DEADPAN WITH AN EDGE At their best, the Bob’s actors capture the quirks of their characters without sounding as if they were trying too hard to play cartoons.
Maybe it's too soon to worry about the fate of Bob's Burgers — Fox's new animated comedy series doesn't even premiere till this Sunday (January 9) at 8:30 pm. But consider Lone Star. Last fall, Fox canceled that new drama because of poor ratings after just two episodes. Many fans wondered why the network didn't try shuttling it off to its cable offshoot, FX. After all, Lone Star had the charismatic antihero, the nuanced storytelling, and the cinematic ambition that are doing so well on cable these days. (See Mad Men or FX's own hit, Sons of Anarchy.) And Bob's Burgers relies on the same naturalistic, deadpan humor that's favored by such animated cable favorites as The Venture Bros. and FX's soon-to-return Archer.
Bob's Burgers centers on the title greasy spoon, a family-operated diner located next to a crematorium on a waterfront promenade in a Baltimore-like city. Bob (voiced by the always awesome H. Jon Benjamin) runs the establishment along with his wife, Linda (John Roberts), and their three children: Tina (Dan Mintz), who's awkward and vulgar; Gene (Eugene Mirman), who's a little slow on the uptake; and Louise (Kristen Schaal), who's precocious but also kind of evil. The first episode (the only one I was able to preview) details the hysteria that ensues when a health inspector visits to follow up on a rumor (started by Louise at her school's show-and-tell) that the burgers contain human flesh. Some of its best laughs are generated by the signs protesters bring to the picket line once word of the possible cannibalism gets out to the media: "Don't taste me, bro!"; "Cook cheeseburgers, not me-burgers!"
Bob's Burgers comes to us from Loren Bouchard, previously of the wonderful Home Movies (which aired on the Cartoon Network for four seasons back in the early 2000s) and the very good Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist (a solid hit for Comedy Central back in the mid '90s). Fans of those shows will recognize the dry humor, much of which results from characters talking to, and over, one another.
And the voice actors — all well cast — do play off one another nicely. Schaal and Mirman, who've collaborated in the past on stage in their day jobs as stand-up comedians, are particularly well suited to their characters, capturing the quirks without sounding as if they were trying too hard to play cartoons. Benjamin, who's lent his gravelly baritone to just about every animated series that's come around in the past 10 years or so (that includes Family Guy), generates laughs both when playing it straight (as when he helps the health inspector out of his parallel-parking spot) and when getting angry (as in response to his wife's plan to get the health inspector to reconsider the investigation).
As for the jokes themselves, I could envision some viewers finding two moments of the first episode offputting (and they come in quick succession). In one, Bob asks Gene to bring a burger out to a possible child molester because, he reasons, Gene's hefty body type makes him molestation proof. In the other, the kids try to figure out whether Tina is autistic by asking her to count the number of toothpicks on the floor. Edgy stuff, sure, but probably no more offensive than what we regularly see on the Seth MacFarlane comedies (Family Guy, American Dad!, The Cleveland Show) that Bob's Burgers will be sharing Fox Sundays with. Those shows are hits these days, so maybe Bob's Burgers will be too. We can only hope Fox gives it a longer leash than it gave Lone Star. If not, there's always the chance that the Cartoon Network or Comedy Central will swoop in to revive it.