Five Things Bob’s Burgers Does Better Than The Simpsons
When Fox’s Bob’s Burgers returns for its second-season premiere this Sunday, it will directly follow the 502nd episode of The Simpsons. Given that there are now several years’ worth of college graduates who’ve never lived in a world without The Simpsons, it’s natural that the show would have started to seem somewhat careworn over the past year, or the past few years, or the past decade and a half. Bob’s, on the other hand, has a similar premise — it also revolves around a working-class family with three kids — but since it’s still so early in its run, Bob’s has so much fresh ground to cover. Not only that: Bob’s can also explore subjects and territory that The Simpsons has long since exhausted or abandoned: In fact, some of the Five Things Bob’s Burgers Does Better Than The Simpsons are actually Things Bob’s Burgers Does That The Simpsons Doesn’t Do Anymore, But Probably Should. If you miss the show The Simpsons was in its glory days, and you need a break from rewatching your DVDs, here’s why you should give Bob’s a chance.
1. The Belchers live within their limited means.
When The Simpsons began, it credibly covered the lives of a lower-middle-class family in which only one member was employed outside the home. Technically, those circumstances haven’t changed, and yet it’s been a very long time since, for example, Homer has had to take a second job to cover the cost of maintaining Lisa’s pony, or borrowed money for a mortgage payment from his hated sisters-in-law. This isn’t to say that every episode should revolve around the family’s finances, but at this point it happens far less often that the Simpsons can’t afford to pay for something they want than that they take a trip to someplace on the opposite side of the international date line. From what we’ve seen, the Belchers have barely left their block; the chance to spend a weekend at their customer Mort’s apartment was an occasion worthy of coming up with a celebratory theme song — and Mort lives next door. The titular restaurant performs poorly enough that, in the series premiere, Bob and Linda are so excited about the new clientele of risk-taking foodies attracted by the rumor that they serve human flesh that they decide to play along with it. As on The Simpsons in its early days, the comedy that arises from everyday events spiraling into absurdity can be more effective than when the “sit” part of a sitcom really strains believability.
2. The kids act like kids.
For a family to have one child that’s extraordinarily precocious (like Lisa Simpson, or Carol Seaver, or Alex Keaton) and one who’s extraordinarily dumb and/or incorrigible (Bart Simpson, Mike Seaver, Mallory Keaton) is sitcom SOP. But the Belcher kids don’t slot easily into those stereotypes. True, Louise is given to hatching plans as clever as they are malicious, but unlike Bart, hers is not chaotic evil: The Season 1 episode “Spaghetti Western and Meatballs,” for instance, found her lashing out at Bob when he paid more attention to Gene than he did to her. Gene is a would-be comedian whose material derives chiefly from fart-based sound effects. The just-pubescent Tina was described by Louise, early on in Season 1, as “pubing out pretty hard,” which continues to define her character into the Season 2 premiere, “The Belchies”: Her fervid inventiveness in creating opportunities to seduce Jimmy Pesto Jr. is perfectly matched by his fervid … indifference to her. The younger Belchers may be the least cartoony cartoon kids in TV history.
3. Furthermore, these three kids generate three kids’ worth of comedy.
When a Simpsons plot requires Maggie to do something, she usually proves herself to be one of the smartest members of the family, whether it’s as small as catching a bottle of beer at a ballpark before it strikes an oblivious Homer in the head, or as big as masterminding a day care prison break. But most of the time, Maggie is about as active in, or central to, the story of an episode as Santa’s Little Helper. All three Belcher kids are fully engaged in every episode of Bob’s Burgers, making them collectively a more powerful force than the Simpsons children. That’s just math.
4. The Belcher marriage makes sense.
Look, I know that The Simpsons is a cartoon. But the gross imbalance of Marge and Homer’s marriage is so obvious and troublesome that Marge finally reaching her breaking point (again) ended up as a major plot point of The Simpsons Movie. Admittedly, she brings some heartache on herself by staying with Homer even after he’s hideously embarrassed her at a chili cook-off, told all their marital secrets to the students in a class he’s teaching at The Learning Annex, endangered the family by being reckless with a handgun … I could go on. All of his failings as a husband are consistent with everything we know about his character, whereas on the rare occasions when Marge is the bigger screw-up — developing a gambling addiction, aggressively pursuing an invitation to join the local country club — she’s acting completely out of character and snaps back to normal by the episode’s end. The more Simpsons producers have to reach to find ways for Homer to disappoint Marge, the harder it is to buy that she would want to stay married to him. The Belcher marriage is not only more equitable than the Simpsons marriage, it’s more believable than those on many live-action sitcoms, on which the husband is a lazy boob and the wife is a nagging shrew (Everybody Loves Raymond, The King Of Queens, Home Improvement). Sure, Bob gets so annoyed by Linda’s parents that he recklessly hides between the walls in the apartment to avoid them. But Linda’s not perfect, either: She ignores Bob’s objections when she wants to do things like hang her sister’s terrible paintings (of animal anuses) all over the restaurant, or expand their horizons by double-dating with Mort and his Internet girlfriend. And that’s about as touchy as things ever get between Linda and Bob: None of their conflicts is remotely a deal-breaker.
5. Celebrity guest stars play characters, not themselves.
Remember that episode of Extras when Andy objects that having Chris Martin of Coldplay show up at the factory where When the Whistle Blows was filmed, to play himself, makes no sense? So it is when Stephen Hawking or Helen Fielding shows up in Springfield. Celebrities have done guest appearances on The Simpsons since the show’s first season (we knew exactly who you were, “A. Brooks”), but not as themselves: Cloris Leachman was a crotchety old lady Marge knew from the beauty parlor; Dustin Hoffman was Lisa’s substitute teacher. (When Ringo Starr showed up as himself early on, we weren’t expected to believe that he’d have any reason to be in Springfield.) Sure, most guest stars on Bob’s Burgers are known only to comedy nerds, as I noted last month — people like Jon Glaser, Jerry Minor, and Sam Seder. But the show has attracted legitimate A-list talent, too, and puts it to better use than a lame cameo: Kevin Kline has a recurring role as the Belchers’ landlord, while Sarah Silverman plays one of the dimwitted Pesto twins. (Her sister Laura plays the other.) Nothing about either Bob’s restaurant or the town in which it’s located would suggest that a celebrity would have any reason to visit. The same is true of Springfield, but that hasn’t stopped The Simpsons from putting them there, no matter how outlandish the contrivance.