TV Recap: Bob’s Burgers – “Housetrap”

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Welcome to TV Recap, in which we look at modern shows and analyze them on an episode-to-episode basis. This one focuses on the cartoon sitcom Bob’s Burgers, a very funny show that is capable of rivaling old school Simpsons in terms of irreverent humor and off the wall zaniness. With a cast of modern alternative comedian heroes, the story follows the Belchers as they run a burger joint. Join me as I take part in dissecting the show in its first full season. Check back on Tuesdays for the next exciting installment.

It has been awhile since Bob’s Burgers has decided to focus on a story central to the entire family. For the most part, there have two plots competing for screen time, and arguably one has always been inferior. For the most part, “Housetrap” manages to work as a solid investigation into the Belcher family’s various paranoia while taking a clever twist on the murder mystery genre. While the ending itself is rather inconvenient and confusing, it does equal up to a nice episode that feels done mostly to baffle audiences and keep them guessing as to the sanity of its central characters. It has been awhile since an animated sitcom has done that.

The episode opens with Teddy (Larry Murphy) announcing that he has to fix someone’s roof. He is a little disinterested in doing it, so the Belchers immediately jump on the chance to help him out. As they begin to work around the beach house that they have been assigned to, they begin to snoop inside and discover various things about the recipients. There’s a dead husband who remarried and owns a lot of clocks. Linda (John Roberts) raises suspicion that the living wife Helen (Kaitlin Olsen) pushed him to his death. In order to prove this, she pushes Bob (Jon Benjamin) onto the floor, injuring him in the process. Teddy shows up to check on them.

During this time, Helen also shows up. With the family now rooted in their paranoia, they try and make their moves coyly to avoid being potential victims. With Bob injured and on the couch, Helen gets him pain killers. In his woozy state, he spills the beans about how Linda thinks Helen is a murderer. This doesn’t go well as Linda emerges and is forced to confront Linda. When they travel to the roof, they have an intense fight that ends up with Teddy slipping off of the roof. He is hurt, but not badly injured. The family leaves, thinking that Helen didn’t kill her husband. Or did she?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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There isn’t much really to say other than that this was an interestingly dark episode for Bob’s Burgers. Teddy gets badly injured and they suspect someone of being a murderer. There isn’t any clear answer, and that may be the best part. Is Linda crazy? While she likely is for falling into her daughter’s trap of logic of immediately jumping to blame, it does amount to an interesting dichotomy of ideas in this episode. It turns the murder mystery on its head by establishing Helen as a somewhat regular person who is more the victim of Linda’s own slippery slope of thinking. It may not amount to much, but it starts off innocently and for the most part, the Belchers are to blame because they were the ones who broke into the house in the first place.

However, the third act is especially dark and raises the stakes beyond a simple misunderstanding. We see Helen try to reenact the murder on the roof by potentially killing Linda. Her last minute saving is something may seem deranged, but doesn’t exactly check out to her killing people. What’s even more shocking is that Teddy manages to go through a motive very similar to that of the supposed murder and lives. While it is easy to imagine that he will be going through physical therapy for a long, long time – provided this show even dare adopt that sort of realism – it mostly serves as a pointless plot device meant to make Helen look more innocent. Instead, it makes her look far more crazy.

This is a solid episode because it involves the family working together and thus in the process shows how they relate and influence each other. Everyone gets into each other’s psyche, which results in something far more bleak and complicated. What starts off as an innocent entering turns into a foul cry. They didn’t necessarily need to be there, but because they chose to things are allowed to go into bizarre and uncomfortable places. Because Bob was woozy and unable to do anything, the story evolves into something more complicated. Add in the tropes of a storm happening outside, and it adds a sense of poetry to the entire thing and makes it seem more disturbing.

It mostly works as an enjoyable episode because nothing major happens nor is there any emotional core to it. Instead, it is a family throwing themselves into an unnecessary hole and not really solving it. The whole idea of a murder mystery is to figure out the culprit. Instead, we get Helen able to weasel her way out of blame through some odd logic holes. She may in fact be a psychopath, but it will be the Belcher’s personal secret, given that this plot isn’t likely to be revisited. There’s very little narrative continuity on this show, which isn’t a bad thing. However, this is more of an arbitrary stop in the series than anything else, and it’s interesting to see them continue after something like this.

