I was taken aback the first time I saw an ad for Fox’s new animated series Bob’s Burgers. It was completely void of talking animals, cheap pop culture gags, and the voice of Seth MacFarlane. Yes, that’s right: Seth MacFarlane is in no way involved in Bob’s Burgers, making it the only show in the Sunday night block, besides The Simpsons, that lacks the presence of the reigning tyrant of animated comedy. But don’t worry, MacFarlane fans, his shows still make up 60% of Fox’s animated content, and it’s unclear at this point whether or not Bob’s Burgers will achieve a longstanding place in that beloved lineup.
It’s only been two years since Fox’s previous non-Seth MacFarlane animated outing, the disappointing Sit Down, Shut Up, and the next few weeks will tell if Bob’s Burgers will meet that show’s same fate. Like Sit Down, Shut Up, Bob’s Burgers is a series that’s receiving mixed reviews, despite a respected showrunner and an accomplished and intriguing voice cast; however, Sit Down, Shut Up never improved upon its pilot, being faced with cancellation before it ever found its voice. If the cast and crew continue to build a solid show (and more importantly, if the notoriously-impatient Fox network allows them enough time to do so), it can escape the fate of that Mitch Hurwitz animated effort.
There’s certainly enough here to form the basis of a fine comedy. Creator Loren Bouchard (of Dr. Katz and Home Movies fame) has help from co-developer Jim Dauterive, a former King of the Hill writer/producer after whom the character Bill Dauterive was named. This is Bouchard’s first time running a show on a major broadcast network or in primetime, but he manages to retain the offbeat humor he’s known for, while sliding ever so slightly closer to the mainstream.
In the pilot, written by Bouchard and Dauterive, we first meet Bob Belcher and his family in a quick opening segment that sets up the disaster-prone nature of their struggling burger restaurant, accompanied by a lively, Arrested Development-esque ukulele number. The intro is a beautiful example of efficient storytelling, recounting the store’s Grand Opening, Grand Re-Opening, and Grand Re-Re-Opening being sabotaged by a fire, a rat infestation, and a power line mishap, respectively.
The pilot picks up from the Grand Re-Re-Re-Opening over a busy Labor Day weekend, with Bob (voiced by Archer’s H. Jon Benjamin) dealing with his restaurant’s next big catastrophe: a rumor about his burgers containing human meat. The rumor was started by Bob’s daughter/employee Louise (voiced by Kristen Schaal), who wanted to upstage a classmate in Show and Tell. Schaal’s performance as Louise is a high point, as she is often the emotional core of the show. Halfway through the episode, Louise delivers a brief monologue, in which she defends telling her entire class that the restaurant serves human meat, that is emotionally-charged, absurdly hilarious, and surprisingly human, all at once. Despite Louise’s strong points, the rest of the cast is a little lacking. The other family members need to be tweaked to get to Louise’s level.
Another strength the show has is its unique setting. The restaurant is inconveniently sandwiched between a funeral home and a PETA office in a cluster of businesses surrounding Wonder Wharf, a beachside amusement park. The locale is visually appealing and drastically different from the settings of Fox’s other animated series. There’s enough comedic territory to mine here, and the show would benefit from using further episodes to explore the various characters inhabiting Wonder Wharf and the surrounding neighborhood. In the pilot, the only side character we get to meet in depth is Mort the owner of the funeral home (voiced by beloved comic’s comic Andy Kindler), but the show has a great opportunity to establish a colorful cast of bit players a la The Simpsons.
Even if Bob’s Burgers never lives up to its potential (and there’s a lot of potential here), it’s still refreshing to see an animated show on Fox’s schedule that doesn’t involve Seth MacFarlane. His three shows share a visual style, character design, and tone that can feel monotonous at times. Bob’s Burgers is undoubtedly a show that breaks from this and carves out its own distinct niche.
While the pilot didn’t feature as many big laughs as one would hope, it serves as a decent blueprint for a series. In the coming weeks, we’ll see how well Loren Bouchard and Jim Dauterive take advantage of the opportunities inherent in the show they’ve set up. If they manage to work out the kinks while continuing to play to their strengths, we could soon have an impressive animated sitcom on our hands.
I would also like to point out that Fox offered a tie-in promotion with Fatburger, in which visitors to the website for Bob’s Burgers can print out a coupon for a free Fatburger. Strange considering this episode dealt with Bob’s restaurant serving burgers made of human flesh. Nice going, Fatburger!
Bradford Evans is a writer living on the edge.