"'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.
When the standout Bob's Burgers episode "Topsy" first aired in 2013, I wrote, "I don't care for show tunes, but I always enjoy John Dylan Keith and Loren Bouchard's original music on Bob's Burgers, and the brilliance of 'Electric Love' is that it doesn't sound like a polished show tune and sounds totally like something an aspiring 11-year-old musician would cobble together." I still feel that way about "Electric Love." Despite featuring the well-trained pipes of Kevin Kline and Megan Mullally (who both had pasts in musical theater), the most memorable musical number from "Topsy" convincingly sounds clunky--instrumentally speaking--and is such a nice contrast to so many live-action sitcoms where kid or teen characters who compose songs or start rock bands always sound like professional studio musicians.
For instance, during Happy Days, I could never buy that Richie, Ralph, Potsie and that black guy who briefly drummed with them before he died of spontaneous combustion (okay, that death didn't happen, but I like to make up horrible off-screen fates for unpopular Happy Days characters who vanished without explanation) all had the chops to perform competent--but still kind of shitty-sounding--covers of '50s rock hits at Arnold's. If David Chase, who once wrote a Wonder Years script that got rejected for being too edgy and later made the semi-autobiographical '60s garage band flick Not Fade Away, had been put in charge of Happy Days instead of Garry Marshall, who never let things like realism, period accuracy or authenticity in accents get in his way (why does a Milwaukee auto mechanic have a Brooklyn accent despite spending his whole life in the Midwest?), Richie's band would have sounded more like an unpolished garage band than a bunch of slick L.A. studio musicians.
In Bob's Burgers' fifth-season premiere, "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl," Bouchard, Keith and episode writer Nora Smith have somehow made the music sound worse than "Electric Love," and that's not a criticism. That's a compliment. The more off-key the singers are and the more sloppily written and expositiony the lyrics are, the funnier Bob's Burgers' musical numbers are. From the moment I first heard that "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" was going to be about 11-year-old Gene--whose enthusiasm exceeds his talent--composing and directing a school musical based on the 1988 blockbuster Die Hard, I knew this episode was going to be special because terrible musicals based on movies that don't exactly lend themselves well to the stage musical treatment never fail to amuse me. "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" doesn't disappoint, with cheap stage FX work that's reminiscent of the sweded movie FX from Be Kind Rewind (my favorite stage FX bit: Gene's simulation of Hans Gruber's death) and lyrics like "Oh, the life of the wife of a cop/Makes my head spin around like a top" or this gem:
In addition to Gene's Die Hard show tunes, the season premiere also treats us to snippets of songs from a musical version of another 1988 20th Century Fox smash hit, Working Girl, a rival project that beats out Gene's passion project for the school's fall musical spot. Working Girl: The Musical stars both Gene's annoying ex-girlfriend Courtney (David Wain) as Tess McGill and Tina as the Sigourney Weaver character (she auditioned to be in Working Girl just so that she can get quality time ogling the butt of Jimmy Jr., Courtney's co-star). The musical version of "the sassy sister film to Die Hard" was composed by Courtney's smug musician dad Doug (John Michael Higgins), whose songwriting skills aren't exactly the greatest either:
Despite the school's rejection of Gene's Die Hard musical idea, Louise, ever the money-hungry con artist, persuades Gene to put on his musical anyway--in the boiler room right below the stage, on the same night as Courtney and Doug's musical, as a form of guerilla protest. Gene and Louise's counterprogramming scheme forces Bob and Linda, who's more of a musical theater fan than her husband, to choose between watching Tina's musical or Gene and Louise's underground musical. Bob opts to see Tina perform because the original Working Girl inspired him to follow his dreams, while Linda picks Die Hard, and in the episode's best running gag, Bob doesn't even bother to hide his lack of enthusiasm for Gene's musical. I love how that lack of enthusiasm continues even when the two rival camps rejoice after agreeing to put aside their differences and merge their musicals together:
If this were an average '80s live-action sitcom, Bob would tell Gene he supports him no matter what he does. But Bob's Burgers isn't an average sitcom, and Bob's unwillingness to lie about his doubts over Gene's attempts at extracurricular activities--whether it's baseball or an unlikely musical adaptation of an action classic--is a thing of sad-bodied comedic beauty, man.
While "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" isn't quite on the level of "Mother Daughter Laser Razor," which Nora Smith also wrote, or the Molyneux sisters' "Boyz 4 Now"--I wish the premiere's Rashomon-ish first act had a better comedic payoff--the episode is still an entertaining way to kick off the fifth season of a show that was made the butt of a couple of lame jokes ("We gotta carry him 'cause he can't fly on his own") in the abysmal Family Guy/Simpsons crossover (the Bob's Burgers porn parody was better than those jokes, for Christ's sake). What the writers of that crossover don't realize is that for three straight seasons, Bob's Burgers has quietly surged past Family Guy and The Simpsons to become the crown jewel of Fox's animation lineup, devoting as much care and inventiveness to revitalizing the animated network sitcom genre as Bob does to the creation of his burgers, and the solid laughs of "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" are an early indication that Bob's Burgers won't exactly be relinquishing that spot as the crown jewel any time soon.