It’s easy to take one look at FOX’s newest animated comedy, The Great North, and assume it’s exactly like the long running and beloved Bob’s Burgers. Two of The Great North’s creators wrote a good chunk of Bob’s Burgers episodes and the shows share a near-identical art style after all. At first glance some of the Bob’s Burgers character archetypes seem to be involved as well: awkward daughter, an odd sarcastic youngest child, and a loving, if somewhat offbeat, father. So why bother with something like Bob’s Burgers when you could just watch Bob’s Burgers?
While there are a few surface similarities, by the end of the first episode of The Great North you’ll realize there’s so much more to it than just an Alaskan set version of the Belcher family. It’s got humor all its own, unique characters, and the potential to be something that isn’t merely a rival to Bob’s Burgers but a truly unique experience.
So let’s head up north to discover all the reasons why The Great North is so wonderful. As a brief primer, the show is set in Alaska and follows the Tobin family with fisherman dad Beef, artistic daughter Judy, loveably dumb son Ham, bear-suit wearing son Moon, oldest and eager to please son Wolf, his always chipper and new to Alaska fiancé Honeybee, and Judy’s best imaginary friend Alanis Morissette…played by Alanis Morssette.
The Family’s Lack of a Mom is Refreshingly Handled
A lack of a mom is a huge trope in animation at this point (look at damn near every ‘90s Disney movie) and if there is a mom, especially in a comedy, she tends to be wacky or overly loving. The Great North puts a new twist on both of these in its very first episode.
The plot of the premiere deals with Beef struggling to get over his ex-wife years after she abandoned the family. An ex-wife isn’t anything to write home about, a single dad taking care of a family is a comedy trope in of itself, but it’s what we learn about Beef’s ex that makes this element so refreshing.
Instead of the mom just not being present or having died off screen, Beef only acts like she’s dead, a fabrication everyone goes along with to keep him sane. When he isn’t around though Judy is quick to point out the rest of the family doesn’t buy this and they never liked her much anyway. She even flat out states,
“She was a really bad mom, okay? And it was actually better when she left.”
The other kids then list off horrible things she did, like name their dog Grandma solely so, “she wouldn’t be lying when she said we were with Grandma when people asked.” She runs a blog with her “new lover” about stores that wont chase you if you shoplift. Even in her goodbye letter to Ham she just wrote, “smell you later.”
I love this so much because it replaces all the easy sentimentality of a dead or simply absent mom that comedies love and instead opens up some fantastic new storytelling opportunities. In the pilot alone it gives us deep insight into Beef, that despite how awful she was he refuses to think anything but the best of her. Why is he like that? Is it his way of not thinking about all the terrible things she did? She’s left him so broken he has to concoct an elaborate fantasy to keep himself sane. It makes you instantly love the character and while he does seemingly get over this denial in the pilot I can foresee it impacting him for the rest of the series.
It’s also so refreshing because the kids aren’t all that broken up about it. Knowing their mom was terrible helps reflect a lot of what kids go through in real life. Sometimes they just have a bad parent and there’s no deep explanation of why, they just are and it’s not great. Maybe Judy and the others are hurt by this and I’d love to see the show tackle that in the future but even if it strictly keeps this part of their characters on the comedic side of things? It’s empowering. These kids aren’t broken up by their awful mom and want her back; they’re thriving BECAUSE she isn’t around.
Nick Offerman Being Nick Offerman
Over the years Nick Offerman has perfected the deadpan and loveable character that brought him to fame in Parks and Recreation. His role as Beef isn’t a major departure from that mold but it does allow Offerman to be even warmer than his most famous character.
As Beef he’s a capable man who gets up to see the sun rise and chop wood. He loves nature so much he steals a potted plant from a mall to take better care of it. His love for his family is on full display and he often goes to absurd lengths to keep them together. Offerman brings a great charm to the role and all of the jokes he delivers are winners.
The Rural Location
Bob’s Burgers draws much inspiration from its city setting, while The Great North is set in rural Alaska. This may seem like a surface level change but once again opens up all kinds of new opportunities for stories and characters. Where the Belcher family was somewhat cynical to city life (you would be to with a landlord breathing down your neck) the Tobin family openly embraces the chilly north.
