The Great North officially premieres on Sunday night with the broadcast of its third episode, the first two having aired on Fox last month as “special previews.” As illogical as that may sound from a chronology perspective, it’s actually a smart move.
The first couple of half-hours of The Great North, which introduce the six members of the Tobin family from remote Alaska, are fine. But it isn’t until episodes three and four that the comedy sharpens and the 2-D animated characters begin to grow on the viewer. Co-created by showrunners Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, sisters and veterans of Bob’s Burgers, and writer Minty Lewis, The Great North has a slightly off-kilter but mostly openhearted view of the world. It exudes a warmth that is welcome, whether you live in Lone Moose, Alaska, or anywhere else where, literally or figuratively, it often feels pretty cold outside.
Even those who aren’t aware of The Great North’s showrunner connections to Bob’s Burgers — or that Loren Bouchard, creator of Bob’s Burgers, is one of its executive producers — will immediately recognize the similarities between the two Sunday night sitcoms. The Tobins, with their wide open, tiny-pupiled eyes, thin lips, and often raised eyebrows, could easily pass for cousins of the Belchers. The animation, courtesy of Bob’s animation studio Bento Box, is basically identical, but on The Great North, the striking mountains and endless starry views in this small Alaska town often enter the frame, reminders of both the beauty and isolation of this setting, and the ways that can make residents both grateful for their proximity to nature and a little eccentric due to their distance from everything else.
It seems fair to call the members of the Tobin family eccentric, albeit relatably so. Judy (voice of Jenny Slate), arguably the main character, is a 16-year-old with typical concerns about boys and dating, but also an unhealthy relationship with curling — there’s an entire episode about curling! — and a tendency to converse each night with her imaginary friend Alanis Morissette, actually voiced by Alanis Morissette, whose spectral image appears in the northern lights.
Her brother Ham (Paul Rust), her “Alaskan twin” because they were born nine months apart, is defined in the initial six episodes by the secrets he keeps, including his role as the town’s baker of cakes. The eldest Tobin sibling, Wolf (Will Forte), has brought his fiancée Honeybee (Dulcé Sloan) to live on the family compound, where they remain unified in their desire to be entrepreneurs and continue swapping movie quotes. Moon (Aparna Nancherla), the youngest and possibly wisest, is a 10-year-old boy who lives most of his life in a bear costume.
Then there’s the patriarch, Beef Tobin, a fisherman and lover of the land played by Nick Offerman, America’s go-to portrayer of woodsy, lumberjack-adjacent manly men. The first episode establishes that Beef’s wife and the mother of the Tobin siblings deserted the family for a lover, something that Beef has spent years denying by pretending, instead, that she’s dead. That’s awfully dark material, and The Great North steers farther away from that part of the story as it progresses. Still, it’s a detail that establishes that the members of this family sometimes engage in denial, mainly because they are trying to be sensitive to their loved ones’ feelings.
The genuine care that the Tobins demonstrate for each other never tips toward the cloying because The Great North’s writers are so good at inserting very specific jokes into the mix. While describing a boy she has a crush on, Judy says he “wears cologne like a millionaire and it smells like a hamburger took a bath.” While gazing in awe at a sunset, Moon observes, “I feel like I’m looking at a brochure and the brochure is all around us.” Some of the gags are so sly that close attention must be paid in order to catch them. When the Tobins visit a local establishment called the Russian Restaurant, the slogan beneath its sign says, “We can see your mouth from here!” (Russia … Alaska … Sarah Palin … think about it for a second.) Episode two centers on an annual Lone Moose event called the Festival of Not People, an allusion to the fact that the people in the town are not cannibals like some of their ancestors were, which is a nod to the fact that the Belchers of Bob’s Burgers were originally supposed to be cannibals until Bouchard changed course. While both shows can be a little freaky, they do have their boundaries.
The Great North is often clever, performed by actors with distinctive voices that give the characters fully formed personalities, and about people trying to be good to each other while living in an out-of-the-ordinary place. On a Sunday night animation block, wedged between The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers, it should feel right at home.