Halloween came a little late in the Belcher household.
It’s a couple days late—thanks a lot, baseball—but Bob’s Burgers keeps the Halloween spirit alive, pun not intended, with a sweet little story about a ghost. There are some other holiday references, like an Amityville Horror insect infestation at Bob’s, but for the most part, “Tina and the Real Ghost” is as spooky as Linda’s smiley face bat decorations. Rather, this is a funny, sweet story about growing up.
It takes a little while to heat up. The jokes are a little subdued in the first act, where Marcus the exterminator (The Wire‘s Andre Royo) determines with his wannabe Ghostbusters set-up that there’s a ghost in the Belchers’ basement. Bob’s insects? “Phantasmal bugs.” Everyone but Bob gets excited about the paranormal possibilities, and they set up a Ouija board along with, per Marcus’ instructions, an empty vessel to trap the ghost in. Even the Ouija board scene is mild. The ghost’s a 13-year-old boy named Jeff, and he politely volunteers to climb inside Linda’s Easy Breezy shoebox.
The first real laugh of the episode is elsewhere. A close-up from the shelf shows the phantasmal bugs buzzing around Bob’s canned goods while his face fills the background. “Hey, guess what,” he says. “You’re not phantasmal. You’re phan-dumb.” Cut to a wide view as a swarm of them goes right for Bob’s face.
Bob may never win his war with the bugs, partly because he gets sidetracked and partly because all the exterminators are so whimsical. “Beetle Knievel? What is wrong with the exterminators in our town?” But he does have rare financial success. When word spreads that Bob’s is haunted, the restaurant gets a good Halloween crowd. Marcus even drops off some ghost hunter friends, Phil (Brian Huskey) and Don (Jordan Peele), who stir up excitement. At the end they try to get out without paying by claiming they’re ghosts, too, but Bob presses them until he gets a credit card. It’s just one night of good business, but that’s a victory for one of the last working class shows on network TV.
The main story has to do with Tina taking her mom’s shoebox to school because she thinks she’s dating Jeff. You might expect everyone to make fun of her, but that’s not what happens. Jimmy Jr. and his friends are a little skeptical at first, but the Ouija board tells them Jeff eats soup, and that’s good enough for them. Zeke gives the shoebox a playful noogie, Jocelyn’s excited, Jimmy Jr.’s upset for obvious reasons but for equally obvious reasons keeps it to himself. Only Tammy resents Tina for becoming the new center of attention, but that’s just Tammy.
It’s significant that all the kids believe there’s a ghost in the box. However much they try to act above childish things, they still embrace the idea of Jeff. Naturally Tina ditches her siblings to take Jeff on a date to the butterfly exhibit. Set to the sounds of an Andrew Bird knockoff punctuated with whispered bursts of “Jeff!” Tina quickly realizes she’s on a date with herself, but a butterfly lands on her nose in her moment of doubt, and she’s back in. In a joke that captures the general tenor of the episode, she tries to make out with it, but gets interrupted by a security guard. However, once he determines there’s no food in the box, he leaves her to her butterfly make-out session. It’s otherworldly weird, it’s non-judgmentally goofy, and it’s adulthood and real life momentarily intruding on childhood fantasy.
“Tina and the Real Girl” keeps reinforcing the idea that these are tweens. Their perspective is narrow and their coolness is a front. These kids jockey for popularity—”Tina’s hanging out with the most popular box in the school”—but that popularity is so limited. Tammy’s ruse to steal Jeff couldn’t be more transparent. She takes up to the bathroom, fogs up the mirror, and writes, “Tina and I are taking a break. Tammy, UR hot! Be My GF!” Meanwhile, Jimmy Jr. gets all annoyed with Tina when she tries to firm up a time to meet at the graveyard to participate in the annual Halloween ritual of breaking into the mausoleum. At first it seems like he’s just irritated with her pestering him, but really he’s nervous about it. When the older kids do arrive at the cemetery, Zeke has to pick up each leg with his hands in order to get himself to walk toward the mausoleum.
That’s where Louise and Tina’s separate plans to scare everyone go off, starting with the gang getting locked inside the crypt. Louise packed the shoebox with Bob’s phan-dumb bugs, and Tina wrote a message from Jeff in ketchup on the wall of the mausoleum condemning them to hell for all eternity. Note that Louise also talks a big game about a plan to help her sister, and that swarm of insects was it. Again and again, the episode plays off of how young they are. But in true Tina fashion, her plan actually involves some sweet life lessons. She confesses that Jeff isn’t real. “Part of me always kind of thought Jeff was fake. But then last night, when I heard my family talking about how fake he was, I realized that he definitely was fake. Also it’s crazy. It’s a box.”
The empty vessel was an object for their projections. Zeke wanted to believe in the beyond, Gene wanted someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, Tina wanted a boy to like her. Jocelyn says, “And I just liked him ’cause everyone else liked him. I need to start thinking for myself. Unless you guys don’t think that’s cool. Then I won’t.” Jimmy Jr. is conspicuously quiet about his reaction to Tina having a boyfriend. But Tina tells them they don’t need the box to do these things. Tina can love herself, and Gene can watch his show alone. Even if the episode starts off slowly, it builds to this perfect heartwarming finale where the kids learn lessons many adults have trouble with.
“And it’s okay that I’m jealous and terrible,” says Tammy.
“No, no,” Tina says.
“Fix yourself,” Zeke agrees.
Tricks and Treats:
–Dom introduces himself, a representative of the local chapter of paranormal investigators. “This is Phil. He’s president. Voted in by a landslide. One vote. It was me.”
–Dom and Phil: “This booth is covered in some serious spectral traces. My meter’s going crazy.” “Mine too. Course it could be cell phone interference, or an AM radio, or a microwave, but I bet it’s a ghost.”
–Tina flirts with Jeff. “The butterflies are beautiful this time of year. The rest of the time they’re gutter-punks.”
–Tammy: “Jeff asked me out! And of course I said no, because that’s not cool to Tina. JUST KIDDING: I said yes!”
–Costume contest: Tina is just Tina. Gene is half Turner and half Hooch. And Louise shows up in a scorpion jacket and black driving gloves. “I’m Ryan Gosling from the major motion picture trailer Drive.”
–Tammy: “Where’s Tina, crying into her butt?” Tina: “No, my butt is dry. And strong.”