It’s Time to Stick a Fork in Bob’s Burgers

TV Features Bob's Burgers
It’s Time to Stick a Fork in Bob’s Burgers

It’s always sad, as a fan of a long-running TV series, to recognize that one of your favorite shows is lurching into obsolescence. Such things rarely happen overnight, or as a dramatic plunge—the decline of a classic drama or sitcom usually begins gradually, and longtime fans of a series are typically willing to give some leeway to episodes (or entire seasons) that aren’t quite on par with a show’s former heights. Sadly, what so often happens is that the decline eventually catches up with you all at once: A fan watches a new episode, wonders “what the hell happened to this series?” and is then forced to concede that asking such a question has actually been a long time in coming. And I’m genuinely sorry to report that this is where I am these days with Bob’s Burgers.

I love Bob’s Burgers, and I consider it to be one of the only essential network animated sitcoms of the last two decades. Short of the golden era of The Simpsons, I’ve perhaps spent more hours watching reruns of Bob’s Burgers than any other animated show. It’s a franchise I associate fondly and emotionally with my wife, who introduced me to the series years ago when we began dating. For as long as we’ve been an item, Bob’s Burgers has been our go-to comfort programming—the persistent background soundtrack of the last six years or so of my life. I hope we’ll be watching those reruns together until we’re old and grey. But I can’t imagine that a decade from now, we’ll be watching reruns of the current Bob’s Burgers, as it exists right now. Fans like myself need to face the reality that the show has become a shell of its former self, and for the sake of its legacy, it’s likely time to pull the plug.

Not that this will be happening anytime soon. Bob’s Burgers, like both The Simpsons and Family Guy before it, has fallen into the undead pantheon of FOX animated series that seem to possess limitless rubber stamps for new seasons. It’s not hard to understand why, as this network has clung like grim death to any dependable audience for decades, and even the fraction of the original audience that still cares about The Simpsons in season … 33, dear god … is a far more reliable demographic than trying to guess who will turn out to watch new and unproven programming. Couple that with the logistical benefits of producing animated rather than live-action programming during the pandemic, and it’s easy to see how attractive it is for FOX to keep renewing shows like Bob’s Burgers for a (currently airing) 12th and 13th season to come, in addition to the long-delayed feature film. But where that movie should by all rights be a fond send-off to a great series that has simply run its course at this point, it will instead likely end up as a footnote in Bob’s Burgers long decline, as the series is renewed for Seasons 14, 15 and beyond. And I hate to see that happen to a show that has meant so much to me.

What’s wrong with currently airing Bob’s Burgers episodes? Sadly, they’ve become infected with a palpable malaise that seems to extend from the writers, to the performers, and all the way to the animation itself, making it feel as if the entire creative team has checked out. The show often looks absolutely inert in Season 12, with even the faces of its primary characters rendered strangely emotionless, as if the animation budget has been surreptitiously slashed and they’re simply using stock animations of the family members speaking to each other. This visual lifelessness can drag down even quality writing, but a bigger issue is the stagnation of Bob’s Burgers storylines when it comes to generating material for new episodes. Like so many other grizzled sitcoms before it, Bob’s Burgers has fallen heavily into both repetition and the introduction of fanciful elements that are then immediately discarded. Fans are witnessing this show cannibalizing itself, like the prophecy of pilot “Human Flesh” has finally come to pass.

Take the recently aired “Driving Big Dummy,” for instance, which sees Bob forced to pile into a truck with Teddy for a long and boring road trip to pick up a used sink. Sadly, the episode synopsis is also an apt metaphor for the experience of watching the episode, particularly if one retains any memories of previous outings like Season 5’s “Friends with Burger-fits,” which saw Bob exploring almost identical ground in the tug of war between his annoyance/friendship with Teddy. As in that earlier gem, Bob predictably ends up erupting on, and then apologizing to Teddy in the process of vocalizing the same lesson he’s already learned several times before. This is absolutely a hallmark of past-their-prime sitcoms in particular, when entire episodes out of the past are occasionally regurgitated and presented again in a diminished form. It speaks to both a lack of new ideas, and a lack of respect for the audience’s memory.

bobs-burgers-bobby-driver.jpgOr, you could watch the OTHER episode about Bob being trapped in a car with someone he finds annoying.

Likewise endemic to shows caught in this era of their existence are episode plots that redefine the very nature of a major character, but do so in a way that is completely unearned and then immediately retconned. So it is in the B-plot of Season 12 opener “Manic Pixie Crap Show,” as the audience (and Bob) discover Linda’s apparently deep-seated emotional disorder or possible mental illness stemming from the tragedy of watching a beloved neighborhood pet die before her eyes as a child, which is reawakened when a floral dog arrangement is delivered to the restaurant by mistake. Does this sound oddly dark? Like something that maybe should have been suggested by something in Linda’s character in the last 12 seasons? Like something that, once discovered, would probably take more than a few sentences of catharsis to leave behind? If you answered “yes” to any of those, you’ll be disappointed by the episode, which handwaves the serious nature of Linda’s suddenly emerged emotional disorder and then solves the problem in a flash, never to be mentioned again. At least Marge’s gambling addiction on The Simpsons was mentioned occasionally. Here we’ve spent a dozen seasons with Linda, unaware that the sight of a little floral arrangement could apparently tear down the fabric of her reality at any moment.

