There’s a whole lot of crazy on display in “Gene It On.” That in and of itself is nothing new for Bob’s Burgers; after all, last week’s excellent “The Kids Run Away” was essentially an extended exploration of the insanity that afflicts Linda’s side of the family. Where tonight’s story stumbles, however, is in just how many different strains of madness it presents. The typical Bob’s Burgers episode presents a basically cohesive plot off of which the show’s cast of eccentrics and weirdoes can bounce off, their offbeat reactions escalating the comedic tension over the course of 22 minutes. Tonight, on the other hand, presents the audience with a bunch of lunatics, all of whom enter the episode with their own preexisting quirks. Last heard in “Topsy,” Billy Eichner returns as the librarian Mr. Ambrose, now a cheerleading supervisor who spends his entire time come up with increasingly convoluted ways to stir up drama. There’s Keegan-Michael Key’s Todd, the deposed cheer king who is both desperate to win back his crown and not actually all that good at cheering. And there’s always Linda, who quickly attains peak obnoxiousness—and I say that as a Linda fan—when she learns her son is now a cheerleader.
At its best, Bob’s Burgers could probably juggle any two of these character arcs, but tonight’s episode falters as it tries to play out all three stories at once. The episode realizes that there isn’t really a narrative here per se, which is why Mr. Ambrose is on hand to keep things moving along in his obsessive quest to find the drama. On most shows, such acknowledgment of the story’s lack of plot would be the source of self-aware gags, but, to its credit, “Gene It On” finds a different way to tell this story. Nobody involved in the story ever quite points out just how stupid all of this is; sure, Bob grumbles a lot, as he is wont to do, and Todd eventually yells that Mr. Ambrose is the worst supervisor ever. But the episode keeps the focus on Mr. Ambrose’s character where other shows might start cracking jokes about his storytelling function. The man constantly switches allegiances between Gene and Todd, leaks the team’s robot-centric cheerleading theme to their competitors, and reforms in the last five minutes as a final dramatic twist not because he’s a thinly characterized shit-stirrer who does all this to keep a weak story moving along, but because he’s a deeply strange shit-stirrer who does all this because, well, that’s just who the man is. This is where the show’s longstanding affection, even respect for its motley cast of weirdoes comes in handy.
To that end, Mr. Ambrose’s story could work fine on its own, but it ultimately clutters the rivalry between Gene and Todd. Perhaps if Todd were more of an innocent at the outset, “Gene It On” would have had an easier time showing Mr. Ambrose’s manipulations of his would-be cheer kings. As it is, Todd’s characterization is all over the place, hyper-competitive one minute and surprisingly good-natured the next. With Todd, Bob’s Burgers makes the risky decision to prioritize jokes above character, with Keegan-Michael Key repeatedly asked to modulate his performance to fit whatever role Todd is playing in a given scene. You might quite understandably argue that this doesn’t matter that much; after all, we’ve never seen Todd before and may never see him again, so is it really that important that this story can’t come up with a coherent character for him? And, honestly, I don’t want to overstate this; the shifts in Todd’s portrayal are subtle enough that I likely wouldn’t notice them if the jokes were landing. But tonight is a bit of an off night for Bob’s Burgers, and the relatively uninspired gags are likely a byproduct of the weak storytelling. It’s all just a bit too convoluted to have one scheming manipulator we’ve never met before being used by another scheming manipulator we’ve only met once before.
At the end of last week’s review, I pointed out how long overdue we were for a Gene story; I may or may not have implored the Bob’s Burgers production team to “Free Gene!” (I totally did.) As such, I feel slightly churlish in saying that this episode mishandles Gene, but this is a far sight from definitive Gene showcases like “The Unbearable Like-Likeness Of Gene” or “The Unnatural.” There are moments in which “Gene It On” gets to the core of the character; I’ll never get tired of him storming off in a huff while demanding an excessive amount of food. His best moment actually comes early on in the episode, when he is told of what cheerleading can give him. Offered attention and popularity, he proudly replies, “Got it, don’t need it,” but he instantly signs on when he’s told he gets free shorts. Of the five Belchers, Gene probably remains the most thinly characterized, as his role rarely extends beyond that of the wisecracking food monster, but the one detail Bob’s Burgers brings out about him so brilliantly is just how comfortable Gene is in his own skin. Still, this episode is less about Gene as it is about the weirdoes buzzing around him—his mother very much included—and the show occasionally errs in how it handles his role. If nothing else, the fact that Gene doesn’t realize the jockstrap-masked Zeke is Zeke is really stupid, and his inability to recognize him pushes the episode into a more consciously absurd, arch territory that it can’t quite pull off.
“Gene It On” is one of this season’s weakest episodes, though that’s not such a horrible thing given this year’s generally high quality. And, whatever the narrative problems of its main story, this episode does strike some gold with its subplot, in which Louise volunteers to be an injured Tina’s highly unreliable interpreter. At its first glance, this story is just as dumb as the episode’s central plotline, but it benefits from the presence of more familiar characters. That includes Mr. Frond, who gets in a very funny cameo as someone who totally fails to grasp what an injured tongue actually means; he’s a particularly good character to include in a plot like this, as voice actor David Herman’s years on Futurama have made him an expert at selling more surreal gags.
Tina’s Louise-assisted courtship of Jimmy Jr. proves especially effective, as it drills down to a familiar but funny truth about the younger Pesto: He treats Tina like crap when she’s a meek doormat, but he’s instantly attracted to her once Louise gives her some edge. Jimmy Jr.’s willingness to sell his bike to pay for the date is a great character detail, and it’s legitimately sweet that a vaguely recovered Tina and a similarly indecipherable Jimmy Jr. have a romantic moment in the spinning pie restaurant. It’s an open question whether their kiss here will lead to anything, but it does set up my favorite gag of the episode. No, I’m not exactly proud that my favorite joke involves Louise vomiting pie on the wall, but what really makes that joke land is her calm confidence that nobody will know who did it, not to mention her joy at seeing her vomit one more time before the end credits. In that closing moment—not to mention the cheerleading team’s willingness to try out Linda’s new insane cheer—Bob’s Burgers is able to more clearly convey its fondness for its cast of weirdoes than it had in the preceding 21 minutes. It’s never a bad idea to end an episode, especially a weaker episode, on a high note, especially when said high note involves slowly rotating pie vomit.
- As I suggested earlier, I don’t think Linda’s story really worked here. To some extent, I blame Bob for his, as he checks out of the story early and spends most of the remaining time being quietly frustrated with his family. That’s not an unreasonable reaction, but it leaves Linda with nobody to bounce her craziness off of; after all, think of how funny their pairing was in “The Kids Run Away.” It’s tough to write Linda sympathetically when she outright announces that she has favorite children, and it’s all driven by cheerleading prowess, but her relative isolation from the main action does her no favors. That said, I greatly enjoyed the revelation that Bob has a French fry in his pocket.
- This episode feels like another example of Bob’s Burgers letting its King Of The Hill flag fly. Gene’s role here feels a lot like that of Bobby Hill, particularly in the episode that he becomes the Longhorn mascot for the Tom Landry football team. This episode isn’t quite as close a match for its King Of The Hill forebear as was “Bob And Deliver,” which felt like a direct spiritual descendant of the great “Little Horrors Of Shop,” but I always appreciate that the spirit of Arlen is alive and well with the Belchers.