By Seth Abramson | Press Play July 5, 2013 at 8:35AM
The conceit that made The Simpsons the longest-running animated series and sitcom in U.S. television history was simple enough: Focus attention on a working-class family whose members are all of above-average intelligence relative to their age—with the notable exception of the breadwinner—and let hilarity ensue. Most of the resultant humor focused, in the early seasons, on Bart's ready ability to outsmart his elders; in later seasons, Homer's tendency to win the day without any know-how or even really trying stole the show. Here and there, toddler Maggie's age-inappropriate intelligence, Lisa's nerdy maturity, and Marge's throwback do-gooderism offered a spoonful of additional comic relief.
The premise behind Bob's Burgers is altogether different. Instead of being across-the-board shrewder and more insightful than their peers, the Belcher kids are defined by the type of their intellects rather than their magnitudes: Louise is strategic, Tina self-conscious, and Gene unpredictable. More broadly, and far more importantly, all three seem to suffer from significant mental and emotional disabilities. Louise, the youngest Belcher, wears bunny ears at all times, relishes violence and conflict, and only rarely shows even a hint of emotional attachment to her parents and siblings; Tina, the eldest, is a depressed and anxious pre-teen whose creepy obsession with sex is made all the more unsettling by the fact that she speaks in a boyish monotone; Gene, the only son and middle child, alternates between making insightful observations and farting uncontrollably, between an attention span measured in seconds and being willing to eat or say or do absolutely anything if asked. The upshot of all this is that viewers can smell the dysfunction a mile away—even if they lack the clinical terminology to diagnose it.
A few of the show's peripheral characters are interesting as well—there's erstwhile burger-joint patron Teddy, a middle-aged bachelor who's chatty, "local," and unsophisticated; the mysterious Calvin Fischoeder, Bob's landlord and a likely grifter; and Mort, a white-bread funeral home director with no social circle—but most of the show's extras are simply foils for its ingeniously zany plotlines. More important is that, unlike Bob and Linda, who have at least a dollop of parental instinct, the Belcher children live in a borderless world, one in which kids are free to give vocal and dramatic expression to their every neurosis.
As middle-school-aged children on the cusp of young adulthood, the looming question for the Belcher brood is, "Will they stay like this into adulthood? Is this what the next generation of Americans looks like, in crude caricature?" Of course this has been the chief fear of red-blooded middle-class Americans for years: That soft, upper middle-class living, marked by self-indulgent lawlessness, will become standard in the United States. Thus Louise's instinctive unwillingness to be feminized by her father, mother, or school; Tina's androgyny and repressed sexual deviance; and Gene's perpetual infancy. These same phenomena likewise encapsulate two fears long endemic to the nation's eldest two generations: That women will refuse to or forget how to "act like women," and that boys will never evolve into "real men" capable of fighting and winning wars and running the economy. Implied in all of this is that Bob, and perhaps America, would meet with greater economic success if a lid were finally put on such first-world eccentricities as the Belcher children display.
And yet, never has an animated show exhibited such light-hearted contempt for average men, women, and children. To call Louise, Tina, and Gene's middle-school classmates drooling idiots is to merely describe their appearance, demeanor, and intelligence with precision. Some of them actually do drool, and all are imbeciles for whom two-dimensionality would be an improvement on their characters. What few neighborhood adults populate the Belchers' highly-circumscribed little world are conspicuously underwhelming. All of which encourages the view that, while the Belcher kids are indeed suffering from emotional and (as to Tina and Gene, if not Louise) intellectual degeneration, at least they're not flatliners like everyone else. This celebration of eccentricity would be a tad unsettling if it wasn't also so uniquely American. What others abroad might term antisocialism is, in the United States, individualism at the level of the individual and patriotism at the level of the nation.
Ultimately, what makes Bob's Burgers perhaps the funniest animated series ever aired on U.S. television—and adorably escapist, rather than arch-conservatively dystopic--is the sitcom format, which ensures that borderlessness does not, ultimately, lead to chaos. True, the humor of the series is often predicated on every joke or snippet of dialogue going two or three steps farther than one normally might be comfortable with, but the emphasis is finally not on American family life permanently jumping the rails but on the ways modern living lets families ride their own nonsense to its farthest waystations. So it is that when Tina threatens to punch a female classmate if she ever gossips about her, the violent threat is issued not merely once or twice but ten times. In the same episode, Gene confronts mild, harmless, intermittent bullying at school with severe, persistent, physically threatening bullying of his own. Louise, meanwhile, makes manifest her anger at her father's shifting affections by literally attacking a gift her father gets for her brother with a sharp object. In other words, the overstimulated Belcher kids habitually pass on their over-stimulation in the form of overreaction, or else honor the ways they're emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped with gross under-reaction—much like, many would say, American culture tends to do. These days, any crank will tell you, no public nuisance fails to produce a public outcry, no private slight fails to become an occasion for a public meltdown, and no grotesque facet of American culture is so harrowing that the nation’s children can’t gradually become desensitized to it.
It's nearly impossible to find an animated television family designed to be lifelike, so it's not reasonable to expect animated art to mirror actual life. But for all that, there's a sense in which—at the level of metaphor, and with an eye towards an entire nation rather than just one nuclear family—the Belchers are as representative an American family as we've seen on TV in a very, very long time.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.