For the discerning T.V. fan, “animated sitcom” isn’t necessarily a phrase that inspires confidence. The Simpsons is stale at twenty-six seasons, and not everyone delights in the gross-out sensibilities of Family Guy or the controversy-a-week approach of South Park. Given the rest of the roster, one might be tempted to lump Fox’s Bob’s Burgers in with its peers.
Don’t make that mistake. Bob’s Burgers isn’t just an excellent animated sitcom, it’s become one of the best shows on television, combining zany, anarchic humor with sweet family dynamics and inventive storytelling. While family shows tend to lean heavily on stereotypes, there isn’t a generic character in the bunch. Deadpan father Bob Belcher (H. John Benjamin) and his relentlessly enthusiastic wife Linda (John Roberts) run their family’s burger restaurant, a welcome change from the unspecific white-collar gigs occupied by most animated patriarchs. Rounding out the family are conscientious and very pubescent middle-schooler Tina (Dan Mintz), oblivious eleven-year-old Gene (Eugene Mirman), and precocious, snarky nine-year-old Louise (Kristen Schaal).
The show’s greatest strength is its willingness to take storytelling risks. There is no typical episode of Bob’s Burgers; each week brings unexpected situations that bring out new facets of the characters’ personalities. Many episodes experiment with different genres, often in the form of homage. Beneath the innovation, though, Bob’s Burgers maintains a solid emotional core: it’s about a family that loves and supports each other.
Bob’s Burgers had a rocky start before it hit its stride, so Episode 1 might not be the best point of entry. Instead, here’s six episodes that show off what makes the show so special.
1. Speakeasy Rider: Season 5, Episode 9
Speakeasy Rider is one of the best examples of the show’s effectiveness in playing with genre, this time the racing movie. Tina, Gene and Louise are determined to beat Bryce, a fast-talking go-kart racer with a habit of throwing raisins at his adversaries. The kids convince their motorcycle gang friends (that’s a whole other episode) to help them trick out an old bumper car, and the classic underdog-versus-reigning champ saga ensures, eventually testing Tina and Louise’s loyalty for each other. The genre references are well-observed and funny, complete with training montage and some killer smack talk from Tina: “Way ahead of you. Literally”.
2. Topsy: Season 3, Episode 16
Topsy is centered entirely on a piece of historical esoterica, with hilarious and actually educational results. Habitual slacker Louise is at a loss her when her new science teacher forces her to complete a science fair project about Thomas Edison. A tip from a neurotic librarian leads her to the true story of Topsy, an elephant electrocuted to death by Edison in an attempt to demonstrate the supposed danger of Nicola Tesla’s alternating current. In representative Louise fashion, she takes things to the extreme to antagonize her teacher, enlisting musically-inclined Gene to help put on a full-blown Topsy musical starring Tina as the ill-fated elephant.
3. O.T. The Outside Toilet: Season 3, Episode 15
O.T. The Outside Toilet shows just how insane of a premise Bob’s Burgers can pull off. In a left-field reworking of Spielberg’s E.T., Gene befriends a high-tech, talking toilet that he finds outside in the middle of the woods. You’d think this would lead to an avalanche of scatological humor, but it doesn’t. Gene overcomes his usual bumbling ineptitude to help his new friend, showing us the compassionate and loyal dimensions of the character’s personality. Eighties cinema fans will smile at the Spielbergian easter eggs, but the episode works with or without the context.
4. Ambergris: Season 4, Episode 18
Another odd yet effective experiment of an episode, Ambergris opens with the Belcher kids’ discovery of a funky-smelling object on the beach that happens to be worth several thousands of dollars; the catch is that it’s illegal to sell. Louise’s criminal instincts kick in, and she butts heads with a scrupulous Tina over whether or not to cash in the ambergris on the back market (meanwhile Gene just wants to put the thing in his mouth). The pure absurdity of the situation combined with the kids’ personalities bouncing off of each other make for one of the funniest episodes in the series, made even funnier by a welcome guest voiceover role from Bill Hader as an inept dealer of illegal goods.
5. The Runway Club: Season 5, Episode 16
Bob’s Burgers has a deep bench: minor players like the Belcher kids’ schoolmates are all fully-realized individuals with as many specific quirks as the main characters. Genre mashup The Runway Club is a great showcase these characters, including Tina’s lisping crush Jimmy Pesto Jr. (also voiced by H. John Benjamin), his loudmouth buddy Zeke (Bobby Tisdale), and mean girl Tammy (Jenny Slate). A when a fight lands all of the kids in detention, school counselor Mr. Frond (David Herman) decides that the best form of rehabilitation is a forced fashion design competition, shifting the homage subject from John Hughes to Project Runway.
6. Hawk and Chick: Season 5, Episode 21
Hawk And Chick is one of many episodes that dial in on a relationship within the Belcher family, in this case Bob and Louise. The pair bond over their shared love for a series of movies about a father-daughter samurai team, Hawk and Chick. When Hawk himself comes to town looking for his now-estranged daughter, Bob and Louise decide to put on a Hawk and Chick film festival to bring their heroes back together. In the process, they end up confronting their own fears about the future of their relationship. Unlike every other animated sitcom, Bob’s Burgers doesn’t feel the need to maintain a cynical edge: it allows its characters to show genuine affection for each other, as real families do.