Why You Must Be Careful With Nostalgia

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Scene from Stranger Things

If you’re anyone who spends time around social media, you’ll know how big of a deal Netflix’s latest series Stranger Things was. The eight episode series dropped last Friday and has quickly gathered a string of great reviews, and endorsements from the Master of Horror: Stephen King. The show is a nice departure from the lengthier Netflix series, which helps it benefit as one of the few shows worthy of binge watching, which each episode providing a supernatural twist. However, there is one side of the coin that may be a bit disconcerting: nostalgia. For many, part of the show’s appeal is that there’s countless references to King, John Carpenter, various Amblin films, and other 80’s horror mainstays. While it enriches the world, is it possible that nostalgia is a crutch of sorts? While Stranger Things isn’t the worst offender, one could argue: is making something nostalgic a good thing?

The truth is that nostalgia is great. At certain points in our lives, we’ve had a fondness to revisit another period of our lives, looking back on it fondly as when life was great, or effectively different. While sometimes it’s just a result of clouded judgment piecing together memories that aren’t entirely accurate, there is something comforting about looking back on those times. For most people, that’s through cinema. People rewatch films like Star Wars because it connects them to a childhood naivety. Same could go for any facet of life, including those who have a longing to revisit a decade long passed. After all, it is why time travel stories remain so prescient. Still, there is plenty to be intrigued about by exploring the past.

In the case of Stranger Things, one could easily look at the 80’s as a decade that is almost defiantly unique. If someone asked you to define something that’s “So 80’s,” you’d likely pull out Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Flashdance, neon clothing, and big hair. It is a time that seems strangely held in both reverence and ridicule depending on how you like your cheese. This isn’t to say that this is all that the decade had. That would be like saying that the 60’s was nothing but The Beatles when in fact they only came midway through the decade. Still, to say someone is nostalgic for an era is often to talk about the specifics, such as inferior technology or beliefs that have faded into the “You can’t do that today.” mindset that seems to make certain pop culture touchstones fascinating. To some, it’s an isolating artifact that cannot be fully appreciated unless you were there.

In recent years, the 80’s have had a particular resurgence in favoritism. While it has always been there, such as in The Wedding Singer, one can look at shows like The Goldbergs or even the latest Richard Linklater movie Everybody Wants Some!!, and see something thrilling about the period. Even last week’s release of Ghostbusters is inevitably tied to the original film from the 80’s. To say the least, Stranger Things is in good company, and it thankfully shows a side to the cliche 80’s culture that isn’t overblown or frankly embarrassing. It’s the horror side, which was still blending practical effects with sometimes mediocre CG. They were focused on kids getting into peril in ways that felt earnest. One could easily watch the first episode of the Netflix series and think of Steven Spielberg’s foray either as director or producer during this time. The kids have a familiar cadence that people who have seen E.T. will recognize.

This is all well and good, but there’s another side to nostalgia that seems a little crass. As much as era can be used to emphasize what made it great, there’s also the lazy sensibility that calls attention to itself. This is best summarized in Back to the Future where “Chuck Berry’s brother” calls Chuck to tell him about this awesome sound. It is time traveler Marty McFly playing Berry’s most iconic song “Johnny B Goode.” It’s a sly nod that alters history, but also sets a precedent for on the nose references. For classic rock fans, Berry is a mainstay voice of 50’s music. This is nothing more than a pandering joke meant to emphasize the era that the film takes place. We understand it because we know who Berry is. The joke is that we have hindsight where the film doesn’t.

Back to the Future is a successful enough film that this joke actually works. However, there’s been lesser films that have attempted to use it as a wink to the audience. As great as fourth wall breaking story telling can be, it sometimes comes as pointless meandering. This isn’t just in creating regular people into a Nostradamus, but also in laying in references in thick. If you’re going to make 80’s pop culture references, you hit the obvious ones whether they fit or not. It is why you come across on the nose set designs for hip or nerdy teens who also wear certain hip or nerdy shirts. As much as it plays into the era, it takes specific detail and interest to keep it from being more than your stock parody.

