I tuned in to Fox's new animated sitcom Bob's Burger's wondering whether I would truly be getting the next Simpsons or yet another loosely-framed showcase for pop-culture references and irreverent jokes, a la the animated shows of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.
I'm happy to report that Bob's Burgers actually manages to capture the culture-skewing satirical tones that made The Simpsons so great in its early years, while also managing to honor the word "sitcom" by (gasp) having an actual storyline and quirky, funny, fully-developed characters.
If I had to pitch this show to potential viewers (and I'm sort of doing that now, aren't I?), I would describe it as a mix between early Simpsons and the witty banter ensemble comedy of FX's Archer. (Note: Emmy-nominated voice actor H. Jon Benjamin actually voices both Archer and Bob's Burgers titular character, Bob Belcher.) The show lightly pokes at an Americana landscape that is both traditional (the Belchers run a family-owned burger joint - how much more classic Americana can you get?) and modern (their burger shop is wedged between a funeral home and a PETA-inspired animal rights center).
It's also a good sign that the Belchers are actual, fully-formed and unique characters, instead of simple allegories for modern-day or classic stereotypes (the put-upon wife, the moronic husband, the smart child, the bad child, etc...). The Belchers are not just Simpson family clones, a model that has been used for just about every animated sitcom family to come along since Matt Groening's yellow four-fingered creations conquered the small screen. What we do get is a family that can't be pigeon-holed into easy little boxes of convention, offering the possibility that the Belchers, and the situations they find themselves in each week, could potentially stay fresh and entertaining for at least a season or two (if not more), should the show attract the necessary viewers.
In this first episode, entitled "Human Flesh", we meet the Belchers, a family who has just had a grand re-re-re-opening for their burger joint on "Wonder Warf," a fictional beach/boardwalk town. It's Labor Day weekend and Bob hopes to capitalize on the swell of tourism; he is insistent that his family - wife Linda, son Gene and daughters Tina and Louise - all put their work caps on and help promote the struggling family business. The twist comes when Louise decides to tell her classmates at school that Bob's Burgers uses human flesh instead of beef (she thinks it's a more interesting angle for her show & tell report). Once rumor gets out about the alleged flesh burgers, Bob finds the fate of his shop hanging in the balance. It only gets worse when he learns that his focus on the shop has caused him to forget about his anniversary, much to the disappointment of his wife. In a third twist, the health inspector who comes to investigate the flesh burger rumor also happens to be the man Linda thought she would marry before Bob came along. Comedy ensues.
"Human flesh" was pretty entertaining, in my opinion; I certainly laughed a whole lot more than I thought I would. The comedic situations and jokes were well constructed and executed; the plot of the episode was humorous and engaging; and on top of that the dialogue and banter between the characters was smart, fitting with the plot and themes of the episode, and also felt loose and natural at the same time. The series was created by Loren Bouchard, who had a big hand in animated show Home Movies that ran from 1999 through the early 2000s; the animation style of Bob's Burgers is pretty much a polished version of Home Movies' pencil-sketched characters and settings.
The misfit family was loads of fun: Bob is the sarcastic but loving dad; Linda (John Roberts) is the peppy/fiesty wife; Gene (Eugene Mirman) is a hyper-active geek; Tina (Dan Mintz) is a nerdy weirdo; and Louise (Kristen Schaal) is a precocious little schemer and mischief-maker. The opening of the episode - where Bob assigns each family member a task in the restaurant - was a great way to introduce us to the family and their respective personalities, each of which was colorful and memorable. The characters and settings beyond the burger shop were just as amusing, suggesting that Bob's Burgers has the potential to introduce the same kind of expansive world as Springfield, The Simpsons' fictional town (which is now populated by dozens of secondary characters).
Finally, it was refreshing to see an animated sitcom that managed to offer some insight and heart via its scripted storyline. In this one episode there were ruminations on everything from parenting and marriage to sexual politics and the hardships of pursuing the American Dream. Best of all, unlike the preachy heavy-hand of South Park or the increasingly lame esoteric "intelligence" of The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers managed to touch upon each of these topics in a light, breezy, chuckle-inducing way that anybody from lowest to highest brow could enjoy.
Hopefully the successful execution of this first episode is indicative of what lies in store for the rest of the season. Consider me onboard for this series, which is one of the better animated sitcoms to hit the airwaves in years.
Watch Bob's Burgers Sundays at 8:30pm EST on Fox. You can catch the first episode now on Hulu.