Despite its distinct and inventive characters, fantastic voice cast, wonderfully weird setting, and surprisingly consistent quality, Bob’s Burgers continues to fly under the radar. Since its shaky first season, which was met with mixed reviews, the Fox animated sitcom has only intermittently enjoyed the critical-darling status it deserves (though critic James Poniewozik did call it TV’s best comedy back in 2013). But what Bob’s Burgers lacks in relative fanfare, it certainly makes up for in longevity: The show just concluded its ninth season and has been renewed for another year, with a movie on the way in 2020. For newbies, Bob’s Burgers may be the ideal series to catch up on this summer: a sunny, beach-adjacent comedy with bright colors, low stakes, and its own fresh take on lust. And since its aforementioned debut season isn’t its finest, a good place to start would be the Season 4 episode “The Kids Rob a Train.”
Centered on the downwardly mobile Belcher family, Bob’s Burgers is mostly obviously modeled after The Simpsons. But while most of The Simpsons’ successors, like Family Guy, furthered the iconic series’ nose-thumbing tendencies, Bob’s Burgers leaned in the opposite direction, toward a sly sweetness. Silly, punny, horny, and just a little bit sad, the show, set in (most likely) a New Jersey boardwalk town, also diverges from its predecessors by heralding a post-2008 revision of the “average” American family—a hardscrabble lot that flatly accepts chronic brokeness as a fact of life. Patriarch Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), the cook and owner of a failing burger restaurant, is a frustrated creative for whom luck is rarely on his side. His gabby, equally frustrated wife, Linda (John Roberts), who also works at the restaurant, grasps at any chance to break up the routine of their days. Eldest child Tina (Dan Mintz), only son Gene (Eugene Mirman), and aggro baby of the family Louise (Kristen Schaal) are expected to help out at the restaurant too, but mostly spend their afternoons and weekends in search of adventure.
Which brings us back to the railroad tracks. The heist the kids pull off in “The Kids Rob a Train” is appealingly low-key: The goal is to steal an armful of chocolate from the kitchen. One of the show’s many riffs on pop culture tropes—which have ranged from a beloved episode-long E.T. tribute involving a talking toilet voiced by Jon Hamm to mini anthology episodes parodying Game of Thrones and Pride and Prejudice—“The Kids Rob a Train” captures the pleasures of the train-heist genre while showcasing the impressive characterization that has earned the series so many devoted fans. On a rare afternoon off, Bob and Linda close the restaurant and take the kids aboard a wine train, where children are permitted but explicitly not welcome. Tina, Gene, and Louise are promptly taken to the grim, kids-only Juice Caboose, where they’re told they’ll be locked in for the next four hours with nothing to do. There, the Belchers join Regular Sized Rudy (Brian Huskey), a schoolmate intimately familiar with the Juice Caboose, since the boy’s newly divorced dad likes to bring his dates on the wine train.
When Rudy tells the trio about a stash of chocolate in the kitchen, acquisitive Louise decides that the group will work together to steal it, while distractible, possibly genderqueer Gene threatens to derail her plans with his obsession over his hobo-chic outfit and boy-crazy Tina pines after their effective jailer, a server named Ethan. (A shy, dutiful 13-year-old with a penchant for butts and writing erotic “friend fiction,” Tina has become the show’s breakout character, at least on Tumblr, for the uniquely nerdy depiction of her teenage female sexuality.) The heist, which involves outwitting Ethan, working around the other kitchen workers’ schedules, and falling out of the (slow-moving) train, is brisk and suspenseful. A final image, involving actual chocolate rain, captures the kids’ exploits at their best: whimsical without being cloying.
Meanwhile, Bob and Linda end up in a “wine-off” with a condescending oenophile who insults Bob’s palate and supposed lack of sophistication. The couple’s eventual teamwork to vanquish the self-appointed wine expert is an excellent example of their marital dynamic: him cranky, her outgoing to a fault, but the two ultimately finding common ground. (Thankfully, Bob’s Burgers has mostly jettisoned sitcom-marriage tropes, giving us a union that’s charmingly practical and graciously accepting of the characters’ quirks.) The outcome of the “wine-off” is probably a Pyrrhic victory, but strangely winsome for continuing the show’s preoccupation with bodily grossness—a viscerality that, notwithstanding achievements from Ren & Stimpy to Big Mouth, still feels fairly novel in family-friendly animation. Bob’s Burgers is one of the most unassuming shows currently on the air, but it still manages to subvert and surprise.