So, how can nostalgia be used for good? Stranger Things straddles the lines, as it makes its cinematic references fairly easy for die hard fans of the decade. There’s even some that hang in the background or are used as brief references. You’ll know the ones don’t land because they are jarringly inauthentic. Thankfully, it is balanced enough that it doesn’t matter. However, it’s still hard to pitch this show without calling it retro or throwback. You can call it good, but trying to separate it as an original work and not something nostalgic becomes difficult. Sure, the story is technically original, but one who pieces things together can recognize certain plot devices stolen from King or Spielberg, and the music cues sometimes borrowed from Carpenter. This isn’t bad. The best of cinema borrows from each other. The real question is if the reference is being served as something that logically progresses story, or merely reminds us of the period that we’re in.

For the sake of reference, I will turn to another relatively “nostalgic” show: Mad Men. Over seven seasons, the show chronicled Don Draper’s job at an advertising agency throughout the entire 60’s. It makes sense then that the music cues are era appropriate. The sets have to look a certain way, and even creator Matthew Weiner famously got upset when the ice cubes were the wrong shape. The show is very much a 60’s show in tone and atmosphere, and features your array of big moment stories. There’s whole episodes dedicated to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.. There’s the Beatles invasion. There’s the admiration for films like Rope and the comedy of Bob Newhart. These are all staples that are references to the time. While this is only the surface of a denser reading of the show, it adds to what makes the show more than a retro journey into the past.

That in particular is that the story at hand was on an implicit and later explicit level about the shifting tide of politics and gender roles that came with the time. It had several themes worthy of mention, but it felt 60’s because it was about people who felt like they lived then. You could imagine them in those homes driving those cars and getting drunk at random Los Angeles parties. The various opinions held all feel specific to the time, but also provide depth as to how characters actually feel. Draper rejects The Beatles because they lack his conservative views on a symphonic level. It’s more than an easy reference of how Draper is out of touch. It’s about the danger of the culture around him, threatening to replace him with liberal freedom.

How does this apply to Stranger Things? The truth is that it’s a tad hard to accurately compare the two, as they’re both different genres and running lengths. Mad Men in its first season alone had way more episodes to cover than Stranger Things. However, the core advice is that these type of shows that rely on periods needs to be about the people first and the culture second. We need to feel like the kids in the Netflix series are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and not just saying they are because the mythical “Tolkien’s brother” character said they would. Thankfully, it does make sense, and a lot of the references are merely there to sugarcoat a solid mystery.

Is nostalgia bad? Not necessarily. It makes you feel good and it does embrace a bygone culture. However, it does get treated as a crutch way too often, serving as its own form of trivia for viewers. It’s why certain films have failed, no matter how passionate the filmmaker claims to be of the era. Few take the time like Mad Men to embrace the time while also being about something more. It isn’t important to know what these characters like, but what they do. In 2016, most people reading this are fans of something that likely would make for a good piece to their life story. It could be a band or movie. It’s important to help create a singular character, but it cannot be the defining feature. It’s only then that nostalgia goes from pretty good to straight up pandering.

Channel Surfing: Divorce – “Pilot”

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Scene from Divorce

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.

It has been awhile since HBO has done business with Sarah Jessica Parker, at least on the small screen. Following the groundbreaking comedy Sex and the City, Parker has had a bit of a lull in her career; never quite matching the heights of Carrie Bradshaw’s sex advice-giving writer. She returns to the network with a drama centered around something that likely would’ve faced Miss Bradshaw by now: Divorce. The first episode hits all of the marks in setting up the inevitable fallout between her Frances character and husband Robert (Thomas Haden Church). It may be billed as a comedy, but most of the first episode seems to fall into the melancholic middle ground that is bittersweet as well.

