When a girl shaves her legs for the first time, it really is the end of a world. So when Tina Belcher, the eldest daughter in Bob’s Burgers, dystopianly daydreams that her individual leg hairs are friendly beings burned up in a Terminator 2 homage, the show manages to simultaneously conflate humor, pop culture and the loss of innocence that comes with taking a BIC razor to shin scrub.
A scene this clever is par for the course for Bob’s Burgers. The writing is wickedly funny; the naturalistic patter of its stars, alt-comedy fixtures like H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman, and Kristen Schaal, is charming as hell; and unexpected musical interludes are consistent highlights.
The show is an animated comedy about a family with three kids who run a burger joint, so it’s logical that so many of the show’s storylines revolve around matters of the young. Middle brother Gene (Mirman) is joyous and enthusiastic in a mode that tells us maybe he’s only known a life sheltered from adult realness; youngest daughter Louise (Schaal) is devious, but consumed with the righteous fury of a young mind unfettered by moral gray areas; Tina (Dan Mintz, a revelation here) is beholden to her emerging sexuality, but refreshingly unapologetic about her body—the way more girls should be.
Young brains connect weird dots that older people often don’t see, which is what the best comedy does, right? (Or, is it fart noises? Kids also love fart noises!) The Belcher children, Tina especially, feel like part of a culmination of thoughtfully composed animated kids like Bobby Hill and Lisa Simpson, characters whose toe-dips into adulthood were more resonant than anything Elroy Jetson ever did. (Tina’s neo-riot grrrl lament at shaving that aforementioned affable stubble to avoid her peers’ scorn: “I’m a sheep! A hairless sheep!”)
Two other animated shows in the recent past did childhood this right—Home Movies, an Adult Swim cartoon focused on elementary-aged auteurs, and King of the Hill, a compassionate, hilarious, big-hearted look at the suburban South. (Bob’s Burgers was created by Loren Bouchard, who executive produced Home Movies, and King of the Hill’s Jim Dauterive is an executive producer for Bob’s Burgers, so it’s not surprising to see the Belcher children play so nicely in this lens.)
The word “adolescent” is often thrown around as a pejorative, hurled as rightful criticism at targets like Seth MacFarlane vehicles and the audience that laps them up, but its technical definition—“the state or process of growing up,” say our friends at Merriam-Webster—has been an evergreen inspiration for all manner of art, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Freaks and Geeks. And it’s this nobler definition that Bob’s Burgers earns amidst plenty of well-done lowbrow fare. (The scatological definitely reigns in the best way; one episode features Tina tracking down a vigilante dubbed The Mad Pooper who poops, madly, all over her middle school.) Sometimes you worry about boys liking you when you’re 30, too. You might always have a hard time connecting with a parent. Embarrassment, growth, and the occasionally funny things that engender both, are universal.
The liminal space between childhood and whatever comes next is an age-old sweet spot for the kind of television Bob’s Burgers does so well. In one episode, Gene might befriend a future-toilet in the woods and go on an E.T.-homage adventure; in the next, a sexy puppet makes him experience exciting and new feelings in his pants. Although Bob’s Burgers has a remarkably protean comedic sensibility, its stories are deeply rooted in character work, so funny lines also tell us a little bit more about the character uttering them. (Amazonian Louise upon seeing a female biker open a beer bottle with her breasts: “Now I want them!”)
In a 2012 interview with The Believer, legendary author Maurice Sendak talks about refusing to “cater to the bullshit of innocence” when it comes to writing for children. Admittedly, Bob’s Burgers is written for adults, and by them, so a true Sendakian comparison rings a little hollow. But later in that Believer interview, Sendak talks about a little girl who wrote him a scathing letter: “I like all of your books, why did you write this book, this is the first book I hate. I hate the babies in this book, why are they naked, I hope you die soon. Cordially…”
“A letter like that is wonderful,” Sendak says. It reads like something Louise Belcher would write. And it doesn’t feel like bullshit at all.
Heap the Change: They Grow Up So Quickly! Like, 23 Minutes Quickly!
Three more shows that masterfully deal with adolescence
The Adventures of Pete & Pete
The two title characters are brothers who share a name, a bedroom, and life in the surreally idyllic town of Wellsville.
Episode where adulthood looms: “Time Tunnel”
Instead of time traveling with Little Pete via riding his bike to a second time zone on the night of daylight savings, Big Pete takes his friend Ellen (she’s a girl, and a friend, but is she a girlfriend?) out on a creepy, disastrous date. The time-travel metaphor bleeds into both brothers’ stories, as Big Pete wishes he could re-do his date and Little Pete expresses his feelings of isolation towards the older brother growing up before he is.
Freaks and Geeks
The show was named after two groups, but Freaks and Geeks excelled at telling stories about teenagers coping with their changing lives in a high school in Michigan in the early 1980s.
Episode where adulthood looms: “Tricks and Treats”
Halloween becomes a rubicon in this episode: Will nascent freak Lindsay spend the holiday handing out candy with her mom or getting into shenanigans with her new friends? Her younger brother Sam realizes that he might be getting too old to don a costume and go door to door for candy. (And, oh yeah, Bill dresses up like the Bionic Woman. Just pulled a Vanessa Williams and saved the best for last.)
King of the Hill
Hank and Peggy Hill’s son Bobby began the series as a wacky counterbalance to his father’s oppressed but ultimately well-intentioned moral code, but by the show’s end its youngest characters were some of its most emblematic. (Bobby Hill is bound to eventually be someone’s women’s studies thesis, Itellyouwhut.)
Episode where adulthood looms: “Aisle 8A”
Hank has a hard enough time handling Bobby’s adolescence. So when he’s forced to take his pre-teen neighbor Connie shopping for menstrual accouterment after she gets her first period, it’s an eye-opener for both of them. (The title of this episode comes from the name of the tampon aisle at Mega Lo Mart.) Connie grappling with her changing body is the real heart of this episode. Her mother explains PMS:
MOM: You just yell and yell, or you just cry and cry.
CONNIE: But it feels like I’m doing both of those at the same time.
MOM: Connie, you feel things more now. Makes sad movies truly excellent.