The Belchers are at their best when they are totally committed to whatever it is they are doing. It doesn’t take much to get them there, either. It’s really only Bob who need any convincing to throw his entire person into something silly or inconsequential. “The Helen Hunt” is an offbeat episode conceptually, but it all hangs together because each of the Belchers find something to obsess over. For Tina and Linda, it’s playing matchmaker for Teddy with the Irish apartment dweller Kathleen and the glamorous, possibly murderous Helen, respectively. For Louise, it’s finding the treasured snail sculpture and getting the reward. For Bob, it somehow becomes fixing an elderly blind man’s malfunctioning pipes. For Gene, it is helping his dad restore the good name of the plumbers at Fleetwood Mac, or possibly just yelling whatever pops into his head at any given moment. Whatever else unfolds around the family, their passions for whatever they have fixated on is enough to make the episode work.
By “whatever else,” I mostly mean the presence of a probable killer in Helen. Her debut appearance four years ago in “Housetrap” left little doubt she really had murdered her husband Larry. Story elements like that sit right at the edge of what the Bob’s Burgers universe can comfortably contain without straining, and generally the show has taken one of two options when exploring such territory. The first is to move the show out of its usual setting to somewhere stranger and eerier. The empty mansion on Craggy Neck in “Housetrap” would count, as does, say, the snowy highway from “Christmas In The Car.” The other option has been to route any such larger-than-life elements through characters we already understand to be unbound by the show’s normal rules. That mostly just means the Fischoeders, as we most notably saw in the “World Wharf” two-parter.
Helen isn’t nearly as eccentric as Calvin and Felix, so “The Helen Hunt” has to take a different tack in bringing back a likely murderer. While she maintained a friendly facade in “Housetrap,” here she barely conceals her contempt for the people she encounters. She wants the treasure that Linda can’t pronounce and I can’t spell—I can confidently say it’s not a Napster or a Nescafé, at any rate—and there’s no moment where she’s anything other than horrible to everyone. The episode doesn’t suggest she would kill again to get the treasure, as that might be a bit much to pull off without the story’s logic breaking, but it can certainly illustrate her willingness to risk Teddy’s life to get her hands on some trinket. The storytelling then can be wonderfully simple: She spends the first 18 minutes or so being a low-key kind of awful, reveals her callousness during the climax so that even Linda can’t ignore it anymore, and then gets an off-screen comeuppance as she drops the only thing she cares about. A lot of credit goes to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson, who has nearly 15 years’ experience finding the hilarity in monstrous narcissism.
Helen’s transparent terribleness does make Linda’s attempt to bring her and Teddy together come off as a bit, well, stupid, even compared with the other Belchers’ fixations. That’s something of a longstanding risk with Linda-centric subplots. You can see a sliver of logic behind her notion of Helen as the rich princess who falls for Teddy, but only a sliver—the whole idea collapses as soon as Helen actually shows up. The best you can say for Linda is her attempts to bring them together, though ill-conceived and painfully transparent, aren’t nearly as silly as Tina’s efforts to unite Teddy with Sharon Horgan’s Kathleen. While those two did at least show a bit of friendly chemistry when discussing the sport of hurling, having the two stare into each other’s eyes for no reason isn’t the best strategy to recapture that moment.
If nothing else, Kathleen does appear the perfect flavor of vaguely pathetic weirdo to match with Teddy. A lot of Bob’s Burgers stories work best when the ancillary characters just sort of let the weirdness unfolding around them happen, and Kathleen proves precisely that kind of pushover. She soon wearies of the kids repeatedly bursting into her apartment, because it frankly would be strange if she didn’t, but it’s not as though she ever does much to about the intrusions beyond some mild muttering. Her secret recipe for cold pasta—the trick is you leave it in the refrigerator for weeks—is suitably sad and terrifying. Again, all this is saying perfect partner for Teddy. Horgan’s performance is the ideal counterpoint to Olson’s Helen, as Kathleen is unfailingly sweet about her utter lack of initiative, even if she’s also a bit tired and slobby about it.
Tina and Linda’s matchmaking efforts make Louise’s treasure-hunting look almost mundane by comparison, though it’s fun to see the smallest Belcher be so shamelessly single-minded about finding the item and getting her reward. Perhaps the best thing the “The Helen Hunt” has going for it is how the plot sets up every character to do something they would naturally care about. For Louise, that’s making some quick money. That sets up some fun interactions with Tina, but it’s also to be expected. The more surprising one—at least until it starts happening, at which point it makes perfect sense—is Bob’s desperate need to prove himself as a handyman. This one is more straightforwardly sweet than the other stories, as it’s a lot easier to see how Bob actually does have the old man’s best interests at heart, or at least as much as he can without admitting that Fleetwood Mac is not an actual plumbing company and the guy should probably call someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.
Mostly, the fun with Bob’s subplot comes in seeing how his situation keeps spiraling further and further away from the original goal of checking the vents, especially as with each new tangent Bob gets more invested in accomplishing his latest task. It’s deeply silly, as indeed this entire episode is. “The Helen Hunt” is basically a farcical mystery where no one can pay attention to anyone else long enough to agree on what is actually going on. That could be a chaotic mess of an episode, but the guest characters fit so perfectly into the stories, and the Belchers’ various side quests are such natural extensions of what we’d expect from them that the whole thing just works. Put it like this: This is a Teddy-centric episode where Teddy doesn’t do even one of the 10 dumbest things. That’s definitely some kind of achievement.
- The central mystery is decently well-constructed, at least in that I immediately guessed the elevator was the key to the treasure, only for that to prove the key to a totally different part of the story. I think that counts as a red herring.
- I’d be curious to see if the show brings back Helen again, and if so whether she would transition into more of an antagonist role, given she really does out herself as just the absolute worst at the end there, even before we get into the whole murder thing. Having another rich jerk who isn’t just like the Fischoeders could open up some storytelling possibilities.