I wasn’t sure what to make of “Bob’s Burgers” when it debuted last spring. Where FOX had been content for a while to let its Sunday animated lineup be dominated by “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and related series, here was an idiosyncratic cartoon not involving Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane, but created by Loren Bouchard, whose last show for network television was “Home Movies,” which UPN canceled after 5 episodes back in 1999. (Adult Swim later picked it up and produced several more seasons.) It had Bouchard regular H. Jon Benjamin in the title role as struggling burger chef and family man Bob, presiding over one of the more eccentric brood of kids I’d seen on TV in a while, including hormonally confused adolescent Tina (Dan Mintz), amoral schemer Louise (Kristen Schaal) and loudly incompetent Gene (Eugene Mirman).
It was strange, and I often like strange in my comedy, but at least initially, I didn’t find it funny. But it was compelling in its weirdness – one early episode had the family becoming obsessed with the cow a protest filmmaker had parked outside their restaurant – and that kept me watching until the rest of the show clicked for me. And once it did, it became my favorite part of FOX’s cartoon bloc, to which it returns tonight at 8:30 p.m.
Bouchard has blended his off-kilter cable sensibility (which also gave us “Lucy: Daughter of the Devil,” plus his time as a writer on “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”) with the warmth and candor of early “Simpsons” or “King of the Hill” (where key “Bob’s Burgers” writer/producer Jim Dauterive spent years) to come up with a show about a bizarre family that, underneath its neuroses, psychoses and crippling financial problems, really does care about each other.
(Well, I’m not sure about Louise sometimes. She seems more likely to grow up to be a Bond villain – still wearing her pink bunny ear hat – than to be helping Bob keep the restaurant afloat.)
There are many times where that whole “we’re crazy, but deep down, we love each other” approach can feel fake and saccharine, like something the network made the writers do. But “Bob’s Burgers” successfully manages to have it both ways. Unsettling things happen near Bob, and sometimes to him (in one episode, he accidentally became a pimp; in another, he became a loud advocate for his sister-in-law’s paintings of animal anuses), and yet it never feels jarring when it becomes clear he’s genuinely concerned with the welfare of the kids or wife Linda (John Roberts). Bob’s not good at much but cooking burgers(*), but he at least makes an effort at being a good father and husband(**), and the affection he has for Linda and the kids provides just enough of a grounding for all the bizarre adventures they get into each week.
(*) His landlord refers to Bob as a “beef artist,” a phrase the show likes to have him say very quickly so the f sound and the “artist” blend together. Comedy for everyone’s inner 12-year-old boy!
(**) The show does too many stories about Bob and Linda’s sex life – including a subplot in the season premiere about a Viagra side effect – for it to qualify as an all-ages show, but it’s still not as raunchy as “Family Guy.”
The season’s first two episodes aren’t as consistently funny as last spring’s best outings, but they do a good job of showcasing both the style of “Bob’s Burgers” and the deep roster of characters the show has already assembled.