Television

Bob’s Burgers Is Doing a Reverse Simpsons

The animated sitcom is making the opposite of the mistake that ruined its predecessor.

The Belcher family sits around the dinner table, looking at Bob, who stares at the viewer with his eyes wide and his mouth agape
20th Century Studios

In November, Jim Vorel published a piece in Paste declaring that it’s time to stick a fork in Bob’s Burgers—it’s done. Vorel (correctly) identifies many flaws with the later years of the show, which recently wrapped its 12th season: It’s become repetitive and unimaginative in its B plots, and none of the character development seems to stick. He compares it to another once-great, long-running Fox animated sitcom, The Simpsons. “Is that really the style of decline that any fan wants for Bob’s Burgers as well, to emulate that kind of drudgery?” he asks. “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.”

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But the real problem with Bob’s Burgers isn’t that it’s become too much like The Simpsons. It’s that it’s become the anti-Simpsons. The general consensus is that The Simpsons’ downfall began around its ninth season, when it leaned too far into the absurd and stopped caring about its characters as people. While the show had always stuffed jokes into every frame, in the ensuing years, its antics began to crowd out its warm heart, especially as it was forced to compete with its hyper-referential and even more heavily ironized successor, Family Guy. Bob’s Burgers has taken things in the opposite direction. Where earlier seasons were more irreverent, with plotlines involving cannibalism accusations, paintings of animal anuses, and the kids working on a weed farm, the show has become increasingly low-stakes and family-friendly—and, in turn, decreasingly funny.

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This evolution is no accident. Creator Loren Bouchard even tweeted a warning for parents about watching the first four seasons with children. “Family streaming advisory: Please know that we didn’t know kids under, say, ten, were going to watch in the early days. SEASONS FIVE AND UP are probably consistently ‘safe,’ ” he wrote. “Some swinging grandparents and vibrators sprinkled around prior to that.”

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The transformation is understandable. Bob’s Burgers hit its stride when it figured out how to temper its edgier moments with some sweetness. Insult humor took a back seat as the Belcher family, perpetually the underdogs with their struggling restaurant, grew more relatable, showed genuine affection for one another, and, very occasionally, even eked out a win here and there. Parents Bob and Linda lost the tired sitcom-dad-and-nag-wife dynamic and became a real team. Oldest child Tina became not just a weirdo but a beloved weirdo paving the way for a generation of horny teen girls on TV. Youngest child Louise went from a chaotic mastermind to a real 9-year-old girl with 9-year-old girl problems. And middle child and one-liner machine Gene—well, for the most part he’s actually stayed Gene.

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There is such a thing, however, as too much of a good thing. Bob’s Burgers has been dancing near the line between sweet and saccharine for years now, but with Season 12, it has firmly crossed it. It’s not as though the show has never featured characters learning a lesson—it has—but nearly every episode now feels like the writers started with the lesson and then constructed a Very Special Episode around it. In “Manic Pixie Crap Show,” Louise learns that it’s OK she doesn’t like girly things (she had previously learned that it’s OK that she does like girly things). In “Crystal Mess,” Tina learns that she doesn’t need magic, because she just needs to believe in herself (a message that, it goes without saying, would be too quaint for most motivational posters). In “Driving Big Dummy,” Bob learns to appreciate Teddy (a lesson he has learned before but keeps forgetting). Some of these lessons are stated outright, with Bob reassuring Tina that her worries about not having a prom date are unfounded or Linda telling Louise that it’s OK that she’s different from other kids. They’d be right at home in an episode of Full House.

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The other flaws with Bob’s Burgers follow the typical trajectory of Fox’s other long-running animated comedies, including not just The Simpsons and Family Guy but King of the Hill. The schmaltz, however, feels unique to Bob’s Burgers. The Bob’s Burgers Movie felt like it might be a chance to mix things up, but it was sadly more of the same, just supersized to feature length. I’m not sure I agree with Vorel that it’s time to call it quits on Bob’s Burgers just yet. But as it enters Season 13, the show’s recipe could certainly use a little less sugar and a little more spice.

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