Are the Belchers of BOB’S BURGERS the New All-American Family?

Are the Belchers of BOB'S BURGERS the New All-American Family?

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.

By comparison, Bob and Linda Belcher, the show’s Baby Boomer
parents, are refreshingly normal-seeming. Linda is on occasion overbearing and
melodramatic, and her voice and physical mannerisms undoubtedly grating, but
she’s reasonably intelligent and loves her children ferociously. Bob’s not a
particularly good father, in part owing to his fixation on an ailing small
business and in part due to his garden-variety egotism—which has, over the
years, made him less attentive to his offspring. Viewers therefore get to
witness all at once two common fears about Baby Boomers: either that they’ve
grown up to become squares like their parents (as with Linda), or that their
narcissism and baseline immaturity has doomed them and their families to a
diminished quality of life (as with Bob). Meanwhile, their kids stand in for
not one but two generations of overdiagnosed and overtreated younger Americans,
though in Bob’s Burgers there’s a notable twist on even that (somewhat
tired) form of social satire: The Belcher kids’ presumptive diagnoses would probably turn out
to be perfectly well-founded.

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.

The Belchers’ five-booth diner may require a re-opening
after its initial opening (and a re-re-opening after that, and a
re-re-re-opening after that; ephemeral disasters seem to follow this family),
but open for good it finally does, and if it makes virtually no money at all—a
fact uncomfortably remarked upon by Bob in most episodes—it also never quite
goes bankrupt, either. The message is implicit: With a younger generation like
this, and with parents like these, America’s middle class may never prosper,
but it’ll somehow eke by. If this throughline seems identical to the one
popularized by The Simpsons in the 1990s, it’s because, while the
Belchers are certainly not the Simpsons, they’re still, at base, an
all-American family whose members are perfect avatars for an empire in decline.
Only in a nation unmoved by its own excesses and turgid economy can simply
treading water as small businesses come and go—the opening of each episode of Bob’s Burgers features at least one
local storefront that won’t make it to the next episode—be considered good

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.

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I find it doesn't hurt that Bob's Burgers also features some of the best and most hilariously unexpected musical numbers any animated series has had since the early days of The Simpsons. Great analysis of the show.

Seth Abramson

No, I meant conceit. It's a term writers and readers use–two other lost arts. Thank god for Wikipedia!

(Proofreading is one word.)


I know that proof reading is a lost art in the blogging world, but perhaps you meant "concept" instead of "conceit" for the second word of the first sentence of your article…


The Simpsons have been dead for years. Only nobody has told them over at FOX.

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