“Best Burger” takes a while to get going, but Bob’s Burgers has a way of spinning hay into gold. It’s such a clearly constructed show that you can always count on the climax to pay off whatever comes before, even if that whatever is light on laughs and plot. In this case, there’s the added tension of a countdown clock. Bob has 20 minutes to make a burger for a food festival competition. That’s right, “Best Burger” is a real-time episode.
The 24 of Bob’s Burgers episodes has a nice hook. Time passes for us the same as it does for them. We’re in it with Bob, sweating it out. The closer we get to the beep, the more we feel the tension. But “Best Burger” doesn’t really do a whole lot with the real-time gimmick. 20 minutes isn’t much time, so you’d think it would be a kind of locked-door episode with the main cast bouncing off each other as Bob prepares his burgers, periodically stirred up by the supporting characters. Bob’s Burgers is great at those popcorn scenes. But the set-up isn’t actually very conducive to that: It’s Bob and his assistant Linda on a stage while the kids sit in the stands.
Instead, “Best Burger” breaks free of its constraints. We get funny flashbacks, like Bob drunkenly entering the competition one night. “I’m gonna do it!” he slurs.
Linda eggs him on. “Do it!”
Suddenly Louise shouts from another room, “Quiet! I don’t know what kind of doing it you’re talking about but you’re! Too! Loud!” See? The interplay of these five weird personalities is where the fun is. The best flashback has the kids getting banned from a specialty food shop called Fig Jam. “We ban you!” Louise shouts back at Ray, the owner. “Get out of the store!” Naturally Fig Jam is the one place selling the ingredient the kids need for Bob’s burger. Like 24, “Best Burger” cheats on travel times, with or without Manny the pedicab driver’s jacked thighs. But if it’s not going to stick to the 20-minute timespan and it’s not going to make the geography make sense, why does the episode play out in real time at all?
Since the countdown doesn’t make much impact until the end, the burger competition supplies most of the dramatic tension. Bob’s up against famous chef Skip Maroosh’s chutney burger and Jimmy Pesto’s oregano burger. (“What’s in that?” asks announcer Chuck Charles. Jimmy replies, “Just a ton of oregano.”) Chuck Charles still holds a grudge against Bob from “Beefsquatch” and “Family Fracas.” “So what stupid burger are you making, Bob?” Bob’s tempting fate with the name: the Bet it All on Black Garlic Burger, or as Chuck calls it, the Stupid Black Garlic Burger. The only problem is he forgot to pack the black garlic. Or more accurately Gene forgot to pack it. Linda tries to improvise a solution by chopping up a stale granola bar that was in her purse, but the judges are expecting black garlic. Hence the kids’ mission to Fig Jam.
Just thinking about the plot reveals how far “Best Burger” has to walk to make it work. Why does Bob have to go with black garlic? Because he told the judges that’s what he was making. Why do the kids have to go to Fig Jam instead of Linda? Because the kids are already halfway there, having gone back home to get Bob’s black garlic, which Gene then absent-mindedly crushes. Why is that a problem, considering crushed black garlic is exactly what Bob puts on his burgers at the end? Good question.
But however plodding the first half of the episode is, complete with a recap after one of the commercial breaks in case anyone’s just joining us, the final act races to the rescue. At Fig Jam and armed with a $20, the kids prepare to pay double to get past the ban. Ray accepts, but it turns out Gene gave the money to a skateboarder who said he’d be back with change. Bob’s Burgers is such a generous show that I half-expected the skateboarder to do just that, but Louise has a different take on the matter: “Never trust a boy with a skateboard. They’re too fast.” So she steals the garlic and texts mom. Linda narrates: “Got garlic. Broke law. You fix later. On our way. Smiley face.”
In the calm before the climax, both groups of Belchers talk about what’s really going on. Tina and Louise bring Gene’s distractibility to his attention, both openly concerned about trusting him with the stolen black garlic. Tina tells him, “It’s because you always, I don’t want to say, ‘screw everything up,’ but maybe Louise does?” And back at the competition, Linda points out that Bob trusted their most irresponsible kid to pack the most essential ingredient. Subconsciously Bob wanted to have an excuse not to win the burger contest. Just when it looks like a shrug of an episode, everything snaps into place.
Leave it to Bob’s Burgers to see both sides. It’s not just that Gene is unreliable. It’s also that Bob sabotages himself. He wants to excuse failure so he never really tries. All that’s stewing while Gene and his sisters race back. When they get to the wharf, Louise wants to run the black garlic to Bob while Tina and Gene hold off Ray. “I’ll cut through the crowd like a fart through butter!”
She’d let Gene do it, but the food festival is a distraction minefield for him. Gene acquiesces. “Hey, look, that cloud looks like a dinosaur on a thing.” When they look, he grabs the garlic and runs. He’s going to prove that he can avoid distractions. The best part: He distracted them by feigning his own distraction. Not bad for the kid who got distracted by a spatula. Twice.
True enough, the food festival is a distraction minefield, culminating in a cruel moment where Gene runs past the final temptation in hilarious slo-mo: “Hooot fuuudge caaar waaash!” When Gene gets there, Bob’s as proud of his son as he is happy to have his special ingredient in time. But he doesn’t have time for a heartwarming speech. As sweet as Bob’s Burgers is, it never goes full Full House. It knows sentiment is best served sparingly.
The judges loves Bob’s burger—the funniest moment in the episode is one creepy old judge really reveling in the words “exquisite mouthfeel”—but they love Skip Maroosh’s more. Bob’s actually disappointed. He gave it his all and still came up short. That would hit harder, but the burger competition isn’t the real drama. Gene proved himself, and Bob knows it, and Gene knows Bob knows it. True to the spirit of this quirky, big-hearted show, Bob doesn’t just tell Gene that he loves him and is proud of him. He tells him specifically that he loves the way Gene is. That’s what Bob comes out of “Best Burger” with, a richer relationship with his son.
The line of customers down the block waiting to try Bob’s black garlic burger is the cherry on top.
– The kids laugh off Ray’s boutique prices, so Ray responds in kind: “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable shopping at the gumball machine at the gas station.” Andy Daly milks it by pronouncing the “ch” in “machine” like a snob might pronounce the “ss” in “tissue.”
– Gene accepts Ray’s dismissal but adds, “When a rich john sets me up in style, I’m coming back and you better hope you don’t work on commission!” Of course Gene is the one with the Pretty Woman fantasy.
– When Gene runs off, Tina and Louise are left to hold Ray off. They wrap themselves around his legs. Louise: “Meet your new cankles, Ray!” Ray: “Don’t you cankle me!”
– Bob cheers for finishing in time. Chuck Charles undercuts the drama beautifully. “Hooray for Bob! He managed to somehow do what he does every day for a living. What a champion.”