Wagstaff sits squarely in the rich tradition of cartoon schools where no one, students or teachers, wants to be there—well, with one crucial exception, but we’ll get there. Teachers like Ms. LaBonz have a deeply adult kind of world-weariness and cynicism that recalls the likes of Edna Krabappel. The one big difference Bob’s Burgers tends to go for in its portrayal of Wagstaff’s staff is they are every bit as childish as their students, so a lot of the comedy comes less from the contrasts between goofy kids and burnt-out adults and more from just how ridiculous things can get when no one is even pretending to be responsible. That’s on major display in “The Fresh Princ-ipal,” which needs every adult to abdicate any semblance of sense to make its premise of Louise as powerful guest principal work. This isn’t the silliest story Bob’s Burgers has ever done, but it’s definitely more on the contrived end, especially when Louise manages to get Mr. Frond rehired through basically just everyone involved pretending she can.
This episode requires the same deft touch most Louise-centric episodes do. The show has evolved from its original notion of her character, which my predecessor Rowan Kaiser eloquently referred to as “trickster goddess.” Rules now apply to the littlest Belcher, at least to a point. She can still manipulate everyone around to get what she wants, but she’s now troubled by the grossness of human emotions, whether it’s granting Gene his wish of declaring Wacky Hat Day or giving up on the confiscated treasures to get Mr. Frond his job back. Louise now merely acts like a force of nature instead of being one—what in early episodes might have been presented as unknowable chaos that everyone else has to deal with is instead presented from her perspective. Sure, she is uncommonly driven to sell the necessary chocolate bars to become principal for the day, but we still see the ridiculous, sometimes embarrassing lengths she had to go to make that happen.
What makes the main plot of “The Fresh Princi-pal” so strong and what drives much of its humor is the fact that everyone wants something so specific. Ms. Schnur is the best example here. It would be fine if a bit drearily predictable for her to let Louise do whatever she wants because she just doesn’t care, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Louise wins her over by playing to all her deepest joys and desires, like talking about her nephew Nathan going off to non-sleepaway magic camp and then, incredibly, being given access to Principal Spoors’ legendary private bathroom. Make no mistake: “The Fresh Princi-pal” has a lot of poop jokes to make with Ms. Schnur, at a frequency scarcely seen since the days the Mad Pooper terrorized Wagstaff. What makes those gags especially good is that they all feel of a kind with her weirdly complex character, as she’s somehow both a total oddball and one of the school’s most formidable adults, like when she realizes Spoors has left her to handle Mr. Frond’s firing. Her conspiratorial camaraderie with Louise as she goes to have the bathroom break she’s been waiting years for is hilarious because it makes total sense in terms of everything we’ve learned about Ms. Schnur to this point, which is a hell of an achievement.
I was curious whether this episode might be the one to finally show Principal Spoors. No such luck, and the show mocks its own refusal to reveal anything about him with his brother-in-law Don’s own uncertainty about whose sister married who. Don’s character indicates there is some value for the story to adding a guest character, but not one in actual position of authority like the principal, whose presence would likely either block Louise’s efforts or reorient the episode around him and whatever his problems are. “The Fresh Princi-pal” wants to keep the focus squarely on Louise and, increasingly, Mr. Frond, and Don is perfect for that. He’s an intentionally underwritten character, a guy who barely wants to be there—possibly anywhere—and is just about the most outrageous case of nepotism imaginable. He stands out from the rest of the Wagstaff, uh, staff because he’s just so generically adult, possessed of none of the weird passions or eccentricities that make Frond or Schnur or Mr. Branca the custodian feel like they belong there.
And that indeed is the big point Louise and the episode arrive at, as she recognizes that there is one person at Wagstaff who unfailingly cares about doing the best they can, and that’s Mr. Frond. The show has softened some over the years in its opinion of Wagstaff’s guidance counselor. His first appearance way back in “Crawl Space” painted him as much the same kind of interfering liberal buffoon David Herman also used to voice regularly on King Of The Hill—I don’t know how I’m only just realizing how similar “Crawl Space” is to the earlier show’s series premiere, in which a Herman-voiced social worker views Hank as an unfit parent, but maybe that’s because Hank never hid inside the walls for an entire episode. But since then, Frond has transmuted from antagonist to annoyance to someone who the Belchers, and by extension the show, can’t help but weirdly respect. Maybe his methods are unsound and maybe his credentials are suspect, but he’s never going to give less than his all for the kids of Wagstaff. He’s the only person consistently trying to be an adult, even if that means briefly accepting Louise’s brush-off that he should come back later for office hours.
The climax of the episode then is the show’s trademark mix of funny and sweet. Louise’s plan is shockingly sound for something a fourth grader came up with on the spur of the moment, especially if you follow the episode’s lead in hand-waving the bit where Principal Spoors will just accept that a kid rehired his fired guidance counselor. (And, in fairness, if Spoors is anything like his brother-in-law, he’s absolutely lazy enough to just go along with whatever the new state of play is.) What makes the assembly so good is we get a bunch of side characters reveal their fears and secrets in a way that hits just the right balance. Jimmy Jr. and Regular-Sized Rudy’s confessions are so over the top and so transparent, respectively, that they work as punchlines, yet also they fit snugly with our understanding of those characters. Of course Rudy would think he’s fooling anybody with his hypothetical of a friend with asthmas whose parents are divorced. Of course Jimmy Jr. would wonder where his creepily symbiotic twin is after all those years growing up with his brothers. Of course Zeke would promise to be that twin for him. And of course Louise would use this assembly to scare off the stultifyingly normal guy—who barely wants to be there anyway, admittedly—and bring back the one weirdo willing to try his best to help the kids.
“The Fresh Princ-ipal” pivots a few times from where you might think it’s going. At points, it looks like it might be another mini-caper story about breaking into Spoors’ locker, but then we discover he’s as apocalyptically lazy about setting and remembering combinations as his brother-in-law is about everything else. It flirts with being some kind of cautionary tale about Louise’s reign of terror as kid principal, but then it goes ahead and decides that, nah, actually Louise is great at this. Instead, it just comes right back to a relationship the show has explored a lot over the years, but rarely with such unreserved kindness, as Louise does the right thing for Mr. Frond. That that makes perfect sense is a testament to this show’s endless ability to evolve and surprise.
- The subplot with Bob getting the yips is so obvious I’m a little shocked that the show took nine seasons to do it. But hey, nothing wrong with obvious when it’s as funny as this, and the fact it’s such a natural fit for Bob means the jokes flow easily. After all, as Bob observes, flipping burgers is literally all he’s good at, and it’s always a hoot to hear H. Jon Benjamin freak out. Plus we get another instance of Linda not knowing what Kevin Costner movies are called, this time with both her and Teddy believing Bull Durham is a film about minor league star Bill Durham.
- You know, I heard a distinct lack of Italian accent from Ms. Jacobson as she was giving that interview. Also, yes, she’s Wagstaff’s actual most adult person, but if she’s trying as hard as Mr. Frond, she doesn’t show it. Which is probably a point in her favor, really, but still!
- Apologies this is going up so late! I can only assume I had the reviewing yips.