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Bob Belcher, Hank Hill, and the Future of the Animated Sitcom

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 10, 2013 | Comments ()


Bobs-Burgers1.jpg

Fox’s Sunday night Animation Domination is a block of four half-hour cartoon sitcoms. Two of them are from creator Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy, which ran from 1999 to 2003 before being revived in 2005, and American Dad!, which also launched in 2005. (MacFarlane’s The Cleveland Show was also part of the mix for a while, premiering in 1999 and ending in May 2013.) The third is The Simpsons, that cultural juggernaut that has marched along for a jaw-dropping 25 years and more than 500 episodes. The fourth show, though, is something special, and in no small part because it seems to exist in a world all its own: Bob’s Burgers. The show could only be animated, but it’s also better than just about any other animated sitcom. It transcends its media.

Created by Loren Bouchard — producer and writer on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and creator and writer on Home Movies, among others — the series revolves around the Belcher family and their burger restaurant: father Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), mother Linda (John Roberts), and kids Tina (Dan Mintz), Louise (Kristen Schaal), and Gene (Eugene Mirman). It’s also fundamentally different from its animation block neighbors. MacFarlane’s series are predicated upon a mix of fantasy and reality: e.g., each of his shows features a non-human character in a speaking role, whether it’s the talking dog on Family Guy or the live-in alien on American Dad! or the bear who lives next door on The Cleveland Show. And while The Simpsons is nominally more grounded, it’s also made its name by doing reality-bending things you could only do in an animated sitcom whose world was reset every 22 minutes. (Explosions, destruction, Armin Tamzarian, etc.) Bob’s Burgers, though, never strays too far from what could easily be classified as a “real world” by sitcom standards. The events feel culled from sitcom staples of the past 20 years, whether it’s field trips gone wrong or family camping adventures, and there’s a bedrock of belief in the narrative world’s rules that keeps everything nice and ordered.

The kids are also a crucial part of the family dynamic. They get to deliver some good jokes, but most of the comedy comes from how, well, childish they are. Meaning Gene, who’s a sheltered 11, is obsessed with music and farting and prone to making nervous jokes about how he still likes the way his mom smells or enjoys holding his dad’s hand. Tina’s horny and awkward and trying to figure out how to navigate young love, while Louise is still mostly dedicated to mischief and pranks. One of the funniest and most surprisingly tender episodes the show’s done chronicled Louise’s first steps into puberty, as manifested in a crush on a boy band. In other words: they act a lot like real kids, which is rare on sitcoms and almost impossible to imagine on animated ones. They aren’t just there for punch line delivery. They’re viable engines for storytelling, like every family on a show that goes beyond the surface and strives for something better.

In fact, Bob’s Burgers is less like its current lineup partners and a lot more like another animated series that used to run on Fox: King of the Hill. Both series used animation to tell comic, exaggerated, but ultimately real stories about a family trying to get along with each other and do right by the world around them. Hank Hill was a patriarch dedicated to his job and his family, and the dramatic and comedic tension didn’t come from, say, his attempts to put up with his son, but his efforts to connect with the boy even though they were very different people. It’s an old and true dynamic, and Bob’s Burgers uses it effectively as it details the struggles of Bob to run his struggling restaurant while also being a good husband and father. Bob’s Burgers is definitely no stranger to wackiness or to plots that push the edge of reality, but it’s also not as extreme a fantasy as MacFarlane’s shows or The Simpsons can be. Rather, it inhabits a narrative middle ground: a little kooky, a lot real, and all the more believable for it. When Tina wants a special birthday party, Bob worries about paying for it, and he takes a second job to earn the cash. When the food truck craze starts to sap Bob’s business, he buys a cheap truck and tries to play along, to disastrous results. Daydreams and hallucinations abound, but the line between what’s real and what can only exist in a character’s imagination is usually pretty solid. This is very much a show about a middle-class family trying to make it, wrapped in a silly, funny, whip-smart cartoon package.

