When an animated series such as FOX’s The Great North initially launches, its close artistic and personnel ties to an existing franchise (in this case Bob’s Burgers) have the potential to be both a blessing and a curse. A new series sharing some of the same key writers, artists and producers will inevitably have the advantage of bringing along some degree of interest from die-hard fans of the show that preceded it, but at the same time you run the risk of a show that perpetually feels like a pale imitation of a beloved TV comedy. And when those shows air at the same time, on the same network, the potential pitfalls are that much more apparent.
And yet, The Great North has slowly and steadily established an identity for itself, a sweet and sincere family comedy that deserves all the Bob’s Burgers comparisons but also distinguishes itself in some pretty major ways. Fueled less than Bob’s is by the real-world, blue collar concerns of balancing business and the parenting of young children, and more a celebration of an innocent, whimsical absurdity and a celebration of one family’s love for each other, The Great North is confidently growing into the golden years of its existence, with enough foundation laid to form a solid base for future stories. And that’s something the world of animated TV sitcoms desperately needs, as so many of the stalwarts have effectively passed their expiration dates … including, sadly, Bob’s Burgers, which is now in unfortunate decline.
From the start, The Great North was a show where one of the greatest threats to its longevity would theoretically be the novelty (but also specificity) of its premise, about a large family of cheerful folks (the Tobins) living in rural Alaska, effectively sequestered from most of the “modern world.” It’s a setting rife with inherent comedy, but no show can rely on setting too strongly for those purposes—you can only satirize “Alaskan wilderness living” as a gag for so long. But like any successful series of this nature, the reliance on the initial premise eventually recedes more or less into the background, allowing an expanding cast of core characters and increasingly fleshed-out supporting players to carry the load. The two seasons have seen the expansion of personalities of the various other kids at the school attended by Judy, Ham and Moon Tobin, for instance, which mirrors the way that the friends of the Belcher kids at Wagstaff Elementary gradually became major Bob’s Burgers staples in their own right. One gets the sense that with enough time, The Great North can do the same.
Of course, it’s the Tobin family—every member of it, old and new—that provides the heart and soul of the show, with a level of fondness that can frankly border on the excessive until the viewer begins to gel with this oddball parody of loving, close-knit family dynamics. Suffice to say, where many sitcoms revolve around “dysfunctional families,” that isn’t The Great North. If anything, the humor here is derived from the Tobin family (starting with Nick Offerman’s patriarch Beef) being unrealistically hyper-functional, loving and dependent upon one another. These kids don’t resent their father, and have been raised with an incredible level of self esteem. Beef, meanwhile, doesn’t really struggle to understand his children, or bridge the generational gap. Instead, it’s clear that if these kids end up facing challenges in their lives, it won’t be because they were denied affection or understanding while growing up, but because they’ve come to expect and rely upon too much affection and understanding from a society that will never be able to measure up to their idealistic family life. And this is despite the fact that the Tobin kids were abandoned by their own mother, who walked out on the family years earlier—even then, Beef, Wolf, Judy, Ham and Moon Tobin still have love and optimism to spare.
That’s indicative of the sort of protective wall of sunshine that seems to surround the town of Lone Moose in The Great North, leaving anxiety and trauma largely on the outside. One might expect the trials and travails of the commercial fishing business, for instance, to loom over Beef Tobin in the same sense that Bob Belcher’s perpetually floundering finances and business prospects form an important part of the psyche of Bob’s Burgers, but two seasons in the fishing business has rarely ever been relevant to the plot. This leaves the family blessedly free from anxiety about everyday concerns of money, comfort, or whether they can afford their seemingly massive log cabin dwelling, which we can assume that Beef probably built with his own two hands. The Great North episodes instead tend to rely on interpersonal relationship building, rather than more existential fears for the future. In general, it gives the show a notably lighter tone than even Bob’s Burgers, where the realities of a struggling business are more authentically felt.
Instead, The Great North tends to make its mark via a wry, whimsical spirit of absurdity, with a gentleness that suggests an optimism for the human condition, even when the jokes sometimes veer toward the macabre. A prime example might be the festival in first season episode “Feast of Not People Adventure,” which establishes a running gag about a jar full of human teeth, the contents of which will be won by whoever guesses exactly how many teeth are present. Gross idea? Absolutely, but one that then inspires an unexpectedly sweet song over the closing credits, in which a female country/folk singer croons about how winning the jar of teeth would finally give her the confidence to pursue happiness and love. It’s such a bizarre mix of sincerity and absurdity that I can’t stop listening to this head-scratching little ditty, and it perfectly synthesizes the eccentric spirit of The Great North.
As my appreciation for The Great North has grown, in fact, the only character I initially struggled to connect with was youngest child Moon, both because I found the monotone delivery of Aparna Nancherla somewhat disconcerting, but mostly because the full body teddy bear costume you’ve no doubt noticed in photos and footage seemed like an unavoidable attempt to designate this character as the breakout “Louise Belcher” for the series. That concern proved to be more or less unwarranted, however—Moon has never demonstrated a tendency to steal the show as Louise so often does, nor is the quirk of the bear costume treated as some sacred relic of the series or source of mystery like Louise’s rabbit ears, as I feared it would be. Indeed, it was a wise decision to have Moon occasionally remove the costume for one reason or another, establishing early that this is not some payoff that will be constantly teased throughout the entire show’s run. That seemingly small decision takes an eccentric character and makes them more realistically human, rather than clinging to an oddball character trait and milking it for everything it’s worth.
At this point, it’s hard to expect The Great North to go on to the sort of acclaim still generated by Bob’s Burgers, currently in its 12th season, or ultimately last nearly as long as any of the other undead FOX animated comedies in that same roster. But Lizzie and Wendy Molyneux’s creation has earned some plaudits all its own, and it deserves another look from anyone who initially looked at its character models and pegged it as a shallow Bob’s Burgers clone. The creative paternity is present, but where Bob’s is now all too often stagnant, let down by a lack of energy on the writing, animation and even performance fronts, The Great North has far more hustle and ambition. It’s just now hitting its stride, and this is the moment to celebrate it.
Of course, having written this, FOX will likely respond by canceling the show, while simultaneously and vindictively extending Family Guy for a 21st season. Oh wait, they already did extend Family Guy for a 21st season. With that in mind, tell me that rural Alaska doesn’t feel fresh in comparison.
The Great North airs Sunday nights on FOX, and can be streamed on Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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