attract/harass customers. We learn that youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) has told her class at school that her family’s burgers contain human meat. Throwing a wrench into plans for a profitable weekend, a pasty-faced health inspector, who turns out to be an ex-boyfriend of Linda’s, slaps up a yellow warning sign until he can conduct a test on the meat. Only when the lovesick inspector works through his issues can the day be saved.

So, we’ve got horrible kids, a wife who’s a little off, but here’s the thing. As on King of the Hill, the husband is the grounded center around which the lunatics revolve. He’s imperfect–he forgets important dates from his wedding anniversary to his own birthday. Still, he’s basically a good, hardworking guy trying to make an honest living. He’s likable, something we cynics are so used to anymore. So, just don’t compare him to Archer, who despite sharing a voice, is his polar opposite, and you might find that he and his brood are pretty funny.

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Archer

You can literally blink and miss things in this pilot*. Watch it twice. Or three times. First just let the absurdity of the situation wash over you, then go back and soak up all the sight gags and the often casually tossed-off hilarious dialogue. Then absorb the animation; it’s amazing, with remarkable depth of field and subtlety of facial expressions. In the scene where Archer is eating breakfast, pause it and just look at the detail of the food on the table; it’s gorgeous.

The first moments of the pilot give you the idea you’re watching something really dark. Our hero, Sterling Archer/code name Duchess (H. Jon Benjamin), is about to be tortured for information by an old guy with a vaguely Russian accent and a golf cart battery. But the female face that appears on the far side of the observation window looks far more intimidating.

Thus we have our set-up. Archer is a super spy who works for his mom (Jessica Walter). As evidenced by their first scene together, they’re a solidly matched in toughness, narcissism, and vitriol.

Acher’s uniqueness is its successful mash up of spy action with workplace comedy. It’s like if the chick from Alias went to work at Dunder Mifflin. At ISIS, we get pithy axioms like, “When your co-workers put food in the refrigerator, that’s a bond of trust.” They worry about expense accounts and break room etiquette.

Natch, there’s intra-office schtuping. Archer used to date machine gun-toting uber-bombshell Lana (Aisha Tyler). They broke up over–you guessed it–his mommy issues. This woman scorned is now with Cyril (Chris Parnell), who has no earthly business dating the likes of her. He is so painfully dull that his scene with Archer is literally the only boring moment of the episode.

Archer is sleeping with the secretary, Cheryl or Carol. He can’t get her name right. Remember that–the joke lasts beyond this episode.

Archer pretends he thinks there’s a mole in the office, as a ploy to gain access to the ISIS mainframe. When he is forced to break in, he reveals how painfully inadequate the company’s security is. It turns out there is a mole in the office and he is only caught by complete accident.

This thing is just packed with oddball lines ranging from the unexplained “that thing with the mayonnaise” to the twice-used “Johnny Bench called.” (Look it up. I had to.)

The pilot gives a taste of what every episode will be about; It’s not that the agents are complete bumbling idiots. That would be too easy. They’re totally cool and skilled, it’s just that their extreme self-interest blinds them to half the stuff going on around them. And they hate each other, but it’s as a team that they somehow win the day.

And, whether Archer loves his mother or hates her, he does so too strongly to be healthy. At any rate, they’re eerily alike from their piercing blue eyes, revealed in the pilot’s first moments, to their peculiar vehemence about ants, revealed in the last.

*This is actually episode 1.1, “Mole Hunt.” There is an unaired pilot available on DVD through Amazon.