This long-running sitcom has only gotten better thanks to its writers taking big leaps

Scottie Andrew, CNN | 5/17/2024, 11:59 a.m.
When it premiered in 2011, “Bob’s Burgers” was rough around the edges. Eldest daughter Tina, an eighth grader, graphically lusted …
Bob reckons with his grief and guilt over never visiting his mother's grave in season 13. Mandatory Credit: Wilo Productions, 20th Television Animation via CNN Newsource

When it premiered in 2011, “Bob’s Burgers” was rough around the edges. Eldest daughter Tina, an eighth grader, graphically lusted after boys and zombies. Bob was prone to beleaguered bouts of yelling. Louise and Gene, in fourth and sixth grade respectively, made risqué jokes beyond their years, and Bob’s nutty wife Linda was a spacy mom with a slippery grip on reality.

Fourteen seasons later, the Belchers are still messy and stinky, but their hearts have softened –– because the writers speaking for them have grown protective of the fictional family, said creator Loren Bouchard.

“So many of the people working on the show have been on since the beginning, so there’s also that strange thing where many of us have started and raised families during the past 14 years –– we became Bob and Linda,” he told CNN. “This fosters a lot of pride and ownership. We’re taking care of characters who are also us.”

“Bob’s” ends its 14th season on May 19 with a shorter run of 13 episodes instead of its usual 22-episode season, result of the 2023 strikes by writers and actors. But it’s packed a ton of heart (and fart jokes) into its truncated season, including a heart-wrenching episode that follows a supporting character, which many fans already consider one of the show’s all-time best.

What continues to set “Bob’s” apart from other family-led animated sitcoms is its groundedness –– the Belchers’ lives feel a bit less pliant than the Simpsons’. If Bob lost his burger joint, he and his working-class family couldn’t bounce back within an episode.

Even under the most outlandish circumstances, be it an attempt to steal a jade jellyfish figurine or a daring escape from an island teeming with potentially murderous millionaires, the Belchers’ adventures are still dictated by practical concerns — like affording rent for the month — that other animated series typically avoid. Their struggles make their successes and joys all the more rewarding to watch.

“The Belchers feel very real to me,” said Wendy Molyneux, who’s written for the show for the entirety of its run. “I feel like I can imagine an infinite number of moments for them, past, present and future, just like I could with a real person.”

The show experiments with bittersweet tear-jerkers

Even when the show was still finding its rhythm, the directive for writers was the same: Try new formats, stories and themes, as long as they’re still befitting of the characters, said Molyneux, who writes with her sister, Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin. (They also created another Fox animated series, “The Great North,” which airs in the time slot just before “Bob’s.”)

“There’s always, always a conscious effort on ‘Bob’s’ to try new things,” Molyneux said. “I think we have both an internal sense and a mandate to keep trying to be a good show that feels fresh.”

That mandate has become trickier as the seasons have stacked up. In past seasons, big swings have taken the shape of a surreal story set inside flu-stricken Louise’s dreams or parodies of films like “Alien” or “Waterworld,” offering viewers a rare peek inside the Belcher children’s imaginations.

“The magic of ‘Bob’s’ is that the family is so funny and so well defined in their dynamics that you can have them do any type of story and still feel like it’s grounded emotionally,” Molyneux-Logelin said.

In recent seasons, the show has settled into a new groove by embracing the bittersweet.

The tone was expertly deployed in the season 14 standout, “The Amazing Rudy,” written by the Molyneux sisters. The episode was a departure for the series –– it followed someone outside the Belcher family. Its star was “Regular-Sized” Rudy, a desperately asthmatic fourth-grader who lives with his divorced father and often winds up on unsupervised adventures with the Belcher children, including a “Stand By Me”-inspired daytrip to find a mythical goat with two anuses. After so many seasons of playing second fiddle to his classmate Louise, the Molyneux sisters felt it was time that Rudy got an episode of his own.

“I think 14 seasons in, a gentle expansion of the world is called for,” Molyneux said.

