Bob’s Burgers is ingenious in how it plays with the stakes of its adventures, upping the tension and the ridiculousness of a story only to then remind us just how pointless it all is. Tonight’s brilliant “The Equestranauts” offers a master class in the careful construction and destruction of its absurd scenario, and this is a feat that takes considerable skill. Such intentional undercutting of the story could backfire, especially with a premise like tonight’s. After all, “The Equestranauts” expends a decent amount of effort in getting us to invest in Bob’s undercover journey into the dark heart of Brony—sorry, sorry, Equesticle—culture. The excellent script, written by Tina voice actor Dan Mintz, convinces us that Bob would take this assignment seriously because, for all his endless frustration with their incompetence, he really would do anything for his kids; besides, Bob is unparalleled among current comedy protagonists in his ability to get fired up about something he initially assumes that he would hate. And anyway, a big reason behind fan conventions is to allow normally scattered fans to gather in one place and disappear entirely into their insular subculture. Sunpuddle, Horseplay, Pony Danza, and Bronconius might all be regular guys in everyday life—okay, probably not Bronconius—but the convention experience allows them and Bob to disappear into this weird little bubble, which is the perfect environment for Bob to get involved in a pseudo-spy adventure that would otherwise be completely out of character.
But what elevates “The Equestranauts” is how it lets reality peek through occasionally. Mintz’s script expertly gets us to take somewhat seriously Bob’s undercover quest as Bobcephala; after all, if the audience can’t get past the admittedly hilarious sight of Bob in that purple horse costume, it won’t be able to enjoy all the subsequent gags about Equesticle culture. At the same time, the episode never forgets that, yes, Bob in that purple horse costume is ridiculous, and everything he and all the Equisticles get up to is absurd. Linda gets a pair of terrific lines to illustrate this point when Tina tries to convince her mom that Bob needs saving from his dangerous non-canonical knowledge, as Linda quite rightly observes, “He’s surrounded by men who play with toy ponies; he’s in the least amount of danger possible!” If the Equesticles weren’t so carefully developed, it wouldn’t be so funny for Linda to just describe precisely what they are; indeed, the episode does show off some impressive knowledge of My Little Pony fandom, but this real-world counterpart feels less like a target for mockery and more like an inspiration for affectionate parody and a jumping-off point for something far stranger.
Just as crucially, that observational line about the non-seriousness of the situation then segues into a character-based joke, as Linda admits even she has limits to how much she is willing to humor her daughter: “Tina, I love you, but please don’t make me go back there. It smells bad.” That’s such a wonderfully basic, mundane, and eminently understandable reason to not want to return, and it’s always nice to see this relatively sane version of Linda pop up occasionally. Admittedly, this doesn’t last long, but the episode allows Linda’s natural silliness to exist apart from that of the Equesticles, as she’s fully prepared to drop the family’s goofy quest because, well, she wants to dance.
As is so often the case, it falls to Bob be the ultimate voice of reason, as he short-circuits Bronconius’ attempt to ensnare the Belchers in his impossible, Equestranauts-themed number puzzle by just calling up the front desk and getting them to open the safe. The animation, the music, and Paul F. Tompkins’ acting as Bronconius help sell the misdirection, as the animated camera pushes in close as the captured Equesticle details his diabolical puzzle. By that point, the audience is still invested enough in the ride to believe that this could indeed be the setup for a final, Equestranauts trivia-fueled showdown between Bronconius and either Bob or Tina, but by then Bob has had enough. Even bare-chested, newly tattoed, and clad in a giant purple horse head, Bob’s body language, with his hand placed firmly on his hip, indicates he has shifted back into responsible, exasperated adult mode. Up to that point, “The Equestranauts” relies on a trick to Bob’s Burgers storytelling most clearly demonstrated by “O.T.: The Outside Toilet.” Namely, if you want to get Bob involved in a really, really dumb story, it helps to get him wasted.
Although Bob becomes the focus of the story, Dan Mintz is unsurprisingly able to find a ton of great material for Tina. Indeed, one of the great joys of watching the show over the past four seasons has been to hear Mintz grow into the role of Tina, developing an impressive emotional range without ever straying from that monotone. In the DVD commentary for season one’s “Weekend At Mort’s,” one of the writers mentions one of her favorite early Dan Mintz line deliveries was when Tina tried to affect a weirdly singsong, unconvincingly “fun” voice to get Gene excited about playing a game, and there’s an echo of that tonight when Tina enthusiastically describes her plans to buy Chariot a new saddle or when she tries to convince her family to hit the convention floor with her. More generally, it’s just funny to hear Tina try to affect a new persona.
