The ballad of Bob Belcher

Fox network’s latest animated series, “Bob’s Burgers,” became the highest-rated new series premiere of the season on Sunday.

Fox network’s latest animated series, “Bob’s Burgers,” became the highest-rated new series premiere of the season on Sunday. Quirky cartoon families have become somewhat of a Sunday evening tradition for Rupert Murdoch’s television network, but everything about the Belcher family is different—including their place in the Fox empire.

The cancellation of Mike Judge’s long-running “King of the Hill” series left Fox with some big shoes to fill. While the network still enjoys massive success with “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” all of their animated media interests are riding on two horses. Matt Groening’s “Simpsons,” which was renewed for its 23rd season in November, has long endured critical accusations of declining quality. Producer Mike Scully, who ran the show from seasons nine through 12, has frequently been accused of turning television’s first real animated series into a mere cartoon. Scully was once famously quoted as saying that the key to longevity in television is to lower one’s quality standards. “Once you’ve done that, you can go on forever,” he said.

Meanwhile, Seth McFarlane’s wildly popular “Family Guy” and “American Dad” franchises are both extremely polarizing and almost completely madcap and non sequitur; this brings us back to the Hank Hill-sized hole left in the hearts of Sunday night viewers. “King of the Hill” was a sustainable franchise not because it was a funny cartoon, but because it was a touching cartoon that happened to be funny.

Fox is not taking any big risks in choosing the show that would follow “The Simpsons” in its coveted prime time line-up. The creator of “Bob’s Burgers” is Loren Bouchard, co-creator of the classic “Home Movies” and “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist.” Bouchard is a man with a proven track record and the respect of the cartoon community, such as it is. He also brings with him an ace in the hole, in the form of H. Jon Benjamin.

Bouchard once told a panel that in 15 years he’d never done a cartoon without the considerable talents of H. Jon Benjamin, and that he never wanted to attempt it. Indeed, the man who has lent his vocal talents to such classic characters as Coach McGuirk on “Home Movies,” Ben on “Dr. Katz” and Carl on “Family Guy” is every bit as masterful in his role as Bob Belcher, patriarch of Fox’s newest animated family. The magic that Bouchard and Benjamin create together is not the product of touching storylines or overwrought character development, however. The secret of their success lies largely in Benjamin’s brilliant comedic timing, which lends to everything that he says an air of humanity. Not only are the scripts funny, as is Benjamin’s unique voice, but to hear Bob Belcher constantly talk over his children’s lines, just as Coach McGuirk often did with his students, is to hear the true sounds of comedic genius. After all, it’s not just anyone who would be chosen to portray Master Shake in the one and only live action episode of Adult Swim’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” It could only have been H. Jon Benjamin.

Not only is Benjamin brilliant, but he’s supported by a dream ensemble of voice talent cast as his family. They are perhaps not big names in Hollywood, but names that ring all the right bells in the cartoon world. It takes a lot for a show starring Benjamin not to rely too heavily on him, and that restraint is evident here, and possible only due to the stellar casting.

While “Bob’s Burgers” has its work cut out for it, it has certainly taken its first steps in the right direction. As a team, Bouchard and Benjamin have never once disappointed their fans. The prospect of these two cult heroes of the cartoon world bringing their unique animated comedic style to a mainstream audience is indeed interesting, but not at all unprecedented. In fact, Bouchard’s former collaborator and “Home Movies” co-creator Brendan Small has gone on to have considerable success with his popular animated series “Metalocalypse,” which has become something of a cottage industry unto itself. Fox appears to be banking on the chance that “Bob’s Burgers” can also turn its quirky cache into the next big thing. The network has reportedly ordered an additional 13 episodes of “Bob’s Burgers.” ?