Bob’s Burgers and King of the Hill are animation aberrations for the way they bravely adhere to real-world physics, emotions, and even basic cause and effect. Instead of saying “Well, this is a cartoon, so let’s see what we can get away with,” the creators of both shows seem to have started out by saying “How can we tell a human story and tell it well?” The people who made King of the Hill followed detailed instructions to ensure that each episode stayed grounded, and Bob’s Burgers isn’t that far removed from such concerns, either. It’s a cartoon, but it’s not cartoony.

But it’s not just that Bob’s Burgers is a good show; it’s that it represents how great animated series can become when allowed to flourish in weird and challenging ways. This isn’t a cutaway-heavy gag reel like MacFarlane’s series, or a media-saturated satire like The Simpsons. This is a surreal, precise show with a definite voice and vision, and one that demonstrates how good pop TV animation can be. Half the episodes are packed with musical digressions, and just as many seem to focus on the in-jokes and family stories that accrue over the years. No one watching it could mistake it for King of the Hill — the style and humor are, obviously, different — but both shows together make a powerful argument for the continued presence of animated sitcoms that, for the most part, look and feel just like real life. Yes, animation can do things that physical shows can’t. But where is it written that animation must, by virtue of its execution, depict a world we don’t recognize? What would it mean for just a few more animated shows to strive for consistency, and heart, and humor born of character? What would it mean for them to be “real” in that way? I think it would be wonderful to see, and I think that’s where primetime American animation can, and should, go next. Cartoons can look like anything we want, and that includes functioning, realistic families. They’re not flesh and blood, but they’re still fully human.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Mentalcase

    OK, I did NOT know Loren Bouchard was in charge of Bob's Burgers. I loved Dr. Katz with the giddiness of Kristen Bell covered in 1000 sloths. And I'm a dude bro! I'll be checking this show out for sure.

  • ronniedobbs

    It's nice to see Bob's Burgers getting some love! It's such a smart, hilarious show...some of the jokes have definitely entered my household lexicon, like "Nagatha Christie" and "The Department of Nagriculture".

  • MrWhirly

    BB is my wife and my favorite comedy on the DVR. It nails sentimentality in a way that Modern Family has gone so far astray on. Plus, there are so many little jokes going on in each scene (usually involving Gene.) You have to freeze frame the Burger of the day and the store next door and the exterminator truck from the open. So glad it has been renewed for season 5.

  • Discostu004

    I will always miss Dale Gribble's conspiracy theories and looniness. Any episode that centers on him (donating a kidney to john force, running for re-election of gun club president, getting to work with the best exterminator in Heimlich County, Dale as the shooter in the university tower etc) are ones I record and I usually watch 4-5 times before deleting them. OCTAVIO?!?!?

  • Can we throw Adventure Time into this here mix of 'cartoon sitcoms with genuine warmth'?

  • googergieger

    So what I said last time someone wrote a Bob's Burger's article? I concur.

  • Oh, and another thing both shows have in common? They both have outstanding voice casts. I still can't get over how good Brittany Murphy and Stephen Root were on KotH, and every line that Gene or Tina say, or Linda's insane enthusiasm just kill me. Bob's Burgers really has an insanely talented casts.

  • This is a fantastic article and I agree with it completely. I love both shows because they're equally funny, real and sweet, and that's an incredibly rare thing nowadays. For all the Breaking Bads and Game of Thrones out there, sometimes all you need is a funny show about a very real family that's sometimes almost disturbingly close to your own life.

    Also, Tina is me at 14. It's freaky how much I relate to her.

  • Idle Primate

    King of the Hill is one of my favorite shows of all time. I generally don't go for sitcoms but KOTH had that crucial ingredient--warmth. And it told stories, not just jokes. I liked too that as much as it would take a poke at anyone that it wasn't meanspirited.

  • BettyNugs

    The end of the recent Halloween episode with the family on the entire Belcher clan on the couch made me so happy. It was just such a sweet real moment.

