Last night I decided to watch the pilot episode of the newest animated series in Fox’s Sunday night line-up, Bob’s Burgers. The series is produced by Kimberly Smith, which told me nothing, because up until this point Smith has mostly worked on children’s shows, which these days I only watch if they are especially good or about dinosaurs. The fact that the show would air on Fox was no more helpful; this is the network that gave us Futurama, which I love (or loved—the episodes that have aired since the move to Comedy Central have left a lot to desire), and Family Guy, which I disdain. Thus I went into Bob’s Burgers ready to experience one of either end of the passion continuum.
Bob’s Burgers is about the misadventures the titular character’s nuclear family has while running a burger joint called Top Notch. No—you got me—it’s called Bob’s Burgers. The other family members are Bob’s wife, Linda, and his three children, Gene, Louise, and Tina. Though it is by no means a great indicator of sexism or the lack thereof, I always like to look at how closely a show approaches gender parity. Bob’s Burgers throws me for a loop by having men provide the voices of Linda and Tina. Even if I did not care about feminism, I would question this odd casting choice. Kristen Schaal, whom I first became acquainted with in Flight of the Conchords, provides the voice of Louise, and she gave the stand-out performance of the first episode. Why wouldn’t the makers want to give other women an opportunity to breathe life into the family at the focus of the series?
Some viewers, if they did not determine that the show was sexist upon noting its casting choices, might have reached their conclusion about a minute in, when Tina discloses that she has a crotch itch. I have not yet figured out if this offends me as a feminist, but I will say it was annoying as a running gag. The introduction of the plots was hardly more promising. The A plot concerns the fallout of a rumor that Bob’s Burgers uses human meat from the mortuary next door. In the B plot Bob is feeling inadequate as a husband, because Ricky forgot Lucy’s anniversary—no, wait, Bob forgot Linda’s anniversary. The plots are linked together when Hugo, a health inspector who dated Linda before she and Bob were married, capitalizes on the situation by requiring Bob’s Burgers to display a sign saying that the burgers may contain human meat.
Lest you come away from this review thinking that I have taste, I found the cannibalism allegation to the be funniest element of the episode. I smiled when it became apparent that Louise was the one who started the rumor, even if the smile faded when a flashback told me what I already knew. Was the show trying to tap humor from repetition, or was it condescending to me? I smiled again during the plots’ resolution, when Hugo relents and decides to give Bob’s Burgers a clean bill of health only to have Bob shush him, because he has found clients that want to try human meat for fifty dollars a burger. Unfortunately for the show, capping each end of a plot with funny moments does not make it any more interesting.
I was not at all impressed with the show’s other attempts at edgy humor. When Bob leaves Louise to run the store, she changes the sign to announce that the burger of the day is “the Child Molestor”. In another scene the writers try to generate laughs by having Gene and Louise taunt Tina with the suggestion that she is autistic. I did not notice any homophobic content, but if the pilot is an indication, the series will offer plenty to offend viewers concerned about social justice all the same.
As for the characters, Linda, Gene, and Tina are mostly forgettable (or perhaps I would just like to forget Tina’s contribution to the episode). If there is any hope for the series, it lies in Louise and her relationship with Bob. Louise is easily the most intriguing character—and not just because we never see her without her pink bunny-eared hat. She pulls shenanigans in territory where Bart Simpson fears to tread. Unlike Bart, however, she has a father who instead of responding by strangling her gives the most understated responses imaginable. Of course, making her more central to the plot could lead to other problems. This character needs to remain an enigma to work, and too many unvaried responses from her father would be dreadful. I do not envy the writers who will be doing the tight-rope walk required to keep the show fresh.
Of course, the above presupposes that the show can be kept fresh. Personally, I found Bob’s Burgers to be rank after the first viewing. And even in the absence of the humor I found offensive I have little incentive to watch a show that never made me laugh and only made me smile twice. Bob’s Burgers falls far short of the heights that sitcomes like Arrested Development soared to on the same network. If I know Fox, this is a sign that Bob’s Burgers will be around for a long time to come.