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Television Roundup: BOB'S BURGERS Has a Strong – If Strange – First Season

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If nothing else, Fox’s animated “Bob’s Burgers” deserves credit for trying to blend two great tastes that don’t always taste great together: the non sequitur-fueled humor of Adult Swim’s programming (think “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” or “Childrens Hospital”) with something more character-driven (“The Simpsons,” “South Park”). Of course, this trajectory isn’t surprising, given the fact “Bob’s Burgers” is the brainchild of Loren Bouchard and Jim Dauterive.  Bouchard practically created the Adult Swim style with his “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist” and “Home Movies,” while Dauterive was one of the chief architects behind the great underrated cartoon comedy – the late “King of the Hill.”

Their partnership is a novel one.  They keep the premise of the show deliberately bare – we focus on beleaguered burger joint owner Bob, whose chief concerns are his wacky family and trying to keep his struggling restaurant afloat.  The writing staff then fleshes out that skeleton with detailed character information.  The final step: the voice actors meet to discuss the episode scripts, and then they incorporate on-the-spot revisions into the dialogue.  What you see is half-improvised and half-scripted, and it gives the series more genuine spontaneity than most animated programs have (the cast even records their lines together – which almost never happens – so that they can continue to riff).  You feel Dauterive’s influence (the emphasis on character, on finding humor in the mundane) as powerfully as you feel Bouchard’s (meaning that when Bob tries to remember a word that begins with “A,” his kids toss out “Anus” and “Amyl Nitrate”).

Sometimes this meeting of the minds can be jarring, especially considering the influx of gross-out elements designed to ally “Bob’s Burgers” closer in tone to Sunday night peers like “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” and “The Cleveland Show” (75% of the show is so easygoing and relaxed that the 15% consisting of scatological jokes seems to come from left-field).  However, despite a shaky start (and what TV series other than “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Girls,” “The West Wing,” and “Mad Men” doesn’t start a little shakily?), “Bob’s Burgers” settles into a nice groove.  The family grows more defined, the world around them expands, and though it’s not Springfield (yet), you can sense the creators growing more comfortable within their universe, one where rounded, interesting characters get a host of quirks to keep things unpredictable, be those quirks a fondness for Spaghetti Westerns, amateur dinner theater, making music from fart noises, or painting animal anuses.  It’s that type of show.

The voice actors are peerless.  Singling out H. Jon Benjamin for his work as Bob almost seems redundant; Benjamin’s deadpan misery has enlivened characters on shows like “Dr. Katz,” “Home Movies,” and FX’s brilliant “Archer” that you expect the best from him, and he delivers.  Bob lets him introduce a whiff of paternalistic caring into his repertoire – it means that in episodes like “Sheesh!  Cab, Bob?” Benjamin can turn becoming an unofficial pimp to pay for his daughter’s thirteenth birthday party into something sweet and genuine.

Matching Benjamin beat-for-beat are John Roberts (as Bob’s wife, Linda), stand-up comic Eugene Mirman (as his son, Gene), and a roster of guest stars like Todd Barry, David Herman, Andy Kindler, Jack McBrayer, Megan Mullally, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and the great Kevin Kline, who has a wonderful recurring spot as the wryly depraved local businessman/land developer/back-alley abortionist Calvin Fischoeder.

But I’m partial to Dan Mintz and Kristen Schaal, who voice (respectively) Bob’s two daughters, Tina and Louise.  A staff writer for Demetri Martin, Mintz plays Tina (Bob’s eldest) as a combination of cognitively challenged and sexually frustrated; Tina’s becoming a woman, but she only has the dimmest conception of what that entails, and Mintz gives her this sublimely creepy/endearing reedy voice and halting line deliveries.

Schaal’s weird-woman antics have been a delight on “30 Rock” and “Flight of the Conchords,” but something about playing a nine-year-old just suits her exuberant strangeness.  It’s the underlying vulnerability, I think, the fact that under this bon vivant weirdo who has no qualms about starting her own mini-child-labor operation or sicc’ing a colony of amorous beetles on a person’s head (to reiterate: this show can get disgusting) lies a little-girl who, as “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs” demonstrates, gets hurt when Bob ditches their father-daughter time to watch Westerns with Gene.  For years, animated series have tried (and failed) to produce an heir apparent to Bart Simpson; Louise might be the real deal.

“Bob’s Burgers” doesn’t push its humor; it is beyond refreshing to find a Fox Channel animated program that’s content to dawdle along at its own pace.  That might not sound like much, but its low-key approach dominates Fox’s “Animation Domination” line-up – “Bob’s Burgers” is, unquestionably, the channel’s best cartoon series.

Fox has given the first season a solid two-disc DVD release.  Picture quality across the thirteen episodes is good, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also strong, though the show never has any real aural explosions to exploit the five channels.

In terms of special features, we get a commentary on each episode.  These vary in strength – the ones with Bouchard are best because he helps tease out behind-the-scenes nuggets from his rowdy cast and crew – but all are entertaining.  Additionally, the audio outtakes for “Bed and Breakfast” and “Sexy Dance Fighting” illustrate how the cast weaves improvisations into the scripted material, while the demo episode has a great introduction from Bouchard where he talks about the project’s development (at one point, Bob and his family were actual cannibals, a discarded idea referenced in the Season 1 pilot).  Only the “Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night” music video and “Louise and the Chalkboard” clip don’t offer anything of value.

In its quiet, unassuming way, “Bob’s Burgers” has become one of Fox’s must-watch shows.  The first season gets better as it goes along, and the DVD has good A/V quality and strong supplements.

“Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season” is available on DVD.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.