Judy sits out on the roof and talks with her imaginary best friend, Moon takes great pride in his ability to mimic a soon to be eaten cadaver laying out in the snow, and Beef specifically gets up every morning to stare in wild wonder at Alaska’s majesty while whispering “hot dog.” The whole family even delights in going to the mall, which is the kind of joy only someone living out in the middle of nowhere can truly appreciate.
The Different Character Dynamics
Even after eleven truly fantastic seasons Bob’s Burgers characters still manage to never feel stale and the team behind the show always finds new ways to play around with them. With such a rock solid cast of characters you’d think they could tackle any story imaginable but The Great North is already proving to be a home for stories that just wouldn’t work for Bob’s Burgers.
The most noticeable change is that most of the kids are older. Judy and Ham are both sixteen which opens up a lot of possibilities that couldn’t be done with the Belcher kids. They can get involved in more serious relationships, have jobs (as Judy gets in the first episode), and are able to be more autonomous from the family. Wolf, the oldest of all of them, is engaged! Imagine what could be done with a soon-to-be married couple? Honeybee herself also functions as a delighted fish out of water to Alaska, her thoughts on the Tobins’ life a needed commentary. Her outgoing personality also clashes well with Moon’s stoic nature.
Judy and Ham also share a more loving sibling dynamic than any of the Belcher kids ever have. In Bob’s Burgers the kids don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, they’re more likely to make sarcastic quips about one other. The Great North though has Judy and Ham share a special bond, the two have a secret handshake that goes for an indeterminable amount of time. It’s really sweet and it makes me excited to see what kind of comedy can be mined from this more openly affectionate family.
Ham Is Gay And I Love Him
Ham is my favorite character so far in this show. He’s a little slow on the uptake but loves everyone in his family a lot and can even make a perfect replica of a cadaver… in the form of a cake. He also happens to be gay, a fact that is wonderfully confirmed in the first episode when he blurts out, “I AM GAY!
To which Moon responds, “we know. You’ve come out to us a bunch of times.”
Beef then adds, “we love you just the way you are, damn it!”
Ham, clearly not remembering his past comings-out, yells, “WELL, THANK YOU FOR BEING AN ALLY!”
It’s a great scene and kicks any subtext out the door. Queer audiences don’t have to sit around guessing who COULD be queer in the show (as they’re so often forced to do with so little representation in media) there’s a character who said OUT LOUD he’s gay. He’s one of us!
Bob’s Burgers has had several one-time gay characters (Bob did refer to himself as “mostly straight” once but that was more of a gag) but getting a gay teen in the main cast is sublime. He’s also a different sort of gay teen then we’re used to in television, with a tiny “probably thinks it’s cooler than it actually is” mustache and his “not quite all there” personality. He’s not a stereotype, he’s got some obvious flaws, but he’s loveable! Sure enough, his family loves him and accepts him.
Having a gay character in the cast opens up so many story possibilities. Are there any other gay kids in this rural town? What if there’s only one and he’s forced to date him? Does he know what kind of guys he likes yet? Where do the gay kids hang out in this town?
It also must be reiterated that his family loves him and accepts him. While drama over coming out and acceptance is totally valid, I’m glad that Ham will get the chance to just be gay and his family will support him all the way. We can just see him happily (if somewhat absent-mindedly) live his life and that’s needed in a world with so little queer representation. As a pansexual man myself it’s heartwarming. I wish I had a character like Ham when I was growing up.
Alanis Morissette Is A Main Character
Yes, Alanis Morissette is in The Great North (played by the actual Alanis Morissette) but in an absolutely perfect choice she’s not the REAL Alanis Morissette, she’s Judy’s best imaginary friend who just happens to be Alanis Morissette. Judy’s artistic so it makes sense she’d look up to someone as incredible as the Canadian musical genius. As an imaginary best friend she tends to serve as a sounding board for Judy’s thoughts and gives absolutely flawless advice.
Even better though? The imaginary Alanis Morissette also only appears in the Aurora Borealis. That’s… incredible. What a way to take advantage of the show’s location!
The Great North is a delight. It’s only been two episodes (the third one premieres February 14 and the first two are available on Hulu) but it’s already shown a lot of promise. Not in the “oh it’ll get good eventually” sense but in the “no it’s already great and I want to see more of it!” Don’t think of it as another Bob’s Burgers, just think of it as its own wonderful moose-filled show (it’s Alaska, what did you expect) and you’ll have a fantastic time. Truly, in these dark times we could all use a little help from imaginary best friend Alanis Morissette.