Suffice to say, this is the kind of lazy approach to these characters that simply wouldn’t have passed muster (or mustard) in earlier seasons of Bob’s Burgers, which were committed to giving you reasons to like these characters rather than simply relying upon the goodwill the show had already built since it premiered more than a decade ago. Worse is the fact that many of the newer episodes are in fact undermining our ability to appreciate certain characters by repeatedly portraying them as more irritating than ever before. An episode like season 4’s “Bob and Deliver,” where Bob becomes a substitute teacher at Wagstaff, does a great job of fleshing out the characters of Tina’s various classmates and school friends while integrating them into a story about Bob’s idealistic expectations (that he will be a great teacher) clashing with reality. Season 11’s finale “Vampire Disco Death Dance,” on the other hand, attempts a similar storyline in which Bob idealistically hopes to spend a formative evening with Tina at the movies, only to have the experience marred by the presence of Jimmy Jr., Zeke, Tammy and Jocelyn. Where “Bob and Deliver” built rapport between Bob and these kids, in the form of things like a heartwarming mentor relationship with Zeke, in “Vampire Disco Death Dance” they exist solely to serve as an impediment for Bob and Tina. The likes of Jimmy Jr. and Tammy have never been more purely irritating than they are here—whatever redeeming qualities they typically possess have been completely shunted aside.

It’s especially unfortunate for the fact that you can look at the structure of some of the more recent episodes and imagine variants of those episodes as they might have existed in the prime years of Bob’s Burgers, with only a few changes. In the recent Halloween episode “The Pumpkinening,” for instance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the central plot involving Linda and Gayle being forced to confront a crime from their high school past. In the prime era of the series, though, the writers would have come up with a good way to drag Bob and especially the kids into meaningful participation in that story, rather than shrugging and settling for a Halloween episode subplot that just sees the kids sitting around the restaurant, watching Bob give out candy rather than having their own Halloween adventures. In a series that has over the years been defined by its great holiday episodes, it’s sad to see almost the entire cast reduced to a particularly pointless B-plot.

bobs-burgers-pumpkinening.jpgPerhaps the weakest subplot ever lazily shoehorned into a Bob’s Burgers holiday episode.

This is really only scratching the surface of the creative malaise that has dragged down Bob’s Burgers in the last few seasons, which also extends to issues such as an overreliance on musical numbers as a salve for weak storylines, or overuse of gimmicks like the “storytelling” episode format seen in “Diarrhea of a Poopy Kid.” Comparing more recent “storytelling” episodes to a classic like “The Frond Files” from Season 4 serves to illustrate how little that particular format has left to give, having been reduced to “movie parody for the sake of movie parody,” just another way to fill out the episode count that FOX ordered.

On that very same network, timeslot partner The Simpsons has for years and years provided a grim illustration of just how bad things can get when a show endlessly coasts on the triumphs of the past. Nonsensical plotlines, withered vocal performances, an abandonment of character-based humor in favor of instantly dated pop culture references and celebrity cameos—this is the formula that has kept The Simpsons going for more than 20 bad seasons at this point. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a show that has now been bad for roughly 2.5 times the length that it was ever good. Is that really the style of decline that any fan wants for Bob’s Burgers as well, to emulate that kind of drudgery? I’d rather not have to explain to a teenager in the 2030s that Bob’s Burgers was once really great, even as terrible new episodes continue to air on a weekly basis.

Even the show’s key creative personnel seem to have tacitly acknowledged they’re more interested in moving on to other things, although the Bob’s Burgers fanbase (and paychecks) are understandably hard to leave behind. Series creator Loren Bouchard has been able to more fully embrace the Broadway-inspired musical side of Bob’s Burgers via Central Park on Apple TV+, currently heading into its third season, while also executive producing spiritual successor The Great North on FOX. The latter was created by sisters Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, themselves longtime Bob’s Burgers writers and producers. In short, we are being told that the heart and soul of the Bob’s Burgers creative team is ready to throw the brunt of their attention behind newer, fresher projects that will carry its spirit forward in a new form. Can we therefore say goodbye to Bob and the Belchers with a little bit of dignity? This series has been arguably the greatest animated sitcom of the post-Simpsons era—let it learn from the mistakes of the undead FOX shows that came before it and bow out before its golden era fades entirely from memory.

Bob Belcher is an artisan—a beefartist who puts quality above all else, regardless of practical concerns. If he thought the quality of his burgers had slipped into banal territory, he’d close up shop and discover a new passion. Let Bob’s Burgers follow the example of its title character.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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