Two Fox sitcoms come back for their sophomore seasons this week, and though they both had their share of weaknesses when they debuted, they've gone down very different paths.
One comedy, "Breaking In" (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. EST, Fox) prompted some head scratching almost a year ago when it was unexpectedly revived. But the other, "Bob's Burgers" (8:30 p.m. E.T. Sunday, Fox), proved that its shaky start was nothing to worry about; the animated adventures of Bob's burger-slinging family have become very enjoyable in their second year. Isn't it weird that, of the two shows, the animated comedy is more three-dimensional and relatable?
"Breaking In" is the show that no one really expected to see again after a patchy debut season ended last spring. But Fox, in search of a mid-season comedy that could fill some scheduling holes, revoked the show's cancellation, to the delight of absolutely zero media observers (at least the ones on my Twitter feed).
I'm not one of those people who violently or even mildly disliked the show: I actually kind of enjoyed Christian Slater's showboating performance as Oz, the playboy owner of a high-tech security firm. It wasn't particularly memorable or consistent, but "Breaking In's" first season was more or less unobjectionable, and I thought the show had a few good elements it could build on, like Bret Harrison's Everyman hacker character and Alphonso McAuley's likable nerd. I'd never make the claim that "Breaking In" was one of 2011's stronger comedy offerings, but I looked forward to seeing what the retooled show would do when it returned this year.
In its second season, "Breaking In" is trying to do a lot, but not much of it is successful, at least in the early going. Maybe the problem is that it's trying to do too much. Oz has been dialed back a fair amount, which seems like a waste of Slater's brash presence and sturdy comedic skills. Also, the first two episodes of the season focus on introducing two new cast members: Megan Mullally, who plays Veronica, Contra Security's brash, tone-deaf new owner, and Erin Richards, who plays her tentative British assistant. The integration of the old cast and new cast does not go smoothly -- unless calling a British woman "Pippa" counts as humor -- and the number of times the show's premise is restated is just one of the signs of flop sweat.
To really begin clicking as a workplace comedy, "Breaking In" needed to complicate or deepen the relationships among the Contra Security staff members, yet those bonds get little attention in the first two episodes of the season. But the show has a bigger problem, which is that it doesn't seem to know who it wants to focus on or what it wants to do (the security missions, such as they are, are unexceptional afterthoughts). Though it's set among people at the same company, it's not really a workplace comedy, and though they're supposed to be high-tech hackers and security consultants, it's not really a spy spoof either.
While "Breaking In's" mere existence is a bit baffling, this is even more of a head scratcher: Why introduce yet another bumptious boss, one who simply pulls the focus off Oz and the rest of the Contra crew with her clueless behavior? Mullally is a very gifted comic actress, but Veronica is similar to several other characters she's played over the years, and in the end, Contra's new boss is just more annoying than amusing.
The rest of the ensemble doesn't get much good material, though Jennifer Irwin makes the most of her small moments as the office's creepy H.R. staffer, and it's somewhat problematic that Odette Annable is glaringly unfunny as safecracker Melanie (perhaps that's why the actress, who is no longer a series regular, is barely in the second episode). And I am disappointed to report that the "Breaking In" character I liked most -- Melanie's lovably douchey boyfriend, Dutch -- isn't in the episodes I saw and probably won't be around much, if at all. TV Line reports that Michael Rosenbaum, who was terrific as Dutch, may guest star this season, but it's a shame he's not a regular; his sweetly obnoxious character was half the reason to watch the show. OK, more than half.
None of the other "Breaking In" characters are all that memorable or well defined, which isn't a problem with "Bob's Burgers," an animated comedy that is propelled by a very strong voice cast and by its own daffy comedic momentum. Part of the reason this show has only gotten stronger is that creator Loren Bouchard and his writers have done a terrific job of writing to the strengths of various cast members. Kristen Schaal is entertainingly energetic and persistent as Louise, the youngest child of restaurant owner Bob (H. Jon Benjamin); her antics are a continually spazzy delight. Louise, like the rest of the characters on the show, feels specific and well thought out, and in contrast to "Breaking In's" Veronica, her eagerness and hair-trigger temper are equally amusing. Eugene Mirman does a similarly excellent job as middle child Gene, a nerd whose enthusiasms aren't quite matched by his abilities.
You'd think that Benjamin (a voice-acting standout who plays a very different character on FX's "Archer") would be the most entertainingly deadpan actor on "Bob's Burgers," but that title is usually up for grabs. As Bob's eldest child, the awkward and lovelorn Tina, Dan Mintz makes even throwaway lines reverberate with quiet hilarity. In the second episode, for example, when Louise says she has to write a paper about an important person in her life, Tina's response is, "I'd write about the guy that flies the helicopter on 'The Bachelor.'" It's a throwaway line, but even those lines get loving attention on this show, yet "Bob's Burgers" never feels like it's trying too hard and generally coasts along on a wave of frisky silliness.
Though it's not as continually (and hilariously) inappropriate as "Archer," "Bob's Burgers" has a few things in common with that show, aside from Benjamin's masterful command of the many degrees of deadpan. Like "Archer," "Bob's Burgers" is a show about a band of misfits who generally screw things up and squabble at inopportune times, the writing on both shows is sharp and there's generally an energetic pace to the proceedings.
But there are key differences as well. Perhaps I enjoy "Bob's Burgers" so much because it's an optimistic family sitcom that doesn't turn me off with mawkishness, cliches or tired writing. The first episode of the season is a riff on "The Goonies" and the second has fun with the kind of cop cliches that inevitably arise during a hostage crisis, yet the show doesn't merely play around with familiar tropes for the sake of brittle, arch comedy. There's sentiment woven into the fabric of the show, and despite a failing business and continual setbacks, Bob and his clan display a mildly insane amount of optimism. But the focus isn't on "awww" family moments, it's on the unpredictable yet amusing interactions of crisply defined, enjoyably weird characters, and there's an organic wholeness to this world that is missing from too many comedies, animated or live-action.
All things considered, the "Breaking In" crew could stand to steal a few secrets from Bob's tribe of amusingly odd burger flippers.