For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Our bronze-medal winner for the best TV of 2013 is Bob’s Burgers.
This time last year, I hated Bob’s Burgers.
I’d only watched the first season rather quickly on Netflix, and I wasn’t able to get into it. Not only was it awkward and painful, but it also made me uncomfortable at times. I couldn’t shake my pity for the Belchers, with their perpetual financial problems and their struggle to keep the family business afloat. Bob always seemed unhappy, his kids never tried to help, and Linda’s voice was strange. I got especially stressed out whenever Linda and Bob’s marriage seemed strained, or when another scheme to make more money went awry. I worried about the Belchers, and that made it hard for me to laugh at them. It perplexed me when people championed the show.
Then, when I began dating my current partner, he asked me if I’d seen Bob’s Burgers. I tried to explain my reaction to it. He nodded before adding: “But, you know, the show is about Tina.” That little piece of insight changed the way I watched the show completely. Now that I’ve watched every episode of Bob’s Burgers, I think that perspective is the key to understanding the entire series.
Bob’s Burgers was my favorite show of 2013—topping even the shows that trumped it for The A.V. Club’s first- and second-place spots. And the main reason is Tina Belcher, the unsung hero of Bob’s Burgers. What’s more, she’s the unsung hero of that whole family. At first, she’s a weird, quiet character, voiced by Dan Mintz in a low, almost affectless monotone. She’s not immediately relatable and can be a little opaque. She has an obsession with horses and butts. She writes erotic “friend fiction.” She has trouble handling the world, and when she reaches overload, she freezes up and groans, sometimes for minutes on end. She is not, at first, much more than the most awkward Belcher.
But it becomes clear throughout the first season—and now, by the show’s third and fourth season, it is paramount—that Tina is the hero of Bob’s Burgers. She is the character whose triumphs and failures are most keenly felt, the champion of the weird that draws viewers into the world of the show. Tina herself, who is usually so unassuming, would be perplexed by these pronouncements. But she would also probably accept my offer to let her sit at the adults’ table. Tina just wants to be Tina, as much as possible.
In the original pilot for Bob’s Burgers, Mintz’s character was a teenage boy. That fundamental difference aside, Daniel Belcher and Tina Belcher are the same character—but looking back, that choice had enormous implications for the show, because a TV audience has never seen a girl growing up like this. She’s nothing like an archetypal teen, but she’s also unmistakably one. She daydreams about kissing her crushes—and also about touching the butts of all the cute boys in her class. She fantasizes about being a prettier, bolder version of herself, who talks politics with adults and is an object of affection among the guys at Wagstaff School. Her efforts in this direction lead her to hide in the dairy section of a grocery store in season three’s “Lindapendent Woman,” waiting for a handsome boy to stop by. In season four’s “Turkey In A Can,” she shows up to Thanksgiving dinner wearing baggy pantyhose and too-big high heels. Puberty and dating have a typical arc on shows about teenage girls, but Tina’s arc on Bob’s Burgers is something else entirely. It’s gross. It’s messy. It occasionally encourages threesomes. And it’s hilarious, but the show is careful to never make Tina the butt of any jokes. (Tina touching butts, however, is okay.) If the viewer is laughing, it’s most likely with Tina—or at the very least, with the people who love her.
The other remarkable thing about Tina is that her whole family, subtly, or not so subtly, is always working to keep her happy. They squabble, sure, and Louise is always up for a prank, but if Tina’s happy, the Belchers are stable. The episodes in which Tina isn’t happy send the whole family into frantic motion. And Tina’s femininity, even if it was a late decision, further cements her vulnerability—being a weird girl has specific, difficult pitfalls that her family works to protect her from. The prime example of this is in the show’s best episode to date, “Mother Daughter Laser Razor.” The entire plot coalesces around Tina worrying about shaving her legs for the first time. She’s both anxious to do it and anxious to let go of her “furry little friends” (as usual, Bob’s Burgers is both icky and heartfelt). On the surface, it’s a quotidian concern, but Tina’s anxiety sends the Belcher family into overdrive: Gene jumps on her legs to hide them from the mean girls; Linda tries to shave her daughter’s legs in the tub; Bob takes her to a waxing appointment.
When I started watching the show, I worried about Bob. What I discovered was that if I kept tabs on Tina, the show was instantly more intimate and cheerful. Tina is the sensitive heart of the family, and the sensitive heart of the show, too. Bob is always a little morose, and Louise is always prone to anger, so there’s no point getting worked up when they’re upset. Gene hasn’t been upset a day in his whole life, and Linda’s optimism usually gets her through her rough patches. Tina is the one that could get hurt—so when she’s in danger, the Belchers almost unconsciously close ranks. The best part about Bob’s Burgers is that the Belchers are getting the job done. Tina’s okay—and that’s remarkable. She’s sensitive and working-class and even possibly neuroatypical. There are a lot of reasons that Tina wouldn’t be fine, but she is.
If that sounds psychological, it’s because it is: The Belchers are one of the most coherent families on television (perhaps even the most realistic, though it is hard to compare animated, four-fingered humans to flesh-and-blood actors). They are very well-written, nuanced characters, with thought and attention paid to what the kids might have inherited from their parents, and what Bob and Linda see in each other. Moreover, showrunner Loren Bouchard and his team of writers have shaped these characters as units of this family, and as a result the show opens itself up to all kinds of character interpretation. For example, maybe Louise wears that hat because otherwise her hair looks just like her mom’s, and she would hate that. Gene might be growing into an out-and-proud gay man. Bob pretends to be grouchy all the time just to provide some ballast for Linda’s optimism. Linda unreservedly loves her life, because all she wanted was a great family, and she got one. And everybody watches out for Tina, because Tina couldn’t hurt a fly.
And this is why Tina as the protagonist is so key: Watching the show for Tina allows you to see this family from the inside, not from the outside. It’s not just a psychotic little girl with bunny ears and a down-on-his-luck restaurateur—those are character ideas that have been mined for laughs before. Instead, the Belchers are a living, breathing family, playing their jokes to one another, not to the audience. The intimacy of their lives is right with you, and it is breathtaking. That’s why it was so painful at first for me—this is the unvarnished reality of the Belchers, and it’s a lot to handle.
But on the other side of that awkwardness and anxiety is so much joy. Bob’s Burgers is about a family that loves each other, and that’s so powerful. The Belchers are this generation’s heirs to the Simpsons. The family dynamics play a powerful role in every episode, and in the humor there is social commentary—albeit very different forms of it. Because where The Simpsons is often cynical about the world, and even about its characters, Bob’s Burgers is stubbornly hopeful. And a lot of that comes down to the vast differences between The Simpsons’ oldest sibling, Bart, and the oldest Belcher kid, Tina. Bart is rough, cynical, and aggressive—the squabbling voice of dissent his generation needed.
Tina is a hero for a different age. If millennials are going to crown ourselves the generation of New Sincerity—and we will, because despite our pretensions to irony, all we want from the world is sincerity—then Tina Belcher is our queen. She’s free of irony, free of judgment, and disinterested in pretension or artifice. Tina embraces her vulnerability, and so the world embraces her. And if Tina’s our queen, then Bob’s Burgers is the comedy for us: a funny, weird little show about love and acceptance and family that speaks to the weird kid in all of us.