To the extent that animated shows need to justify their own existence, a good general rule is that cartoons should strive to tell stories and portray action that couldn’t be accomplished in live-action. One of the two plots that comprise tonight’s “Dawn Of The Peck” fits that rule of thumb perfectly. A rampaging gang of aggrieved Thanksgiving fowl would be just about impossible to pull off on a live-action sitcom. The logistics alone would be enough to make an episode director go prematurely gray, as the story would theoretically call for dozens of turkeys and other birds that are trained to act wild, and all of these expertly wrangled turkeys would need to chase after and injure but not really huge crowds of extras. Throw in the fact that several kids—all of whom would have strict limits on the number of hours they could work—are prominently involved in the plot and that there’s a significant sequence involving an amusement park ride, and this episode would be difficult to realize even with a blockbuster movie’s budget, let alone that of, say, Bob’s Burgers’ live-action chum Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But more than that, this story only works conceptually in the heightened reality that animation allows Bob’s Burgers to create. So much of this story’s epic elements—turkeys rampaging, people fleeing, the town being put on lockdown—only work because animation allows the story to be told in wide and overhead shots; this story needs scale, and that wouldn’t be possible in the more claustrophobic environment of live-action sitcom storytelling. Even allowing for all that, there’s the basic issue that the resolution of this episode turns on Linda head-butting a one-eyed turkey, which then takes said attack as a cue to restore the natural pecking order of the group. Written out like that, it’s an absurd idea—hell, the show doesn’t shy away from how ludicrous a resolution this is even as it’s happening—but the only reason it works at all is that we ascribe some manner of human intelligence and comprehension to that turkey.
Without anthropomorphizing the turkey to the extent that it’s something capable of acknowledging Linda’s display of dominance, that climax could only play as slapstick, and pretty dumb slapstick at that. A live-action Linda—who, yes, might well be John Roberts in a wig—could head-butt a live-action turkey, but that turkey would necessarily look like, well, a turkey. Animation allows the show to cheat the relative intelligence levels of the characters; hell, the mere fact that I can talk about a turkey as a character at all underscores what Bob’s Burgers is able to accomplish in its chosen medium. The show can invite us to take seriously premises that would otherwise be the dumbest scenarios imaginable. Sure, everything else is played for laughs, but that acceptance of the underlying, bonkers reality of the situation allows us to continue empathizing with the characters, even when they’re in the midst of something this unbelievable.
Given all that, “Dawn Of The Peck” is particularly interesting because of its other plotline, in which Bob wanders around his house and gets increasingly drunk. Now, that story in no way requires the animated medium to work, beyond the fact that Bob Belcher provides a more ideal visual for those scenes than a live-action H. Jon Benjamin. This is a story that can be told in the tight and medium shots that define single-camera sitcom storytelling; Bob’s chat with his scorned lover, the turkey baster, might lose something without the repeated close-ups of the drawer, but that kind of shot would be in the visual vocabulary of a good chunk of shows. (Just off the top of my head, I might be a little surprised if Brooklyn Nine-Nine or the mockumentary-inspired sitcoms did that shot, but I could totally see more cinematic comedies like Community or the much-mourned Happy Endings throwing that in.) Crucially, the stakes of Bob’s story are so tiny, as it really is just one guy shambling through an unexpected day off from his family while trying to keep his longing for Thanksgiving dinner at bay. These are well-written vignettes, but their deliberately small scale puts the focus even more on Benjamin’s voice-acting. Bob creating personalities for his booze and other assorted household objects is just as funny here as it was in “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal,” but I’d single out Bob’s confident belief that his note doesn’t sound drunk as the random comic highlight of the sequence. It’s a small moment, one informed entirely by character and brought alive by Benjamin’s sloshed inflections.
I’ve treated these two plotlines as separate entities, but a big part of the success of “Dawn Of The Peck” lies in how effectively it contrasts the stakes and scale of the stories. I’d guess that Linda and the kids fighting off killer turkeys and Bob drunkenly wandering about the house in his worst sweatpants would both be funny stories on their own, but the ludicrousness of the former makes the aching mundaneness of the latter all the funnier, and vice versa. The episode indulges in a little structural cleverness here, as it uses Bob’s sudden rediscovery of the music of Donna Summer to explain why he can’t hear the chaos unfolding right outside. Even better, the show scores Linda’s rescue of the kids to said music of Donna Summer. As funny as those parallels are, the real joy here lies in the ridiculous swerves between the two stories’ wildly different tones.
Perhaps that’s why, as terrific as “Dawn Of The Peck” is, the eventual convergence of the two stories almost feels like a letdown: I would have been perfectly happy with Bob spending all of Thanksgiving in confused, drunken semi-bliss. His reunion with Linda and company in the supermarket makes for a nice, organic conclusion to the plotline, and his frustration and subsequent renewed love for Donna Summer when everyone rejects his turkey is priceless; it’s hard to put my finger on anything specifically wrong with this ending, beyond the vague sense that it’s somehow too pat, that it succeeds in bringing everyone back together but doesn’t quite give Bob enough to do to justify taking him away from his homebound silliness.
But no matter: That admittedly elusive little issue aside, this episode is a triumph, a showcase for how Bob’s Burgers can use the larger, crazier scale of animation to sneak in positively infinitesimal stories about Bob explaining the history of the Bastille to a potato chip. This is the kind of story that could only ever be told in the animated medium, both in its broad concept and in its specific execution: After all, you might be able to get Kevin Kline or Zack Galifianakis or Bill Hader to show up for a big, one-off guest star role, but only in animation could you get all three to show up for pivotal but small roles as they do here. (And even then, let’s not forget how much the show gains from being able to cast main and recurring voices who aren’t even remotely close to their characters’ actual physical types.) For all that the holiday mistreats him, Thanksgiving remains Bob’s favorite holiday, and it tends to bring out the best in Bob’s Burgers, too.
- The screener I saw omitted the opening credits, which I believe should also be true of the version that aired. If so, I think that’s the third time out of four this season that the show has left its opening credits out. While I do miss the opening, I can see why the show does it, as the episode is able to pull off a ominous cold open that prepares the audience for the Birds-inspired craziness to come. It even puts a whole different spin on the breakfast conversation with the family, as what would otherwise just be normal lighthearted banter takes on a feeling of foreboding.
- I try to avoid shipping as a matter of course, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Louise and Regular-Sized Rudy are destined to end up together. I mean, Louise actively cheers Rudy when he stops the scrambler ride, and she sounds almost concerned when she informs him that he will probably die before the end of the adventure. Between that and every other interaction they’ve had to date, yeah … this is real, people. I mean, when you adjust for how Louise normally treats even people she theoretically cares about, it becomes almost too obvious.