Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bob’s Burgers: “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl”

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When tonight’s Bob’s Burgers premiere is clicking, it’s as great as anything the show has ever done. This episode illustrates the old chestnut that it’s better to start weak and finish strong than vice versa (or, more accurately, to start fairly strong, be a bit weak in the middle, and then finish really strong), as I defy anybody to watch the final few minutes, in which the kids stage the most ridiculous hybrid Die-Hard-slash-Working-Girl action romance musical we’re ever likely to see, and not come away entirely convinced that Bob’s Burgers has still got it. That musical is a good illustration of how the show can earn its unrealistic moments because, yes, there’s absolutely no way that a bunch of kids could pull off a show even that coherent and well-staged in 30 minutes. But we already know that, because the show goes to great lengths to nail just how crummy and unwatchable the separate Die Hard and Working Girl musicals would actually be. In those musicals, nobody can sing on-key, the acting is atrocious, and the lyrics are barely anything more than a dry recitation of plot points from seminal 80s movies. That initial, realistic terribleness helps earn an ending where the kids suddenly reel off the rousing, show-stopping that we all know we want to see, logic be damned.

More than that, “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl” earns its improbably strong ending by reminding us how much we care about these characters. We know the Belchers and supporting players like Zeke and Rudy or Darryl and Jocelyn so well now that their one-liners practically write themselves—though Darryl’s penchant for Mariah Carey-like singing is a most welcome bit of new information—and Bob’s Burgers doesn’t have to strain to get us to root for a happy ending, even if the more likely outcome is an abject disaster followed by a bunch of stunned adults quietly filing out. David Wain deserves particular credit here; he’s no less demented as Courtney Wheeler here than he was in “The Unbearable Like-Likeness Of Gene,” but he manages to make her sympathetic at the climax of the episode in a way that really shouldn’t be possible with a voice that ridiculous. The musical is a terrific end to an episode that takes an admittedly funky path to that point, and it’s that weird structure that makes this a slightly lesser effort in the Bob’s Burgers canon.

Because really, about the worst thing you can say about “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl” is that it doesn’t quite have all the pieces necessary to tell a completely coherent story. The tale of Gene and Courtney’s dueling musicals provides plenty of great gags, but, at least in this telling, it doesn’t have enough plot to fill out a full half-hour without a little narrative reshuffling, hence why most of the episode is told in flashback. It’s not too difficult to see why the show would make such a decision, as the scenes in Mr. Frond’s office represent the only way to incorporate Bob and Linda before the night of the musical. Yes, in an alternate telling of this episode, the writers could have given the Belcher parents their own subplot, or at least some occasional drop-ins at the restaurant; indeed, this is one of the very few episodes with not a single scene there. But the final act of this story doesn’t need Bob and Linda to do anything more than react to the latest madness unfolding around them, and it also needs them to be entirely ignorant of what the kids have been up to, a point that Linda and Bob make to Mr. Frond.

Now, while the fact that I get paid to think and write about television means I find this kind of structural stuff interesting, I’d be the first to admit this episode’s wonky construction doesn’t matter to most audience members, at least not in and of itself. Hell, it’s damn impressive that we’re five seasons into Bob’s Burgers and the show can still routinely pull off unified stories that fill the entire half-hour without, say, a completely unrelated first act, which has been The Simpsons’ go-to move for roughly two decades. The flashback structure works in the sense that it does get Bob and Linda involved in the story earlier than they otherwise could be, and there are some terrific lines from both them and Mr. Frond that probably wouldn’t be there if the show had told “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl” in a more linear fashion.

And indeed, losing the flashbacks would mean losing one of the best running jokes in the early going, namely that every kid is a wholly unreliable narrator. Bob’s Burgers does a nice job escalating the ridiculousness of their distortions. Gene provides what appears to be a fairly objective account of how he first came up with the musical, and it’s only in the last couple of lines in the cafeteria that Courtney starts spouting what Gene thinks she should have said. Courtney then offers what sure seems like a more biased account of the conversation, except the Belcher family all agree that it’s entirely plausible that Gene would loudly declare his love of tacos and then make a fart noise. And finally Louise’s account takes an unexpected—well, unless you know Louise—swerve into hagiographic territory, as Gene and Tina exalt her for the brilliant idea of staging a guerrilla-slash-protest production of Die Hard: The Musical in the boiler room. Here, the show even cleverly leans on Tina’s trademark monotone, as her delivery of “What a considerate and lucrative solution to Gene’s problem!” sounds almost plausible, at least until she and Gene literally start singing Louise’s praises.

The only issue, really, is that this is such a good gag that it’s a shame the show drops it as soon as it no longer needs it. This is the practical issue with the episode’s messy structure: Because the underlying story isn’t quite rich enough to support a full-length episode, Bob’s Burgers compensates by bolting on elements that could really be the basis for their own story. In other words, about 10 minutes into the episode, as the flashbacks shifted to the kids rehearsing their respective musicals, I found myself asking, “Wait, weren’t we doing a Rashomon riff?” But, by that point, the episode is trying to get to the night of the musical(s) as quickly as possible, and more gags about unreliable narrators would stand in the way of that. In most cases, a comedy can’t keep on hitting the same joke over and over for a full half-hour—South Park is the one big exception, but that show very much plays by its own set of rules—and the key to keeping the audience engaged is to come up with a premise that easily allows for the show to pivot from one area of comedy to the next, or to top each unrelated comedic setpiece with something even funnier. And, yes, the various musicals are absolutely hilarious, and they made me completely forget about the flashbacks and the Rashomon-type gags. It’s just that the episode gets a bit flabby in the middle as it tries to move from a first act of unreliable narrators to a third act of increasingly ludicrous musicals.


So, again, does any of that really matter? Certainly, I don’t think this episode’s slightly misfiring elements portend any greater issue for the show; last year’s premiere, “A River Runs Through Bob,” was considerably weaker than this one, and that season was fantastic. What unites “A River Runs Through Bob” and “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl” is that both episodes represent the show trying to stretch beyond its normal storytelling structure and attempt something we haven’t quite seen before. The fact that neither episode quite pulls off what it’s going for isn’t such a big deal, especially when the jokes remain sharp enough to compensate for the less effective delivery mechanism. “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl” makes some mistakes, but these are the mistakes a show damn well ought to be making, at least occasionally. And anyway, that final musical made me just so freaking happy, because I can’t imagine a better way to announce that, oh yes, Bob’s Burgers is back!

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to our coverage of Bob’s Burgers. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to make it through the whole season, but the past couple years suggest this gig is totally cursed. So let’s just enjoy this all while we can, you know? (I feel like that probably also applies to the show moving to 7:30, which may be an ominous sign of doom or a sign that Fox isn’t as worried about this show’s long-term survival as other shows it feels it needs to protect. Again, I figure it’s probably best to just live in the moment.)
  • “That’s it, Courtney. Just remember the good times.”
  • “What’s taking so long? Waiting’s gross.”
  • “I guess I don’t have the dashing good looks of a medium-young Harrison Ford.”
  • “Also, I’m just an uncle, so no biggie!”
  • “Gene, it’s 9:30 and I have a lot of sweat in my underwear.”