Bad Things are Bad: What Bob’s Burgers Can Teach Us About WWE (Part 2)

In the opening moments of “World Wharf II: The Wharfening,” Bob Belcher finds himself a babyface in peril. Due to a moment of personal weakness and ambitious greed, our typically upright hero fell in with the wrong crowd, and as a result, faces a literally rising tide that threatens to drown him.

During Bob’s dark night of the soul, his flip phone, the perfect metaphor for the lack of professional notoriety and financial success he finds so irksome, becomes the principal prop in his struggle to survive. Ever the idea man, Bob devises plans to call first his wife Linda and then 9-1-1, but each time the strategy fails because he cannot be heard clearly through the phone’s low-quality microphone. As the situation grows more and more dire, it becomes clear that Bob does not have the tools to survive alone or even with the help of impotent comedy heel Calvin Fischoeder.

But, wait! Bob has a devoted family, who, even harboring lingering bitterness about his recent decision-making, refuse to give up hope and spring into action. They confront his weaknesses directly and work to understand them, as represented by their fevered translation of his garbled texts. When they look to their friends and neighbors to join in the search during the musical montage “Bad Things are Bad,” the members of the show’s community unanimously try to help as best they can, be they vain (Jimmy Jr.), mean (Zeke), stupid (Andy and Ollie), in a situation where it is physically difficult them to do so (Rudy), or even a previously-established petty adversary (Randy). The takeaway is that the vast majority of people, even clearly flawed people, are fundamentally decent and wouldn’t want harm to come to a neighbor, even at a time when they were personally unhappy with him.

This kind of physical, intellectual, and emotional legwork by supporting characters is present in stories and series with rich ensemble casts but too often conspicuously absent in professional wrestling. If wrestlers, be they babyface or heel, were portrayed more consistently as members of a community in which there are constantly evolving, complex relationships, then it would create a situation in which the things they say and do to each other actually affect the balance of their universe.

Instead, wrestling as a genre is a rather bleak portrayal of humanity. It often forgets that society wouldn’t function if every single person were a highly-driven alpha. The reason any common good can be achieved or even imagined is because a majority of people is willing to band together in spite of each individual’s flaws to try and protect good and decency from harm. The world portrayed on TV in wrestling is one in which backstabbing and pettiness are the rule rather than the exception. It is because their world is fundamentally broken in this way that no wrestling company on earth is capable of building a babyface locker room as impressive as the ensemble cast of characters on Bob’s Burgers.

Nice Things are Nice: What Bob’s Burgers Can Teach Us About WWE (Part 1)

Static characters are the enemies of storytelling. If nobody ever changes, then nothing of consequence can occur in a narrative no matter how many things “happen” in the plot. Herein lies one of the main flaws of WWE storytelling in the twenty-first century. New acts are introduced, given an initial push to establish who they are and what they stand for, and then they simply continue being that person for seemingly ever.

The first half of the two-part fourth season finale of Bob’s Burgers (“Wharf Horse”) displays exactly how a show in a genre built on well-established characters can still present dynamic, character-driven stories. The show’s principal protagonist, the titular Bob, is a long-established babyface, a decent guy who loves his wife, dotes on his kids, and does the best with what he’s given. He’s a character you can’t help but root for because he represents both the values and struggles that we as Americans project onto the working class. However, by the climactic musical number of “Wharf Horse,” (this is a post-Family Guy prime time cartoon after all) sympathetic babyface Bob has become the willing agent of chicken heel Felix Fischoeder.

How episode writer Nora Smith, responsible for many of the show’s strongest installments, gets there involves numerous tropes that will sound familiar to wrestling fans. Fanny, Felix’s new girlfriend, plays the pro wrestling manager role. She both motivates Felix to be as selfish as possible and promotes his message of greed to others. Like Heyman to Lesnar or Gary Hart to Muta, she is more fundamentally evil than her charge but needs him because on her own she lacks the power to make her corrupt vision come to life. She is even tied to arguably wrestling’s greatest manager, Bobby Heenan, when she proudly boasts that her fake eyelashes are made of weasel fur.

When first presented with Felix’s scheme to turn the moldering wharf into high-end condos, most of the characters are instantly enticed by the promise of money. However, much like Bret Hart, Bob isn’t “greedy for money; [he’s] greedy for respect.” For him, the draw is that the development would allow him to open a new restaurant where his high-concept burgers could be appreciated. To get high school English class Aristotelian, this is Bob’s hamartia. He is a likable, hard-working guy, but also irked by his lack of success and recognition. His ambition leaves him open to corruption, and before he realizes what’s going on, he has betrayed his family (as embodied by his daughter Tina’s love of the wharf’s carousel) and his fundamental values.

That is exactly what you don’t see on WWE television. Babyfaces are overprotected as “good guys” to the point where they never falter in their virtue until they make full-fledged heel turns. Even when he joined the Nexus, John Cena never did anything that contradicted his stance of “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.” That kind of stubborn, static, non-development of characters is what has kept WWE merely entertaining and not compelling.

Next week, in Part 2, we’ll look at the second half of Bob’s Burgers’ season 4 finale “World Wharf II: The Wharfening” in which we find our hero in peril, a spirited team of babyfaces working together, and heels getting their comeuppance.