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Review: "Bob's Burgers" Season One: Fresh Meat, Stale Buns

Bob’s Burgers gets more wrong than it gets right, but I can’t help but feel affection for it. It’s certainly a lot braver than anything else in the Fox animation line-up; in fact, its unique visual style and tone have provided that block with a much-needed breath of fresh air. True, it’s another animated sitcom about a family, but this family is unique and charming; the best comparison I can make is to the dearly missed King of the Hill. And yet, ultimately, that might say more about the quality of animated family sitcoms in general than about the show itself. I’m loath to be too critical, because the series is funny at times–and this is just the first season–and I’m also just so glad to have it on the echo chamber that is “Animation Domination” at all. But I can’t deny that it has a few flaws, most of them caused by the show trying way, way too hard.

The show stars the Belcher family, who own and run the burger restaurant of the title. There’s Bob, the patriarch; wife Linda (voiced by John Roberts, in a deliberately screechy performance that I initially hated but that grew on me as the show wore on); and their children: socially awkward Tina, hyperactive Gene, and violence-prone but childish Louise. I like the way these characters interact with each other: they seem like an actual family, with their own foibles and habits. Simple scenes like them eating dinner together or working in the restaurant (as shown during the credits sequence of each episode) are the ones where this really shows: each characters is distinct and believable. And this extends, for the most part, to the minor characters as well– eccentric landlord Calvin Fischoeder is especially entertaining–although we don’t see much of them in the episodes on this set.

Unfortunately, the majority of the show has an over-the-top cartoonish/offensive tone that seriously offsets those elements. It is funny at times, but only in a passive, forgettable way. The characters stuck with me, but none of the jokes did. And more often than not, it merely makes the show seem afraid of settling down for a minute, and becomes irritating. The episode “Sacred Cow” is practically painful because of this habit: it’s all shock-value and ridiculous concept with no real feeling behind it. This is a problem a lot of sitcoms face. The standard sitcom formula demands an emotional appeal at some point, but the writers or someone else on the crew are afraid of appearing sappy–no one wants to make Full House–so they include these moments only grudgingly and try to make the other scenes as outrageous as possible; or they include the moment and then abruptly ruin it. The thing is, if a series has relatable, believable characters, the humor will come from them and won’t be ruined by a moment of sincerity. The people behind Bob’s Burgers have that strong cast but they don’t seem to realize it, so they overcompensate, far too often resulting in a disconnect between the characters and the jokes.

The show was created by Loren Bouchard, who also made Home Movies and was a key figure in other shows like Dr. Katz and Lucy, Daughter of the Devil. It has a visual style that is much like the show itself: It has the potential to be charming, but it is underutilized so that everything looks boring at best and unpleasant at worst. The voice cast, on the other hand, is excellent across the board, with special kudos deserved by H. Jon Benjamin as Bob.

The DVD set is very extensive. There are audio commentaries for all thirteen episodes, audio outtakes for two; a demo of the first episode (in which Tina is a male character and the family are, pointlessly, cannibals); a cute little short extra involving Louise discussing the particulars of the show; and a bizarre live-action music video for “Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night”, a song from one of the episodes. The audio commentaries are funny and provide an interesting look into the show’s backstage events. (My personal opinion is that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves too much.) The one nitpick I have is that the DVD menus are really obnoxious and ugly, consisting of a plain white background on which the characters occasionally appear and enact key scenes from some episodes, repeatedly and noisily. Hearing the context-free punch line to a bunch of gags repeatedly isn’t very charming, and the visual effect is an eyesore.

My advice to the Bob’s Burgers crew: Settle down a bit. Be confident. It would suck for a show that has so much going for it to be ruined by such an easily avoidable flaw. I haven’t seen any of the second season yet, so it could be that my advice has already been taken. I hope that’s the case.

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