  • Djehuty

    I love this show entirely because of its realistic edge. "Family Guy" is a hodgepodge of ever-increasing ridiculousness and cruelty, while this is a genuinely sweet, heartfelt program about a group of dysfunctional but lovable loons. They feel like the sort of people you'd meet if reality took just a small step to the left, and it's that true-to-life nature that makes me adore the Belcher clan. Their problems are real problems, and even if their solutions to them are exaggerated for comedic effect, the show never loses its path on the way back to the inevitable hug at the end.

    Add to that: Some of the best (and funniest) original music in ages. I used to adore "The Simpsons" for its musical moments. "Bob's" musical cues scratch that itch for me.

  • Jill

    This is only slightly related to your comment above, but while watching what I think was the season premiere of American Dad last year, the Roger character skinned the Jeff character alive. Now, I am one of the few apologists I know for that show, but even I felt that it went too damn far at that point regarding its outrageousness. And I haven't liked it as much since.

    It feels like sometimes the people making shows become successful and it, I don't know, sets off a rage in them that they then express with ever-increasingly cruel jokes. Like they've achieved the level of success they always wanted and found that they still have just as crappy a life, but now with the added detail of no longer being able to relate as much to the people around them that they used to be able to commiserate with.

    Or maybe I'm just a pussy.

    I was genuinely excited for the season premiere of Bob's Burgers this year.

  • $3647259

    "It feels like sometimes the people making shows become successful and it, I don't know, sets off a rage in them that they then express with ever-increasingly cruel jokes. Like they've achieved the level of success they always wanted and found that they still have just as crappy a life, but now with the added detail of no longer being able to relate as much to the people around them that they used to be able to commiserate with."

    I have the feeling that's exactly what goes on with Seth MacFarlane (and the other FG's writers).

  • Sean

    I had this exact conversation last night. Comparing King of the Hill and Bob's Burgers. I was trying to convince a friend to actually watch Bob's Burgers.

  • $3647259

    I loved Bob's Burgers first season. Unfortunately, FX* hasn't shown any signs it's going to air the second one.

    *It's aired by FX here in Brazil.

  • jollies

    Love love love love love love love this show.
    One thing I've noticed is that it is equally loved by all sorts of viewers with dramatically different tastes. I like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, the League, Parks & Rec, Archer, etc., and I love Bob's Burgers. My sister-in-law likes sappy sitcoms and reality TV that drive me crazy (2 Broke Girls, reruns of Friends, American Idol, Housewives of BH, etc.), but she inexplicably also loves Bob's Burgers. It's the one show we can agree on.
    Did I mention I love this show?

  • James

    Bob's Burgers is a show I actively avoid. It is my shower time on Sunday night.

  • Becks

    Did you have any criticisms you wanted to express or do you just get off on the idea that dozens of internet strangers know your shower routine? It's the latter. Admit it, you filthy animal.

  • James

    The animation isn't my thing but I could get over that if I found any of it really funny or memorable at all. But I don't.

  • Becks

    Ah, I see. I assume it has a lot more mileage with those of us who relate to their family dynamic. I personally think Tina is one of the most original and hilarious characters on tv right now. She won my heart with her erotic friend fiction.

  • $3647259

    Tina won my heart with the whole zombie erotica thing. Also, the way she described how she'd kiss Jimmy Pesto during her birthday party.

    And I have no reasons to post this gif but...here it goes anyway:

    http://24.media.tumblr.com/tum...

  • Michael

    Cleveland show premiered in 1999??? Haha

  • DGM

    In the immortal words of Snoop Dogg to Seth Macfarlane at the roast of Donald Trupmp: "Ain't no one watchin' The Cleveland Show."

  • steven wiser

    They also have a writer in common Jim Dauterive.

  • As a fan of Home Movies, I was predisposed to love this show. But it stands on its own merits. I love the characters (Tina is my spirit animal), the music (Electric Love is my jam), and the way the show really gets all the goofy things families do (Buckle it up, buckle it up, buckle it up or you'll DIEEEE!). It's just so damn enjoyable to watch.