In this episode, though, sweet Rudy is suddenly unsure. He’s preparing a new magic trick for an anticipated dinner with both of his parents and their new partners, something he used to reserve for his parents when they were married. In his nervousness at dinner, Rudy messes up the trick. He’s overwhelmed by what feels like failure to impress the two halves of his family, so he fibs and says he’s running to the restroom –– but then abruptly leaves the restaurant, sobbing all the way to the Belchers’ apartment.

Seeing the Belchers lovingly squabble over a baked-potato lasagna (Gene’s special dinner request after bringing his failing science grade up to a B-minus) is almost too much for Rudy to bear, and he breaks down again. The fiercely supportive Louise steps up and volunteers to return to the restaurant with Rudy so he can return to dinner with a friend.

“The Amazing Rudy” felt like the natural progression of the series’ moving 13th season, which finished airing last spring. In a Christmas episode, when Louise reads a heartfelt holiday poem at a library event –– a rarity for the girl who once asked Santa to bring her a shark –– no one from her family is there to hear it … until Tina arrives, having ditched her own Christmas pageant to support her sister. Louise never cries, but she comes close in this episode, choking back a sniffle when she sees Tina beaming in the audience.

What Bob’s has pulled off over the last two seasons, with heart-wrenching episodes that chart new emotional territory for its beloved characters, wouldn’t have worked earlier in the show’s run. Previous seasons laid the groundwork for the new, poignant moments to land with fans, series creator Bouchard said.

“We know (the fans) don’t want every episode to be a tearjerker, but they let us know that they care enough about these characters to shed a tear, if we earn it, and if we don’t abuse the privilege,” said Bouchard.

In another wintery episode from last season, Bob takes the kids to visit his late mother’s grave, or attempts to. They struggle to find her grave marker in the snow before the cemetery closes at sundown, until Linda, terrified of running into ghosts, happens upon it by accident. Linda ends up spending the most time with Bob’s mom’s grave in the episode, posthumously praising her for raising such a good man and mourning that they never met.

It’s in this episode, after 13 seasons, that we learn Bob’s mom’s name: Lily. And it’s one of the only episodes in the series that directly confronts Bob’s childhood loss.

“Selfishly, having Bob think about his dead mom all these years after her death is a way for me to think about mine,” Bouchard said.

The Belchers are uniquely realistic among animated TV families

The latent bittersweetness running through “Bob’s” is another reason why the Belchers are still so lovable and why big, emotional swings often work well on the show –– the Belchers feel real because their struggles are often our own. And it’s why the people writing for the Belchers and their neighbors on the Wharf want to take care of them, even when they create various hardships for the family to navigate.

“Loren (Bouchard) created such fully realized characters that have always felt like real people, so there was always that urge to respect them as if they were (real), while continuing to help them grow,” Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin said. “It may sound silly that I fully respect an animated 11-year-old boy named Gene, but it doesn’t make it less true.”

Among other families in popular adult animation, the Belchers are certainly the most financially insecure, struggling to keep the restaurant in business and scrounge up enough money for Christmas presents.

Bob, Linda and the kids work every day at the burger shop, a floor below their apartment in the same building, but few customers come. Bob takes great joy in crafting creative burgers of the day with punny names (highlights from the 14th season include “Swiss Congeniality” and “Mrs. Krautfire”), but they seem to go mostly unappreciated.

It’s tough to be a Belcher kid sometimes, too. Gawky Tina feels like an outsider among her crowd of eighth graders, and precocious Louise doesn’t like being seen as vulnerable. Even Gene, always bubbling with personality and gas, feels his confidence falter sometimes.

“Bob’s Burgers,” whose writers place equal value on warm family moments and bodily humor, shines brightest when it’s focusing on the small moments, from a family dinner to a poetry reading. And if it hurts a little along the way, then it’s not too far removed from life.

“The jokes are even funnier to me when there’s a little pain –– a little loss,” Bouchard said. “Or maybe ‘funnier’ is the wrong word. Heartier?”