A River Runs Through Bob
One advantage that animated series have over their live-action brethren is their inherent unreality. They can get away with levels of absurdity and surrealism that often wouldn’t work on a more traditional show. (To use a concrete example, South Park has killed Kenny dozens of times, and I imagine those deaths would have vastly different undertones if he were played by an actual eight-year-old). But that unreality has downsides, too. In particular, it seems to make animated series far more susceptible to the “how do we top that?” mentality, when pushing boundaries becomes more important than character development and storytelling. You can create some spectacular comedy by removing the limitations of realism, but once the characters lose any resemblance to actual people, the show becomes limited in other ways. If viewers can’t identify with the characters, some stories become impossible to tell.
Some shows address this problem by embracing it; they make a lack of consistent character development work for them. South Park has established their characters as archetypes (Randy Marsh is un-self-aware and obsessed with whatever’s trending lately, Cartman is a scheming sociopath, etc.) that can be cast in whatever role is needed for this week’s social satire. The viewer isn’t meant to identify with the characters themselves, but with whatever aspect of real life they currently represent. (Replace “social satire” with “genre homage”, and you can say pretty much the same thing about Family Guy).
Bob’s Burgers, on the other hand, addresses the problem of character development by making them all uniquely, memorably weird. Little touches, like Tina’s obsession with butts and Gene’s Casio keyboard loaded up with fart noises, help the characters leave a distinct impression. It doesn’t hurt that they are voiced by one of the most talented casts since The Simpsons had Phil Hartman. H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Home Movies) is one of the greatest voice actors ever, and the cast as a whole has great comedic rapport. They give the relationships between characters a believability that many other shows (animated or otherwise) can’t match.
The season 4 premiere puts those relationships to the test, as the episode takes the characters out of their usual environment, and puts them into … the environment (*cringe*) when the family takes a camping trip. With a few exceptions, the Belchers are mostly interacting with each other, and that is when the show is at its best. There are plenty of funny gags (diarrhea, a phallic rock, and sexually aggressive survivalists feature heavily), but I still enjoyed the interplay among the family the most, particularly the kids deciding that the Girl Scouts organization is essentially a cult (I’m pretty sure that’s what happened). All in all, it was a solid episode that reminded me why I love this show.
“Nature boner! Boing!”
“Let’s put on our ritual trust music.” “I’ll get the ritual trust lotion.”
Eastbound & Down
Eastbound & Down is the story of Kenny Powers, a former baseball star whose career flamed out far sooner than he would have liked. At its core, it is a show about a man who, (in his mind), fought his way to the top of the mountain and became a god among men, but is now forced to live among the mediocre masses who refuse to acknowledge his superiority. He’s not a has-been, just a temporarily embarrassed superstar, even if no one around him will admit it.
The gap between Kenny’s image of himself and everyone else’s is the source of the subtler part of the show’s humor. (The less subtle part is the filthy language, which is also hilarious). His memoirs are often featured in voiceover, with his self-aggrandizing theories on success serving as contrast to whatever humiliation he is currently suffering at the hands of an unappreciative world. The show owes a lot to The Office in that way, and like his counterparts on both versions of that show, all of his aggressive bluster masks an insecurity that makes the character relatable. But unlike Michael Scott, Kenny Powers isn’t longing to be loved; he wants to be feared, and his ill-advised attempts to live up to his own, self-created legend are what make the show unique. Also, it’s really fucking funny.
Season Three ended with one of my all-time favorite finales, as Kenny, having finally achieved his dream of returning to the major leagues, walked away from baseball (mid-at-bat, no less) and faked his own death, giving up stardom for a normal existence with the love of his life, April, and their son Toby. If you’re wondering why he couldn’t have stayed in the majors and had his family join him, you’re not alone, as April asked him that very question. But for Kenny Powers, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it big, preferably without thinking it through beforehand. The episode would have made for a great series finale, but much like HBO, I’m not about to turn down one more season of Eastbound & Down in my life.
The new season jumps ahead a few years, with a montage that catches us up on what happened between seasons: Kenny shows up to his own funeral, spends some time in jail for fraud, marries April and has a daughter. Snapshots of his new life follow, with Kenny getting bossed around at home, patronized at work, and bullied by a stranger in a Mustang. To his credit, he seems to realize these are the consequences of choosing his family over baseball, and tries to bear the humiliation as best he can. But his good-natured resolve starts to break down when he runs into ex-teammate Guy Young, who invites Kenny to join him and some other former players at a nightclub. When they’re one-upping each other talking about all the expensive stuff they own, all Kenny has to brag about is the love of his family. When they won’t accept that, he finally gives in to the spirit of the moment and tells them about his (imaginary) pool, and the old Kenny Powers starts coming back to the surface. When the bank rejects his loan request for that pool, it’s the final straw, and he vows to reclaim his old, awesome life.
This figurative emasculation by family life is fairly well-worn territory, but the show still puts some original touches on it, such as with the literal emasculation of Kenny’s truck. (The retirement of the TruckNutz®, lovingly laid to rest in the underwear drawer, was one of my favorite opening scenes, right up there with Kenny and his pre-school daughter discussing The Human Centipede). And while it lacked the fireworks of past season premieres, this episode successfully set the stage for what’s to come as Kenny tries to reclaim his past glory. And there are still great moments, like Kenny breaking out (and consuming) a tackle box full of drugs when he finally snaps. It may not have rocked as hard as I wanted, but I’m still glad to have Eastbound & Down back in my life.
“OK, I know that last one got away from me. But that is what happens when people get into air battles, Mark. Sometimes they connect. Sometimes they connect!”