  • Green Lantern

    Mel,

    I LOVE "Home Movies", and as such may have to rethink my complete shunning of "Bob's Burgers".

  • You should! It's got the same heart. And goofiness.

  • emmelemm

    My boyfriend has basically said that I am Tina.

  • Jill

    Nothing is better than Tina's moan. Except maybe watching Tina's moan actually being made by the actor who voices her.

  • Wrestling Fan

    I've been saying since the beginning that Bob's Burgers is the spiritual heir to King of the Hill. It's not a cartoon, it's an animated sitcom.

    And it is among the best spent 30 minutes of any given week.

    Absolutely sublime.

  • BendinIntheWind

    [ Earlier comment deleted for grumpiness, though I still take issue with this phrase: "The show could only be animated, but it’s also better than just about any other animated sitcom. It transcends its media." ]

  • Guest

    I'm really, really happy to see some more love being thrown at Bob's Burgers, but this phrase made me want to claw my eyes out: "The show could only be animated, but it’s also better than just about any other animated sitcom. It transcends its media."

    I am so fucking sick of animation being pigeon-holed as a lesser form of art just because there aren't actual humans in front of the camera. Don't get me wrong, I'm ecstatic you used the word "media" instead of "genre" (because animation can encompass ANY genre), but what is it transcending, exactly? Why is animation inherently inferior?

    ETA: Sorry for the rage-blast, I did genuinely like the piece (and I love both "Bob's Burgers" and "King of the Hill", I just get grumpy when people in my non-internet life refuse to give things I love a chance simply because they're not live-action.

  • BendinIntheWind

    ...so this is my earlier grumpy comment I thought I deleted... I suck at Internet.

  • Idle Primate

    Only your name gets deleted because that makes a whole lot of sense disqus. I learned that trying to delete an illthought tirade I had gone on one time

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Wow, I love that styleguide for King of the Hill - such a great behind-the-scenes look.

    King of the Hill was such a special show. The Simpsons started out more like it, but has veered away from that slightly-elevated-realism. Partly because of its stasis in time, I guess (how interesting it would be if they had aged the characters through the seasons).

    I need to make Bob's Burgers a regular on my dvr - I do enjoy the episodes I catch by chance.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Bob's Burgers = Archer. They're both so good but for such different reasons.

    Lifting up the skirt of the night.

  • googergieger

    What?

  • Al Borland's Beard

    The thing I love about both King of the Hill and Bob's Burgers is that they have their characters they frequently make fun of in Bill and Tina, but none of it is mean spirited. You get that the characters have their faults, but are ultimately loved by the people around them. Whereas, Family Guy just intends on having Meg get shit on every episode in increasingly meaner ways.

  • Absolutely. I love how fast Louise and Gene rise up to mess around with Tina, but they come up just as quickly when someone else messes with her. That's true love right there.

  • Kellie

    The problem I have always had has been the similarity between American Dad! and Family Guy. I would remember the jokes, but be unable to remember what show they came from. However, I would never confuse jokes that came from Futurama and The Simpsons. The shows were structured differently and had completely different characters and premises. AD and FG are the same other than swapping the dog for an alien. I like them all, but I miss Futurama.

  • Siege

    This is the reason I've never really been able to really appreciate Family Guy (although "Road to Rhode Island" is one of my favorite TV episodes ever). The Simpsons, the Hills, and the Belchers may be wacky, and occasionally be unkind to one another, but there is usually a sweetness underneath. Family Guy has no sweetness. It's sometimes funny, but never kind.

  • steven wiser

    After re-watching King of the Hill a million times, William Fontaine de la Tour D'Haute Rive emerged as my favorite character.

  • That's one of the things I love most about BB - there's so much love between the characters. At the end of the day, no matter how much they pick at each other, they love and support one another. It makes me want to be a Belcher.

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