Ever since The Simpsons made animation not just for children anymore, at least on television, a fair share of imitators have tried to duplicate their formula. On FOX alone, their Animation Domination block has been filled with Seth MacFarlane’s so called Simpsons clones, while Matt Groening himself tried to make lightning strike twice with Futurama.
But no matter how successful or loved those shows were, and no matter how much the latter day Simpsons have been trashed, no prime time animated series could be called a real heir to Springfield’s favorite family. However, that may no longer be the case now, as the true successor to The Simpsons – in quality if not quite in viewing and merchandising power yet – might well be from a tiny animated burger restaurant, of all places.
Bob’s Burgers just completed its fourth season on FOX, having built up its popularity with each passing year. In fact, it may well be the crown jewel of the non Simpsons Sunday night animated block, despite the best efforts of the MacFarlane empire.
While Family Guy and its subsequent knockoffs have been mocked as Simpsons knockoffs for 15 years, these shows really have their own brand of offensive, envelope pushing, pop culture dependent humor that The Simpsons was never so extreme about. MacFarlane has aped The Simpsons for his entire animated career, but his style has been all his own for better or worse, even if the basic two wacky parent, three/four wackier kids/dog formula has been the same.
Bob’s Burgers sticks with the two parent/three kids formula, only with three grown kids and no dogs or babies – talking or otherwise. But unlike the MacFarlane brand, Bob’s Burgers isn’t interested in shock value jokes, vicious takedowns and overly cartoony action. In fact, it harkens back to the gentler, but still satirical kind of humor The Simpsons was built on, which wasn’t dependent on pop culture/political parodies or nasty behavior.
After years of MacFarlane’s outrageous, over the top antics supposedly inspired by The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers is the closest thing FOX animation has aired that actually resembles Homer and company. In its heyday, The Simpsons drew on wacky but still recognizably human adventures for its animated clan, used parodies sparingly but dead on – as Bob’s did when it recently spoofed My Little Pony’s “Bronies” fan base — and had a weird but still loving and supportive family at its core no matter how crazy they drove each other. Those traits are powering Bob’s Burgers as it heads into its heyday as well.
While the makeup of the Belchers may resemble that of the Simpsons on the surface, there are still key welcoming differences as well – ones that MacFarlane never bothered to make with his shows. Bob Belcher is the often misguided head of the household, but unlike Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin or Stan Smith, he isn’t a bumbling, idiotic and occasionally mean spirited one – and is often the only sane one of the Belcher clan. Linda Belcher is the loving matriarch, but isn’t pigeonholed into the strict, put upon, occasionally nagging wife stereotype that Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin have often fallen into – and is much more of an active singer.
Louise Belcher is the obvious, troublemaking equivalent to Bart Simpson, yet even Bart would have a hard time keeping up with Louise and her more limitless scheming. Tina Belcher is the Lisa Simpson of the family, only older and with awkwardness that comes from budding hormones rather than unappreciated genius – although she is still allowed to feel more comfortable in her own skin. No one is young enough to be Maggie Simpson, but Gene Belcher’s enthusiastic if not somewhat oblivious persona makes him more of a young Homer.
Bob’s Burgers style, approach to comedy, quirks and unique family unit inspires Simpsons memories, but they aren’t exact clones of each other. If anything, the other show it most resembles isn’t even an animated one.
Parks and Recreation is kind of a live action Simpsons, in its quirky take on small town life and bigger issues, and having a town in Pawnee that is a spiritual cousin to Springfield. It also has more warm hearted humor, relationships and friendships than the average sitcom, just like Bob’s Burgers has more warmth than is usually found in this era of prime time animation.
In the average sitcom, a character like Leslie Knope would be mocked and belittled for her over the top passion, borderline naivety and beliefs, even if she was the lead character. Parks and Rec was guilty of that when it started out more like an Office clone, but when it decided to celebrate Leslie’s qualities – and have her friends do the same – everything fell into place. That same kind of evolving but all important heart is found in Bob’s Burgers, especially in how Tina’s odd, boy crazy tastes and growing pains aren’t just used for cheap mockery and put downs.
It is no accident that Leslie and Tina are practically feminist icons in their own right, at least on the Internet, and both Parks and Rec and Bob’s Burgers are among the most accepting shows on mainstream prime time. They are quirky, satirical and occasionally edgy enough to not be dismissed as cookie cutter, sentimental sitcoms, but still warm and heartfelt enough to set them apart from the snarky, cynical attitudes of many of their peers. Plus it is quite obvious that odd ball fire-starters Louise and April Ludgate were separated from birth and put in different dimensions – to say nothing of their odd ball, fire-starting performers Kristen Schaal and Aubrey Plaza – along with dim, cheerful, musically inclined spiritual twins Gene and Andy Dwyer, and the mustaches of Bob and Ron Swanson.
The Simpsons set the bar for non-kiddie animation in prime time TV with weird, loving, satirical comedy and family unity. MacFarlane became the next biggest animation brand on TV by being weirder, more off putting, more over the line and far more unsparing, to the point of being gross and offensive to non-fans. However powerful and popular that brand became, it wasn’t The Simpsons, no matter how much MacFarlane may or may not have taken from it.
It took a live action show in Parks and Recreation to get closest to the glory-day Simpsons style of comedy. But at long last, animation – at least Sunday night animation on FOX – has a true heir to The Simpsons throne and what it was actually built on. Bob’s Burgers didn’t have the hype, Simpsons comparisons and loud mouthed fans and enemies of Family Guy and MacFarlane, yet it has snuck up over the years to accomplish what its post-Simpsons predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
Non-children’s animation is more envelope pushing than in The Simpsons’ peak, which is also thanks to the likes of Rick and Morty, The Boondocks and other Adult Swim and Comedy Central fare. Even shows like Adventure Time are pushing the limits in more family friendly cartoons. Nevertheless, while The Simpsons may be an old dinosaur by comparison – one far easier to take for granted these days – the proper lessons of its success are still living on in at least one FOX Sunday night animated show.
In today’s era of sitcom comedy, both live action and animated, it is hard to find shows that accept and outwardly celebrate unique characters, aren’t powered by parody, putdowns, relationship angst, snarky families and keeping an emotional distance, and being warm and sentimental without turning into cheesy fluff. The Simpsons achieved that balance over 20 years ago, while Parks and Rec has done it for about the last five years – and now Bob’s Burgers is showing that it can still be done on animated network television as well.