Bob's Burgers

Bob’s Burgers debuts tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

In its own way, Bob’s Burgers has a lot riding on its slight shoulders. While Fox is never going to abandon animated comedies on Sunday nights, the network has been far more cautious about what it programs in the bloc in recent years. Sure, it gave the very odd Sit Down, Shut Up a tryout on the night, but it was fairly clear the network was never really behind that show. For the most part, the network has stuck with what works in recent years, even as it’s picked up a good number of animated pilots that never went to series. What works is Seth MacFarlane, and with his three shows, which all share similar sensibilities and animation styles, taking up three-quarters of the lineup’s real estate, the effect can be numbing, even if all three series have good episodes on any given night. It’s somewhat amazing how well MacFarlane’s shows have done for the network, especially considering that even Matt Groening had trouble catching big ratings lightning twice, when Futurama struggled to draw an audience on the network.

Bob’s Burgers isn’t some line in the sand, but because it feels so very different from MacFarlane’s work, it feels like it is. Created by Loren Bouchard, who was behind terrific shows like Dr. Katz and Home Movies, the series is also something of a gamble for its creator, who’s tried to take his deliberately outsider aesthetic and make it ever-so-slightly more mainstream. The series Bob’s Burgers resembles more than anything other than Bouchard’s other series is the show that MacFarlane’s latest, The Cleveland Show, replaced on the lineup, King Of The Hill. The two series share a surprising amount in common, including a vaguely centrist paragon of common sense who does battle with unblinking bureaucrats at the series’ center, a deliberate focus on small-scale, realistic storytelling that could be done in a live-action sitcom, and an attempt to run away from traditional animated show jokes. The pacing here is far from rapid-fire; the jokes, when they come, are laconically delivered and nicely spaced out.

The star of Bob’s Burgers is H. Jon Benjamin, all-purpose voice actor extraordinaire and one of the stars of Home Movies. He plays the titular Bob, a hard-working man who owns a somewhat successful burger joint just down the road from a popular amusement park in an unspecified urban area. The only employees of his restaurant seem to be his other family members, including wife Linda (John Roberts), daughters Tina (Dan Mintz) and Louise (Kristen Schaal), and son Gene (Eugene Mirman), and the show’s premise, such as it is, seems to be, “Here are some things that happen at this restaurant.” That’s not a bad thing, especially as Bouchard spends much of the pilot fleshing out the neighborhood the restaurant is based in, including the crematorium next door and said amusement park, but it places a lot of weight on the writing and characters. And in that regard, Bob’s Burgers isn’t quite there yet.

Of the five characters at the show’s center, only Louise really pops in the pilot. It’s not immediately clear what’s supposed to make Bob a compelling protagonist, outside of who’s voicing him and the fact that the show is named after him. The pilot attempts to take the character to some pretty dark places, but they don’t feel entirely earned, even as they sort of make sense story-wise. There’s some good business between Benjamin and Roberts in a scene where Bob and Linda grind the meat for the burgers, but the major emotional plot between the two in the episode hinges on Bob forgetting the date of the two’s anniversary. Not exactly the freshest plot in the world. The two older kids, meanwhile, feel like two sides of the same awkward coin. Only Louise, with her constant attempts to improve upon her own reality by making up better specials for the restaurant to sell or telling wild show-and-tell lies that get her parents in trouble, feels like something approaching an interesting character in the first episode.

On the other hand, the pilot for Bob’s Burgers feels as much like a statement of purpose as anything else, an attempt to get a more mainstream audience used to Bouchard’s minimalist dialogue and the spare animation that usually adorns his shows. In that regard, it’s probably a good first step. The show’s going to feel outré enough already, stuck between The Simpsons and Family Guy, and that’s with a plot that feels sitcom safe and jokes that feel slightly more similar to setup-punchline gags or cutaway jokes than much of the stuff Bouchard’s done in the past. Furthermore, there are basically nothing like pop culture gags, the stock-in-trade of latter-day Simpsons episodes and most MacFarlane episodes, anywhere near here. The jokes are all broadly character based or darkly absurd. It’s the kind of tone that’s rarely tried on television, and no matter how it works out, it’s impressive that Fox is giving the series a shot in one of its best timeslots, instead of hiding it away in the 7 p.m. hour.

Again, though, there’s little in the pilot to suggest that this is much beyond a standard sitcom setup. One of the strengths of Bouchard’s work is that he’ll often take traditional sitcom setups but then find interesting ways to go with them or treat them with a sense of what real people might actually do in these situations. But in the pilot here (the only episode Fox sent out, somewhat troublingly), most every step you’d expect the storyline to take is taken. Once we find out that the health inspector who shuts the restaurant down for things Louise said at show-and-tell used to date Linda and is still distraught over her, it’s obvious that Linda will have to try to entice him into helping the restaurant out. And once that goes poorly, it’s obvious that the inspector will tell Linda she’s wasting her life with a lummox like Bob. And so on.

Still, there’s something undeniably appealing about Bob’s Burgers, even as it feels like a work in progress. There are few outright belly laughs in the pilot (the biggest comes within a few seconds of its start), but it’s not like the jokes are painful either, usually prompting at least a smile. And the tone of the show—which seems to be less about wacky hijinks and more about what it takes to be a basically good guy in a world that seems to be trying to kill every small business it can—is nicely low-key and understated. To a real degree, being a TV critic is about trying to predict the future. A lot of that means basing predictions on what people have done in the past, particularly in borderline cases like this one. If Bob’s Burgers issued from some writer no one had ever heard of, it might not seem as much like this has the potential to go somewhere interesting. But when you get Bouchard, Benjamin, and Schaal involved, something marginal becomes something worth a very mild recommendation. Bob’s Burgers isn’t there just yet, but it’s trying enough interesting stuff to be worth a look, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it gelled and became the best show in the animated lineup fairly quickly.

Stray observations:

  • Bob’s Burgers will be wrapped into the Fox animated wrap-ups every Sunday from now on. But those write-ups will now be done by Rowan Kaiser. After a season and a half of doing them, I’ve run out of ways to say that The Cleveland Show is pointless. Hopefully, Rowan will have some new-ish thoughts, and hopefully, Bob’s Burgers turns into something worth looking forward to for him.

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