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