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The first time I saw Bob’s Burgers was at a Fox junket day nearly a year before the show premiered. In the green room where reporters waited between interviews, the Bob’s Burgers pilot was playing over and over again for nine hours. The pilot started off lightly amusing, but over the course of the repetition, it somehow got better and better and by the end of the day I was convinced both that Bob’s Burgers was Fox’s latest animated masterpiece — it remains, 200 episodes later, one of the best things on broadcast TV — and also that the show required some commitment to become accustomed to its voice and its vibe.
Fox’s new animated comedy The Great North boasts Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard among its executive producers and was created by Bob’s Burgers veterans Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, along with Minty Lewis. I’ve seen four episodes of The Great North, which is getting a January 3 preview ahead of its actual Valentine’s Day premiere, and it took many fewer viewings of the pilot before I was sure this represented another animated winner for Fox. Does that mean that The Great North is a more instantly tonally accessible show than Bob’s Burgers or that watching 11 seasons of Bob’s Burgers is all the preparation you need to jump right in here? Unclear, but there’s no question that The Great North will fit perfectly into Fox’s Sunday lineup, which hasn’t always been the case with the network’s new animated entries.
AIR DATE Jan 03, 2021
I’ve already seen both The Great North and Bob’s Burgers described as “dysfunctional family” comedies, a ridiculous contention given that both families are completely functional. “Eccentric” isn’t the same as “dysfunctional,” people. Surely we should have learned that from inexcusable right-wing protests about the family at the center of The Simpsons when that show premiered; 30 years later the Simpson clan remains an entirely cohesive, if imperfect, middle-class nuclear (pun, then and now, intended) family of the most aspirational sort.
Here, the main family is the Tobins, residents of the town of Lone Moose in semi-rural Alaska. It’s the sort of community where everybody values their individuality and privacy, but they also value the mid-sized mall and its myriad retail opportunities. Nick Offerman voices patriarch Beef Tobin, a gruff-yet-loving fisherman who celebrates Alaska’s natural wonders and uses the remote location to keep his family close. The Tobin clan includes Wolf (Will Forte), amiably goofy and engaged to big city — Fresno! — gal Honeybee (Dulce Sloan); aspiring photographer — and best friend to an imaginary Alanis Morissette (Alanis Morissette) — Judy (Jenny Slate); pleasantly dim Ham (Paul Rust); and youthful-yet-solemn Moon (Aparna Nancherla). The family matriarch moved South with her lover and Beef insists that everybody pretends she was mauled by a bear. So maybe there’s some dysfunction here after all.
As with Bob’s Burgers, the humor in The Great North is driven primarily by ultra-specific characters, most of whom have their voices in place by the end of the pilot. It’s an impeccable vehicle for the stalwart decency and progressive masculinity that Offerman has made his brand over the years and it’s impossible to imagine anybody other than him delivering lines like, “I almost forgot to stare with wild wonder at Alaska’s majesty while whispering ‘Hot dog.’ Hot dog.”
Slate, whose Judy is probably the show’s real protagonist, gets to bring a lot of Missy from Big Mouth over here, an expert and yet never mocking channeling of adolescent awkwardness. Judy has a surprisingly good foil in the very funny Morissette, whose presence here has yet to be fully explained. There’s good enthusiastic sweetness between Forte and Sloan, while Nancherla’s Moon, preternaturally wise and still uniquely childish, is certain to be the show’s breakout character. Rust has funny moments, though Ham is the character most obviously in flux between the first episode and subsequent installments.
The show’s revolving vocal ensemble includes the welcome likes of Ron Funches, Robin Thede and several characters voiced by Megan Mullally.
The activities in Lone Moose have some specificity, be it the various fishing boat and bush plane expeditions or an annual holiday that embraces the settlers and their history with cannibalism. It’s much more about the mindset of the people who would choose to live in such a secluded place, whether that relates to the close connection between “Alaskan Twins” — they were born nine months apart — Judy and Ham or a spartan worldview that requires a bone be extra-broken for someone to admit to experiencing pain. Standout narratives focus on the Lone Moose singles dating scene and the steps required to get fresh avocados through a barter economy. And it’s all held together by the relationship between the Tobins, whose rigorous routine starts with a ridiculously filling breakfast every morning at 5 a.m. and includes regular shifts with Beef on the boat named after the departed woman who was definitely “mauled by a bear.”
There’s plenty of room for more specificity, mind you, especially when it comes to better honoring the indigenous population of Alaska. One episode includes Judy acknowledging those original owners of the land and I think Lone Moose has a Native mayor. That’s a side of the Alaskan reality that The Great North probably needs to embrace, since very little in these initial episodes couldn’t have taken place in the nebulous coastal community where Bob’s Burgers is set. But four episodes isn’t enough to know if the show will settle for being Bob’s Burgers as reimagined by somebody who just watched Northern Exposure.
Then again, with memorable characters (captured in that familiar Bento Box Entertainment style), running credit gags and catchy episode-closing songs, I don’t think Bob’s Burgers as reimagined by somebody who just watched Northern Exposure would be such a bad thing anyway.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Jenny Slate, Will Forte, Dulce Sloan, Aparna Nancherla, Paul Rust, Alanis Morissette
Creators: Lizzie Molyneux & Wendy Molyneux & Minty Lewis
Preview airing on Sunday, January 3, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT. Regular airings start on Sunday, February 14.
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