When breaking down what works and what doesn’t about a comedy episode, it’s generally easier to focus on the storytelling and the structure than it is on the jokes, because there’s no real getting away from the old saw that the question of whether gags are funny or not represents the most subjective part of the viewing experience. By comparison, it’s much easier to delineate just how Bob’s Burgers goes about telling its chosen story; even if we disagree about how well those particular decisions work, there’s more there of substance to kick around than the binary of “funny or not funny.” The thing though is that it’s not so easy to divide an episode’s storytelling from its joke-telling, and the success or failure of one can so profoundly affect our perception of the other. “Adventures In Chinchilla-Sitting” is an episode whose narrative style can best be described as “ramshackle,” as it lurches from place to place and incident to incident. This is a shaggy
dog chinchilla story, one that relies heavily on its ability to quickly sketch in emotional beats that are only a point of emphasis for a scene or two. After all, if this episode is about Louise realizing there’s more to life than getting her way all the time, that only comes into focus in the final three or so minutes.
Now, an episode doesn’t need to be focused to be good. But without much by way of an emotional throughline, or even the consistency of place or character that might allow the show to build to comic crescendos—for instance, think how the show uses Regular-Sized Rudy’s interactions with the Belcher kids in set locations in “Carpe Museum” and “The Kids Rob A Train”—that means that the episode has to live or die on the quality of the jokes, and each joke has to exist in isolation. The show helps itself out a little here by bringing back familiar characters like Tina’s no-account, moped-riding non-boyfriend Jonas, and that security guard from “Burgerboss,” but these characters aren’t so much at the very end of Bob’s Burgers’ expansive bench as they are random guys who were signed to contracts off the street mid-game because all the goalies got injured. (Or something. I figured Teddy would appreciate the hockey metaphor, no matter how tortured.) These are serviceable side characters, but the episode is so loose that it can’t really find a way to tell us anything that we didn’t already glean from their first appearances, give or take the security guard’s enjoyment of weed and his apparent willingness to believe that fourth graders might share said enjoyment.
The one character that does benefit from this aimlessness is, perhaps not surprisingly, Gene. Even by the standards of a family that loves its random tangents and non sequiturs, Gene is particularly given to bursts of pure comic chaos, and so “Adventures In Chinchilla-Sitting” very much plays to his strengths. Consider his utterly botched yet successful attempt to pass himself off as a pizza delivery boy; the fact that he completely fails to act naturally only gets funnier because he keeps steamrolling forward, leaving no time for the bemused teenager to process his observations about old man pizza boss and his promise to be out of the bathroom in 30 minutes or less. This is also an episode that finds lots of different unexpected pleasures from the interaction between Gene and Tammy, with his observation that he thought she was someone’s mom being a little nonsensical from a continuity perspective—I mean, Gene surely knows Tammy is a fellow student based on all their prior interactions, but seriously, who cares?—but still being the ideal encapsulation of Gene’s endearingly immature view of those slightly older than him. His immediate use of the toilet after letting his confederates into the bathroom also provides Tammy with what is by far her most legitimate freak-out ever, and it kind of snuck up on me just how perfectly cute that “Gene jacket!” punchline is.
Indeed, if the main plot of “Adventures In Chinchilla-Sitting” has one really successful strand, it’s in its handling of Tammy. Outside of outright psychopaths like Millie, she remains the closest thing to a nemesis for the Belcher kids, yet the episode finds some welcome if understated ways to bring her into closer alliance with the kids. Of primary importance here is hers and Tina’s utter inability to play it cool at the party, with the pair responding to the greetings of a high school boy with a series of nervous twitches and grunts. Tammy’s observation afterward that the boy was as tall as her dad is a nice little character moment, the first real recognition that maybe even Tammy knows she’s growing up too fast. Tina’s gallant effort to rescue Tammy from her own farts is a great bit of sustained visual and dialogue-based silliness, with Dan Mintz and Jenny Slate hitting just the right tempo of urgent, faux-casual patter on the way to the window. The show splits the difference with Tammy’s subsequent betrayal: It leaves the door open for the pair’s relationship to revert to the old animosity as the needs of future episodes dictate, yet Tammy’s assurance that she’s kidding and she knows that nobody is listening might once again indicate a new level of self-awareness for the character. Either way, “Adventures In Chinchilla-Sitting” finds ways to make it fun—if not always especially funny—to hang out with Tammy without making her the antagonist, and that’s a fine achievement.
Overall, though, this is an episode that just can’t quite find that extra gear of frenetic energy to really make its jokes pop and its wandering plot work as well as they ought to. Andy Richter is fine as Louise’s classmate Wayne, but the character is underwritten compared with other nerd characters like Aziz Ansari’s Daryl or Jim Gaffigan’s Henry Haber; Wayne kind of comes across as a pint-sized version of high-strung adults like last week’s Sheldon, except the premise of such an immature character isn’t really as strong comically when the character is immature, like, biologically. As is often the case, Wayne is at his best when Bob’s Burgers finds ways to go against the grain—you know, like how one should (or should not, I forget) pet a chinchilla’s fur—with its characterization. Louise and Wayne sharing a brief détente over the chinchilla’s ridiculous name and its obvious possession of testicles is a moment both sweet and funny, and it lays good groundwork for Louise’s later realization that Wayne needs the chinchilla far more than she does.
That just leaves Bob and Linda’s subplot over at trivia night. In isolation, this is a great little story for them, as it’s always fun to see the pair interact with jerks who take dumb stuff way too seriously. Bob and Linda can so easily go crazy enough to match the energy of the weirdoes they are interacting with—see last week’s “Lil’ Hard Dad” for proof of that—but here they never lose sight of the fact that this is just bar trivia, and so who the hell cares if they cheat at it, especially when the quizmaster takes such inordinate glee in humiliating them? The only drawback to their use here is that it leaves them isolated from the kids’ main plot, and this might well have been an instance where, like in “The Belchies” and “O.T.: The Outside Toilet,” the episode would have benefitted from integrating (a possibly drunken) Bob and Linda into the main story, just to give it a little extra juice. As it is, “Adventures In Chinchilla-Sitting” has lots of little moments that work, but its story never coheres into something bigger, and its jokes just aren’t hilarious enough to make that fact not matter. Still, as lowlights go, Bob’s Burgers’ remain pretty damn good.
- Another character who does benefit from the non sequitur joke approach is Teddy, who just randomly drives around town, providing his own radio music and proving why most people don’t try to eat pad Thai in a car.
- “Don’t bring up your divorce. Or Nixon. Or Radiohead!” Gene understands the contours of polite conversation.
- So, are we to believe that Alphonse is the grandson of strobe light inventor Étienne Oehmichen? Or perhaps electronic stroboscope popularizer Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton? Because I suppose the math just works, but we’re talking about some old parents here.