Monday, November 10, 2014

Returning Shows: Bob's Burgers (All About That Puberty)

Look, we all know by now that Bob's Burgers is pretty much the best animated comedy going. I would argue it's the best comedy full stop. It's charming, sweet, hilarious, and completely insane, somehow managing to make an amazing family sitcom without using tired narrative tropes about fractious marriages, pitiable children, or annoying wacky neighbors. Instead the show has taken a novel route and decided to just tell joke and stories that make people laugh and feel good about themselves. What a concept!

For those of you not in the know, though, the show is super rad. It's about the Belcher family (Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene, and Louise), who run a burger joint in a quiet seaside town. Each of the Belchers is distinct in personality and tone of humor, but they are notable for how well they all get along together. For all that they're super strange people, this is a family that loves each other and supports each other. Bob and Linda are working class parents trying to raise their kids properly while running a restaurant, and the kids are pretty much normal kids with a solid family background. They get into trouble, sure, but it's fun kid trouble, not angsty after school special stuff.

In other words, the comedy on this show comes from the way the characters interact with the world around them. It's the Belchers versus the world, and the Belchers might not usually win, but they never really lose either. They always manage to pull together as a family and at least break even.

Now, I've already talked about what the show has to say about masculinity and femininity, but today I want to talk about how the show deals with adolescence, puberty, and the wacky wild time when we all "come of age".

That's the topic of this post because, really, that's the topic of the first few episodes of this most recent season. This is the fifth season of the show and it shows all the signs of being just as good as the previous ones. Unfortunately, the show's being hampered by a really weird episode release schedule (they're only coming out with one like every three weeks, due to strange programming choices), and I hope very much that's not a sign of the network's lack of confidence in the property. Because make no mistakes, Bob's Burgers is still great.

The first episode features Gene fighting against his nemesis/ex-girlfriend Courtney over the direction of the school musical that year. Since the school has decided to make an original musical, Gene figures it's his moment to shine and fulfill his dream of putting on Die Hard The Musical. Courtney, furious that Gene refuses to cast her in his play, decides to get her father (a composer) to write a different musical, this one based on Working Girl. The two shows manage to divide families and the school because of course they air on the same night in the same building. And, in true Bob's Burgers tradition, the episode resolution comes when Gene and Courtney make peace and decide to mesh their two musicals into one show.

What's really interesting about this plot, though, is less that the musicals themselves are very good or compelling (they're not, and that's most of the joke), but in how each musical typifies a very gendered experience of the world. Die Hard is about one good cop fighting against an office building full of terrorists, and it's paralleled by Gene's struggle to pull of his show by himself, with no one else supporting him. By contrast, Working Girl is about sexism in the workplace, cheating, and how to get ahead without playing by the rules, which is exactly what Courtney did when she had her father write the musical for her.

In other words the whole episode is an insanely clever battle of the sexes, complete with shoulderpads and machismo. The fact that the resolution can only come when the two flawed versions of masculinity and femininity are blended together into one show is just another reminder of why I love this show.

But it's also worth noting that this episode very much highlights the social pressures kids face as they start to enter puberty. Gene's definitely still a kid, but there's an implication here that soon he is going to be expected to be a man and act like one. Yes, he has a good father figure in Bob, but the general cultural expectations for his life are given to him through movies and television. 

Of course Gene wants to make a musical about Die Hard. It's the message of what it means to be a man that he has most been shown. He wants to find a way to reconcile this idea of masculinity with his own personal desires to make music and perform.

It's just all really interesting, and part and parcel of how this show handles puberty really freaking well.

"Tina and the Real Ghost", the second episode of the season, hits very similar points, only this time centered around Tina and her burgeoning sense of who she is going to be as an adolescent. The plot is a little more complex. When the restaurant's exterminator decides there's a ghost in the basement, Louise figures it's a good moment to mess with everyone, and convinces her family (except Bob, who always sees through her) that the ghost is a thirteen year old boy named Jeff. Tina becomes fixated on Jeff and starts to date him, until resident mean girl Tammy steals him away from her.

We expect Tina to be shattered by this betrayal, but that concept, as well as the potential joke that not even a fake ghost will date Tina, proves not to be the point of the episode. Instead, we see Tina take her revenge on Tammy and the other cool kids who were mean to her, eventually revealing that she wasn't crushed when she found out Jeff was fake because she could see how unhealthy it was for her to fixate like that. Tina herself says that if she's so desperate for love that she's willing to invent a romance with a shoebox, she needs to start loving herself.

She then goes further and points out that everyone else was looking to the shoebox and "Jeff" for something they should be getting from themselves. Instead of letting mild-mannered, shy, awkward Tina be the butt of the joke, the writers decided to flip it around and show that Tina is an incredibly self-aware, strong person. More than that, the show emphasizes that Tina's desire to love and be loved is not shameful or a joke. It's perfectly acceptable and healthy, as long as she learns to love herself first.

What other show has messages like that? I mean, we're only two episodes into the season and we've already resolved one boy's crisis about conforming to society's ideals of masculinity and musical theater, and then shown that self-acceptance is the path to healing. And the show did it all without every feeling cheesy or preachy. Just honest.

Of course it remains to be seen if the rest of this season will carry on with these themes. I honestly have no idea. So far, the Belcher parents have been taking kind of a backseat, but I would assume that this will change in future episodes. It does speak to the high caliber of the show overall, though, that this idea doesn't worry me. I've yet to watch an episode of Bob's Burgers that was, well, bad. Or even particularly sub-par. There are episodes I like more than others, but it's very hard for me to think of an episode I don't actually like.

And for me that's quite rare. I really trust this show. I trust their female characters to be compelling and consistent in their characterization. I trust them to humanize everyone on screen, even the people you're not supposed to like. I trust them to tell stories about very human characters doing very human things. I trust them to tell stories that aren't mean-spirited, and are about building-up not tearing-down.

When it comes down to it, I feel like that's why this show works so well as an exploration of adolescence and gender dynamics. Because it's devoted to kind humor, it makes a space in which these kids can explore who they are and who they are going to be when they grow up without us as an audience feeling worried for them. 

I'm never afraid that Tina will discover an amazing talent only for it to be laughed away by her family or for it to be retconned out of the show an episode later. When Gene dresses up as a woman, I never cringe and think that Bob is about to say something degrading toward women or tell Gene to "act like a man."

As an audience member, I feel safe. I feel like it's going to be okay. And that gives the show license to do more interesting things with the development of these characters. Which is surely a good thing. In a world where the typical teenage drama on the CW stars men and women in their mid to late twenties, and the only other well known animated teens are from Family Guy, Tina and Gene are worth their weight in gold. Moreso is the writing team who are able to write them, and write them well.

So yeah. Bob's Burgers is back. You should probably watch it.