Bob’s Burgers’s weakest episodes tend to forget about its fundamentally humble parameters and pile too much narrative focus onto thin character premises, a problem that plagues season opener “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl.” The competition between Gene (Eugene Mirman) and his ex, Courtney (David Wain), to mount competing school musicals based around Die Hard and Working Girl, respectively, should have been a winner, given the show’s love for ridiculous musical moments. But the episode begins with the pair already squabbling over the failure of their productions, forcing a winsomely goofy premise to be filtered through dull flashback. There are gems scattered throughout, especially in an exchange where Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) says that Working Girl made him the man he is and Louise (Kristen Schaal) replies, “So you became this?” But for the most part, the episode only seems to be a tired rehash of the far more successful “Topsy,” only figuring out what it wants to do in the final minutes when it mashes together the competing musicals.
The failures of “Work Hard” are thrown into even sharper relief by the quality of the other four episodes of the season aired to date, the strongest run since the first half of season four. “Best Burger” even acts as a direct demonstration of where the season premiere went wrong. Its flashbacks don’t simply shade in plot background, but hinge on displays of typical Belcher silliness, like the gusto with which Bob drunkenly enters the burger contest that causes him anxiety in the present, or how the kids’ mission to acquire black garlic for his creation is complicated by their screaming match with the local organic store’s proprietor. And where “Work Hard” does so little with Gene that it could have been a season-one episode, “Best Burger” skillfully develops the boy’s conflicting desire to be great with his attention-deficient inability to see any task through to the end, further strengthening it by tying it to Bob’s own fear of failure and his subconscious displacement of blame onto Gene. It’s a testament to the impeccable writing, not to mention the cast’s voice acting, that Bob’s declaration, “You didn’t screw up. I screwed up by trusting you!” eschews even unintended malice to convey a shared epiphany. The resolution even manages to improve one of the earlier misfires, the needlessly cynical “Family Fracas,” by reconciling to an optimistic conclusion that fits better into the show’s usual m.o.
“Best Burger” goes in crazy directions, but keeps the focus on its characters, something that also characterizes “Dawn of the Peck.” A Halloween special in the guise of a Thanksgiving one, the episode nominally concerns a half-zombie, half-Birds outbreak of pissed-off poultry thanks to yet another disastrous promotion from resident wharflord Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline). But as manic as the swarm of flightless birds is, the episode truly excels for digging into its minuscule quirks, like a cold open that cribs the beginning of Jurassic Park, or Linda’s (John Roberts) infatuation with the tiny water bottles she purchased for the running of the turkeys. It also boasts another installment of Benjamin’s show-stealing moments of Bob kookily handling solitude, this time telling basting puns to potato chips or introducing “daytime whiskey” to his CD collection.
Even when an episode stumbles, as “Friends with Burger-fits” does in its unnecessarily mean setup of Bob’s refusal to serve his most loyal customer, Teddy (Larry Murphy), out of concern for his health, the series continues to find inventive ways to elevate the material. “Friends” boasts a delightful subplot in which Linda discovers Louise turning the walk-in freezer into a skating rink and, instead of getting mad, falls in love with the idea; she even organizes ice-wrestling matches with the kids and outfits them in Thunderdome costumes. More importantly, the episode showcases how much this season has started to expand previously ancillary characters. Teddy gets a lot of airtime, but it’s only now that the series questions the full extent of his role in Bob’s life, shaking up the seemingly one-sided affection Teddy shows for Bob. Other episodes highlight some more of the tertiary cast, enhancing the role of sweet ne’er-do-well Mickey (Bill Hader) to the role of recurring player and bringing back Thomas Lennon’s Belcher-loathing game show host Chuck Charles in “Best Burger,” who witheringly undercuts the emotional high of the climax by sneering, “Hooray for Bob! He managed to somehow do what he does every day for a living. What a champion.”
Bob’s Burgers is an ensemble show, but Tina (Dan Mintz) has been its breakout character, and it’s remarkable how much more the writers can get out of her hyper-specific context of being a hormonal teenage girl whose inchoate lust is so uncontrollable she even lets herself fall for a possible spirit in “Tina and the Real Ghost.” Tina isn’t stupid, and the climactic speech she gives about knowing that “Jeff” was fake is hilarious in its blunt assessment of the evidence for her assertion. The series indulges in heightened emotions and inanity, but never fails to regard its characters’ outsized feelings with affection and understanding. No other series on TV right now feels like it, and as even the prestige show start to mine the same atmosphere, that makes Bob’s Burgers all the more vital.