It would be one thing to call tonight’s Bob’s Burgers episode a genre mashup, but a more accurate term might well be something like genre whiplash. As its title, “The Runway Club,” suggests (albeit with an extra “a” in there, which apparently is the new official title), the episode breaks the show’s standard formula to pursue pastiches of both the ‘80s teen classic The Breakfast Club and the reality television stalwart Project Runway. Remarkably, that still isn’t the full extent of the episode’s genre-based experimentation, as both the flashback to Tina and Tammy’s spat and their subsequent faceoff in the supply closet use ominous music and shadows to build suspense, deviating from the usual presentation of a Bob’s Burgers episode.
In attempting parodies of wildly different pop culture items, “The Runway Club” has to work for at least four distinct groups: those who are familiar with both, those who know The Breakfast Club but not Project Runway, those in the opposite category, and those who have never watched either but can still eventually recognize what’s being parodied because they haven’t lived under rocks their entire lives, geez, it’s just that they were born three years after The Breakfast Club came out and they can’t watch reality television, like, at all, though seriously it’s not a snobby thing, it’s just a personal taste thing. (So, uh, yeah, I’m in that last, rambling category.)
Despite my—wholly justifiable, dammit!—ignorance of the finer points of what this episode is having fun with, I’m still comfortable saying “The Runway Club” is a first-rate episode. Part of it is that its use of The Breakfast Club is mostly as a bookend for the episode, mimicking the opening of the film, complete with Zeke almost getting run over by Jimmy Pesto. What’s impressive is how funny that moment is even for someone like me who hasn’t seen the inspiration. Much of this has to do with how well-honed the show’s—and, by extension, the audience’s—understanding of the characters is. This isn’t like some animated shows that will remain nameless (but yeah, I’m totally talking about Family Guy), where the characters are mostly just vehicles for whatever random gag the show wants to do.
Jimmy almost hitting Zeke is funny because, other than just being an homage, it also flows naturally from the guy’s obsession with showing up Bob; he’s so concerned with making a smooth exit from his latest taunt session of his competitor that he almost runs over a kid. On the flip side, putting Zeke in sunglasses and giving him that odd gait is a dead giveaway that the show is referencing something—and yes, the music also offers a pretty big clue—because it sits outside of the normal way in which we expect the character to act. The Breakfast Club gives Bob’s Burgers a way to have fun with both obeying and breaking the rules it has set up for its characters, but none of that would be possible if the show hasn’t so clearly established who Zeke and Jimmy Pesto are.
But while the John Hughes movie does provide the grist for some strong opening and closing gags—the cotton candy-themed parody of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in the end credits is a thing of beauty—the episode mostly leaves it aside in the middle portion of the episode, turning things over to Mr. Frond’s demented attempt to solve the world’s problems with an impromptu fashion show. His “Scared Fabulous” conceit is largely a remix of what we saw back in “Synchronized Swimming,” right down to his ill-advised efforts to prove to the school administration that his ideas are going to change education as we know it. There can be a bit of a balancing act in knowing when to go back to familiar details and when to tell the audience something new.
The episode doesn’t cover much new ground with Mr. Frond, but we’re also talking about revisiting character beats from way back in the second season, and that tilts his revived love of knitting toward being a fun callback, particularly when we get still more dopey rhymes—“I’m a knitter, not a quitter!”—and quickie, heroin-based double meanings. The fact that he suffers pretty much the exact same meltdown he did in “Synchronized Swimming,” with his early claims that he’s trying to create a safe space for the children fast giving way to his desperate hyper-competitiveness, is funny in episode-specific terms and a nice reward for those who have been watching all along.
The one character we really learn more about in this episode is Jocelyn, who continues her campaign to be, if not exactly the season’s MVP, then at least its Sixth Man of the Year. (Or girl. Whatever.) She gets about twice as many lines as she does in a typical kid-centric episode, and every last one of them is a winner. Much as with Zeke in episodes like “Tina And The Real Ghost,” part of what’s so fun about Jocelyn here is the sense of a larger worldview that is, if not precisely coherent, then at least damn fascinating. After all, she pulls the alarm because she genuine believes the fire department is best qualified to settle Tina and Tammy’s quarrel, she can sleep with her eyes open whenever she wants, and she believes immunity from the second challenge also grants her and Tammy immortality. The glimpse of her mother is particularly brilliant, with her comforting reminder to her daughter: “Don’t even worry about it. You’re, like, really pretty.”
Jocelyn is roughly at the point Zeke was in season three episodes like “Two For Tina,” where he was just there to provide support for the other kids and chime in with hilariously dumb one-liners; his straightforward explanation in that earlier episode that he was going stag to the dance remains one of my favorite inexplicably brilliant moments in the show’s run. Jocelyn, powered by John Roberts’ performance, has now reached that reliably hilarious level; I’d be curious to know whether she could incorporate further character development, as Zeke did in episodes like “Bob And Deliver.” For now, though, I’m so not complaining about what we’re getting.
The Project Runway portions of the episode work in large part because they are so nonsensical, with Mr. Frond trying to orchestrate a reality that none of the other Saturday faculty members care much about, at least not at first. Neither Ms. Schnur nor Coach Blevins really understands what the hell Mr. Frond is trying to accomplish, yet each throws herself or himself into it with surprising abandon; Schnur proves quite the incisive judge, while Blevins comes up with a decent sartorial challenge before just giving up and proposing that the kids wrestle for the victory. Mr. Branca, on the other hand, provides one of the coolest callbacks, as “The Runway Club” picks up on a tossed-off gag at the end of “The Millie-churian Candidate,” in which he revealed he was the president of his old country before the coup d’état ousted him, and uses it to channel his elaborate final challenge. This is the goofy genius at the heart of the show’s world-building: Bob’s Burgers is weird and ramshackle enough to throw off the occasional reality-stretching joke like Mr. Branca being a deposed dictator, yet it’s also willing to return to that gag and commit to it for the entire final act of a subsequent episode. There’s ambition to spare in “The Runway Club,” and the fact that it’s all so damn funny is both byproduct of and justification for all that experimentation.
- Bob and Linda’s subplot is a fairly standard-issue bit of parents-centric, restaurant-bound storytelling, but I really appreciate that the Belchers finally get one up on Jimmy Pesto. Also, I’m a fan of any story that involves awkward, stammering teenagers, especially when they sound just like the Belchers’ go-to babysitter, Jen.
- “That’s an emotional-ass story, Mr. Frond!” Oh, Zeke. Never change.
- “His name is Enrique and he’s already very forward.” Ms. Schnur’s life sounds complicated, y’all.