The story focuses around the dysfunction that forms when a party gets out of hand. Host Diane (Molly Shannon) begins yelling at her husband, demanding a divorce. It causes quite the scene, echoing through their fancy home and upsetting a fair majority of the guests. The moment is given levity as Frances and Robert come to terms with their big anomaly. Where Robert believed that watching other people fight would bring them closer, it made Frances believe the opposite. She has been miserable for some time, and seeks to strike out on her own while she’s still young enough to stand a chance.

Divorce hits a demographic that isn’t often covered by HBO. While Togetherness came close with 30-something parents, the sight of watching Frances and Robert realize their misery together makes for a conflict that likely bothers many in their later years. They’re no longer young and full of optimism. They know the game and are worried about anything that could mark an eternity of misery. The first episode, set to an alternative pop soundtrack, manages to find a balance between humor and insular speculation. It hits the discomfort hard, leaving concern for where the remaining show goes. Now that the miserable part is over, what will lie in store for Frances and Robert?

While tonally different, the show does share a similar basis with Grace & Frankie: a show that explores the life after divorce in old age. The show fell more on the broad comedy side of the spectrum, but found a nice balance of emotion alongside the awkward desire to love and have a viable sex life. The only difference is that Parker has yet to proven herself as charismatic as Jane Fonda or Lily Tomlin. Maybe it’s not what the show is going for, but a sidekick would definitely help to make the show more interesting. Maybe it’s Molly Shannon. Maybe it’s someone we haven’t seen yet. Divorce has promise to be a more conventional HBO comedy with the free form melancholic comedy that seems so popular in a post-Louie world. Then again, there are moments that play like Sex and the City voice-over, directing the audience how to feel. It may be unintentional, but it does show how pigeonholed Parker’s reputation has become.

The first episode is very engaging and likely will appeal to an older demographic who knows the pains of divorce. The show definitely has a maturity about the subject so far that makes the comedy seem secondary. Even then, there’s potential for the show to expand and find new territory to mine for enlightenment in older age. What can be experienced when divorce frees you of a spouse that was holding you back? The pilot does plenty to fill in the bitter gaps. Now it’s time to see if the show will do anything with their new found freedom.

Channel Surfing: The Jeselnik Offensive – T.J. Miller and John Mulaney

The Jeselnik Offensive

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.

**Before I begin, I apologize for the long absence between the last piece and this one. I am well aware that while sporadic, I should be posting with more frequency. I also admit that I missed the deadline for writing up a piece on Kroll Show. Maybe next season. Also, I promise that there will be a piece on Out There and maybe Loiter Squad sooner than later. Why have I been absent? I have been doing extensive work on Retrospective pieces. That’s right! Very soon, you’ll have pieces on Bunheads (coming next week) and Delocated. Keep an eye out, and I promise to keep Channel Surfing alive in the meantime.

I am well aware that in this column’s brief existence, I have done THREE pieces on Comedy Central shows. The reason is simply that the channel has produced some promising work in establishing itself as an actual comedy channel. True, nothing this season has even compared to last year’s brilliant Key & Peele, but what we have gotten is something great (Nathan For You), something awful (the Ben Show), and something bizarre.

The something bizarre is the Jeselnik Offensive. For those unaware, the host is Anthony Jeselnik, who has made a career out of being offensive. With albums called “Shakespeare” and “Caligula,” he does whole bits on rape and death. While I am more familiar with his work via appearances on the podcast Doug Loves Movies, I have never found him too out of control when it comes to off color jokes, nor do I find him particularly hilarious. He rides the fine line with me of being acceptable, or a very calm person’s Doug Stanhope.

With that established, I figured that I would give his new show a shot. Immediately, right off the bat, it feels familiar. With the quota that every comedian of note in the past five years getting a show, it only seemed inevitable that Comedy Central would give Jeselnik his own, aptly titled show the Jeselnik Offensive in which he takes the familiar news show format akin to the Daily Show or the more recent Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and just makes a whole lot of offensive jokes in segments that end up coming across as stand up routines. Fair enough. Russell Brand on Brand X is making a career out of this.

