The coming Bob's Burgers Boom

If there were an Intrade where people bet on which will be the next show to become a cult phenomenon, I’d put my money on Bob’s Burgers – except that it might be a cult phenomenon already. The show has been on for a while, and its ratings have not been spectacular (not bad, though). It gets consistently terrific fan and critical reaction, especially since it moved away from conservative King of the Hill-ish stories toward more absurdist material. Last night’s episode was fairly typical: they took the bones of a standard sitcom plot, where Bob’s family is hired to pose as a rich man’s family while Bob prepares their dinner, and turned it into a wild freak show where Bob gets hopped up on absinthe; the pattern of a lot of episodes is to put Bob in a situation where he can go completely insane.

Of all the non-Seth Macfarlane cartoons Fox has produced since the late ’90s, it’s the only one that seems to have a chance to stick around long enough to produce a substantial amount of episodes, and the only one that seems to point the way to a new style for broadcast animated comedy. The style can be described as a halfway point between the animated sitcom and Adult Swim (and Fox seems to be keeping a close eye on the success of Adult Swim; they’ve been trying to start plans to produce their own late-night cartoons). The plots and the structure are more or less linear and comprehensible, and the show tries to stay emotionally grounded through the relationship of Bob and his kids. But the characters are all crazy people who see the world with a sense of cloud-cuckoo logic – Bob is the straight man when the plot requires it, but the stories usually revolve around him proving he’s as insane as everyone else – and much of the humour comes from their non-sequitur comments on the situations. The humour in a lot of scenes comes from each character, in turn, delivering a comment on the situation that sort of makes sense but not completely.

Showrunner Jim Dauterive comes from King of the Hill, which used to do something similar with Hank’s friends, having each of them say something funny about that week’s plot from their own point of view. But it’s carried farther here. It’s like every character is a somewhat brighter Ralph Wiggum, and one of the reasons the show has a lot of cult potential is that the lines lend themselves beautifully to quoting online. Any comments section on a Bob’s Burgers review will be filled with quotes of the weird non-sequitur lines that don’t make sense out of context but did make sense in the show’s own world. And that type of line, in this particular time, is probably more quotable and popular than a standard punchline joke, which the older animated shows tend to do.

I don’t know if it works for me personally all the time, for two reasons. One is that every character is crazy, so the attempts to ground the show in some kind of reality don’t ring true for me. (I like it when the kids actually react to a situation the way a person would react, but it doesn’t happen all that often, since a lot of their characterization is built around the idea that they over-react to little things and treat bizarre things as normal and fun. But I find I enjoy seeing them out of their comfort zone a bit, like Louise losing her beloved bunny ears in the season premiere.) The other is that except in fantasy sequences, the show’s humour is so heavily dialogue-based, even by the standards of animated sitcoms, that it sometimes feels like no one can just be quiet and let a scene or plot point play out: there has to be commentary from everybody, and it can wear me out, like a lesser Simpsons episode with too many puns. But that’s a personal reaction, and I wouldn’t say those are flaws exactly; those are subjective reasons why I haven’t connected with the show yet in the way most people seem to have.

Objectively, though, the show seems to be one of the few non-Groening, non-MacFarlane animated sitcoms with its own distinct style and its own future. Fox clearly likes it, and Fox in its current form is a network prone to crushes: when they like a show, they will keep it on as long as its ratings are not terrible. (One live-action example is Raising Hope, a favourite of the Fox executives, and a very good show; the combination of good reviews, network support and low-but-not-awful ratings will likely keep it on long enough to reach syndication.) The big question for Fox is whether it can sustain its animated lineup if it ever pulls the plug on The Simpsons and Family Guy – something that almost happened to The Simpsons during that last round of negotiations – and to do that, it needs to develop newer series with their own following, something it has had a lot of trouble doing. It remains to be seen whether Bob can develop the kind of audience to make it a future substitute for The Simpsons and Family Guy. But it already has its own style, its own following, and people actually seem to like it for its own sake. And that puts it in a pretty good place, especially since Fox’s other insurance policy for the future of animation – its planned remake of The Flintstones – has fallen through.