It’s nice to have the most lovable show on TV back. A comedy hasn’t felt this good—sweet, friendly, silly—since, what, the heyday of Parks and Recreation?
“Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl” opens with the Belchers and the Wheelers (Courtney, the annoying girl who went out with Gene and sounds uncannily like David Wain, and Doug, her father) assembled in their usual position across the desk from Mr. Frond. Now, opening in the middle of a melee and then flashing back to show how the story got there is one of the lazier tropes on TV of late. But Bob’s Burgers isn’t a prestige drama trying to get us excited about the story so we’ll stick around through commercials—it’s a quirky little family comedy. So instead of the in-medias-res opening coming off like a cheap trick, here it feels self-consciously silly. After all, the big event that the flashbacks are driving toward is just Mr. Frond calling two families into his office.
The other structural gimmick that feels unnecessary is that the story is told popcorn style as various Belchers and Wheelers piece together what happened for Mr. Frond. But it’s not a cartoon Rashomon about the school’s original musical contest. Gene and Courtney’s stories only differ once, and they both agree on the fundamentals: Gene rejects Courtney’s impromptu cafeteria audition for his play. His side: “First of all, I love it. Second of all, no, but only because I want my play to be good.” He also recalls her being perfectly understanding about his decision on account of how annoying she realizes she is. But she remembers him being a tad harsher as he double-fists the school lunch that day. “No! I like tacos!” At which point he punctuates his rejection with a fart.
But while everything else is told in pieces by Gene, Courtney, Linda, Louise, and on, everybody basically agrees on what happened, give or take a chant of “Louise is the best!” Courtney steals Gene’s idea to do a Die Hard musical and enlists her musically talented father Doug to help make a musical out of another 1988 hit, Working Girl, a.k.a. “the sassy sister film to Die Hard.” Doug clenches her audition by promising Carly Simon will show up, but it probably doesn’t help that Gene’s audition song just goes, “Nakatomi, Nakatomi, Nakatomi, Nakatomi.”
So enterprising Louise comes up with the brilliant idea to put on a rival musical in the boiler room on the same night while charging for admission, of course. Just as the Working Girl musical came out of Courtney being rejected for the Die Hard one, the Die Hard musical is cast with all the rejected auditioners for the other: Zeke, Darryl, Regular-Sized Rudy, Peter, Andy, and Ollie, with Ms. Merkin on music now that Doug’s edged her out. Tina’s playing the Sigourney Weaver role in Working Girl, but she has a good reason for betraying her brother. Jimmy Jr.’s playing the Harrison Ford part, and in her head their characters wind up together.
Tina: “We’re all allowed to interpret the movie differently.”
Courtney: “No, they definitely don’t end up together.”
Tina: “Well, to each his own.”
Louise is so successful at poaching audience members for Working Girl that eventually Doug notices Jimmy Sr. walking out of his son’s play and makes a big stink. And that’s why Mr. Frond calls the Belchers and the Wheelers into his office. He sees two intractable sides and no solution, which is a testament to how good he is at his job. But Gene and Tina persuade him to let the two musicals join forces. They just need three hours to write. Okay, 30 minutes.
That’s why the episode has been so fractured up to this point. Even though it’s only one story (Bob and Linda don’t have a B-plot, for instance), the episode has been about selfishness: Gene firing his cast to play all the parts himself, one musical cast predominantly with men and the other with women, that beautiful centerpiece where the animation pits the two musicals against each other. Rejection, rivalry, and isolation have fueled the story so far. But as soon as we catch up to Mr. Frond’s office, all the little pieces of the story unite in service of something even better, the aptly titled original production of “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl.” And now, even the storytelling itself is united.
The grand finale is everything Bob’s Burgers is about. The lyrics blend the two stories by transplanting Tess McGill and company to Nakatomi Plaza to be Hans Gruber’s hostages. Gruber’s fall out the window is told by pushing a bird’s-eye-view background toward Gene and then cutting the lights, switching to a spotlight of a doll on a rope falling in front of a different background of a skyscraper. Everyone gets a spotlight—which Andy and Ollie use to explain that they’re FBI agents who sleep in the same bed—and at the end, they all stand in a line and sing the anthemic “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl.”
Sitcoms sometimes seem to be in a competition to out-schmaltz each other. On family sitcoms that tends to mean sappy monologues that wrap up the story in a bow. But what makes comedies like Bob’s Burgers so effective at pulling on the heartstrings is showing rather than telling. Bob’s Burgers doesn’t say Bob will always be there for his family—it shows it. It shows Gene, the kid entertained primarily by farts, making some small sacrifice for the good of everyone. It shows Louise, the schemer, convincing Mr. Frond to go through with it. And then it opens the season with a bunch of recurring characters working together on a silly project that makes everyone involved feel good. Including the audience.
Best of the Belchers:
–After Gene and Courtney’s rival stories, Linda and Bob are forced to concede that her story is plausible. “That sounds like Gene.” “Yep.”
–Louise has discovered a secret boiler room in the back of the boiler room: “I think in the old days they used it as the faculty opium den.”
–Tina’s solo in the Working Girl musical: “I’m Katharine Parker / and I’m super rich / and soon you will find / that I’m quite a bleep!”