The one notable thing when comparing this show to even the Ben Show is not why are they offensive, but how are they approaching it. True, I admire Ben Hoffman from the days of Infomania, but after a few episodes, it is clear that he is fine tackling easy targets and being extremely rude to people. The cleverest that Hoffman has been is getting a barbershop quartet to sing about porn videos. Even that is repetitive and unfortunately repulsive at times. He is based in a world of gimmicks that don’t feel like he has creative control, but more that he only had five ideas for the whole season.

Compare that to the Jeselnik Offensive. In the episode with John Mulaney and T.J. Miller, there are numerous references to rape, women’s body issues, and racist comments about black people. While the formatting is different from the Ben Show’s sketchy nature, it almost seems to be tackling the same subject matter, but more successfully. Maybe it is because Jeselnik is more established, but maybe because it feels like he actually put time and effort into his jokes.

The Jeselnik Offensive

I have seen one episode before this that featured Amy Schumer (who will also have her own show in the near future) and I found it a little dumb, hitting low targets. However, I was intrigued enough to give the show a second chance. I picked a really solid week to do so, as the topics included Breaking Bad scripts, James Holmes, and somebody who faked a rape. These were all spread out across segments known as Panel, Sacred Cows, and Gun Shot Wound or Italian Food. At very least, there is a structure to the Jeselnik Offensive that forces the material to come across more layered and at least look professional.

For the most part, Jeselnik definitely feels like a stand-up comedian in his delivery. From the opening monologue, it had the familiar scenario-set up-punchline flow. This traditional outline has worked in the past, and while these jokes were meant to be “offensive” or off color, they worked because they were short and despite pushing buttons, didn’t feel entirely insensitive. For the most part, that is the appeal of Jeselnik throughout the entire show. The worst that can be said is his topics are too easy, but the best that can be said is that they can be short and sweet.

It all depends on how you dig racism. However, I feel like even he is prone to a few easy punches akin to the Ben Show. While the Sacred Cow segment in which he insulted women’s body issues, he turned it into a creative skit that involved talking to people varying in weight on a teeter totter. A simple sight gag that while offensive, was subtle enough not to take away from the fake sense that Jelenik was getting down to the sense of an issue. The Ben Show equivalence? Playing a tuba while a fat man walks down the street.

Possibly the biggest reason to come back to this show is not Jeselnik himself, but the promise of two panel guests that are forced to riff on whatever the host wants to talk about. For instance, James Holmes is a consistently referenced topic in this episode and T.J. Miller uses the phrase “raped to shreds” consistently. While it seems a little much, it is the chance of the guests riffing into a clever idea that gives me intrigue to keep watching. I was more into John Mulaney’s riffs, which were more subdued than the other two, but equally as appalling.

Still, probably the best segment has the least to do with racism. Defending Your Tweet is a game in which the guests are forced to defend things that they said on Twitter. While there is a chance for offensive subject matter, it is essentially a fun game of trying to spout nonsense. It works because there is really no structure and it just leaves everyone open for self humiliation. It doesn’t always work, but at least it gives us a nice break from the offensive humor.

In the end, what makes the Jeselnik Offensive a solid show is not that it is well written jokes about easy targets, but that it treats offensiveness as a normalcy. It is neither too taboo or off limits. It is spoken almost with reverence. While it definitely has the flaws of any typical offensive joke, it doesn’t feel familiar enough to feel as stale as the Ben Show. Depending on how you like your humor, the Jeselnik Offensive may be one of the more entertaining shows currently on Comedy Central. At very least, it continues my belief that Anthony Jeselnik has charisma and is able to deliver these gags with enough dignity to not make anything feel uncomfortable.

I probably won’t become a dedicated viewer, but if a guest is on that is worth noting, I may pop in for a quick visit. Jeselnik at very least has one of the more authentic voices on the channel and that gives him the edge when it comes to a familiar format and a style that could go easily wrong. He isn’t as brash as the Ben Show nor too timid to be considered false. This is a show meant to just have fun and say what’s on your mind, and for the most part, it succeeds.