A lot of that is down to the hilariously understated voice work, but there’s a deeper truth about the character lurking in here somewhere. As Mintz has grown into the role, so too has Tina become more sociable, even outgoing, albeit without ever straying far from that essential Tina oddness. There’s been real growth here, but only a fraction of it can be found in Tina’s willingness to be more open; the more impressive developments can be seen in Tina just being herself, as when she gets fired up and explains in exacting detail how her dad will get Chariot back, or when she once again tries to prove that she truly is the funny Belcher by cracking jokes with her new Equesticle friends.
There’s more than enough going on with the Belchers to make “The Equestranauts” a classic; indeed, I love the little detail that Louise doesn’t even have to fully instigate this latest humiliation of her father, as she loses her mind with joy when Tina outlines the scheme. But the episode gains that little extra dash of brilliance from its guest characters. Paul F. Tompkins’ Bronconius could have worked well enough as a standard-issue bully, but Bob’s Burgers finds a far more inspired role for him as a hoarder of rare Equestranauts collectibles who believe the toys will grant him immortality. Even that bit of wondrous lunacy doesn’t fully explain what makes his character so successful; without ever softening him or making him sympathetic, “The Equestranauts” hints at the buried sadness and loneliness of a man who has made himself the most popular person in his little niche and now despises all those he sees as beneath him. The episode never bothers with unnecessary sentimentality, but Bronconius has an existence here that can’t be reduced to simple villainy. Bob’s Burgers can find respect for all its characters, which is part of the reason it’s so wonderful to see Horseplay, Pony Danza, and especially Sunpuddle finally stand up to their tormentor. Honestly, this story is a strong enough character study that it could probably work without the jokes… but who on earth would want that?
Let’s not forget the very last scene, in which the episode brilliantly smashes together the two obvious conclusions to be drawn from this episode. Tina has indeed regained Chariot, but her experiences with Bronconius and company have quite understandably made her rethink the wisdom of playing with these dolls. Confronted with such immaturity in adults, Tina decides it’s time to grow up, and that kind of insight is worth celebrating. On the other hand, as Bob quite rightly points out, he just went through hell to get her back that doll, so she is damn well going to play with it. Bob’s ordering her to play with it and slamming the door shut represent a sour note to end on, but it’s possible for a story to earn such a sour note just as much as it can earn a sweet one. Tina has realized the pointlessness of everything that has just happened, but that definitely doesn’t mean Bob is about to do likewise. The man cares, dammit, even when what he cares about is stupid! In acknowledging that fact, the episode’s final scene cuts right to one of the many things that is so wonderful about this show.
- When Linda told Bob that he was like a sexy spy, I could have sworn that H. Jon Benjamin let just a hint of Sterling Archer creep into his response. While the main voices he uses on Bob’s Burgers and Archer are basically the same, the performances he gives are vastly different, with the former more a mix of beaten-down yet ready for anything and the latter more a raging, ever-yelling asshole. (Those are quick and dirty distinctions; one could probably fill up an entire paper delineating the more precise differences.) I’ve been waiting a long time for Bob’s Burgers to offer its counterpart to Archer’s brief foray into the Belchers’ universe in “Fugue And Riffs,” and I kind of love that this—Bob going undercover at a My Little Pony-inspired convention—might be the closest we’re going to get.
- “So, Chariot, are you as excited about going to the Equestranaut convention as I am? ‘Maybe more excited!’ Well, it’s not a competition, Chariot.”
- I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but I loved Bob and Tina discussing the Equestranauts toothbrush. Tina’s repeated “Oh my god, oh my god” was just perfect.
- “What’s the capital of Horse Valley?” “Well, a lot of people would say Horsestradam, because that’s the largest municipality, but it’s actually Salt Lick City.” “Correct.” “I would have said Horsepelier!”
- “Well, it’s definitely not Headhorn.” “What!? What!? Hold on!” “I was just kidding Horseplay, relax.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I really like Headhorn.”
- I look forward to a future episode exploring the blood feud between Bob and Antonio, the employee Gene made up.
- “Look at what you’ve all become! You’ve betrayed the meaning of the Equestranauts. And I don’t mean the sexually charged, awkward, confusing vibe at this party. I like sexually charged, awkward, confusing things too! For instance…” “Tina!” Yeah, that might be the greatest Tina line ever.