“You know what? Who needs a nice cozy, warm, comfortable home? We can have our Christmas right here in the car!”
“Yeah, until it runs out of gas and we freeze to death.”
It’s perhaps surprising that a show as gentle and warmhearted as Bob’s Burgers gives its holiday episodes a dark, maniacal edge. “Dawn of the Peck” plays like a zombie attack on Thanksgiving, with the undead replaced by rampaging turkeys; in “The Last Gingerbread House on the Left,” the Belcher family sings Christmas carols in front of a house that may belong to a homicidal shut-in. But the Bob’s Burgers episode that best embodies this mix of sweetness and suspense is season four’s “Christmas in the Car” in which the festive tradition of Christmas tree hunting switches gears into–of all things–a parody of the Steven Spielberg movie Duel.
Combining Christmas with a 1971 made-for-TV movie about an evil truck driver is a hilariously audacious concept, refreshing for anyone tired of sitcoms reheating the plot of A Christmas Carol like leftover turkey and stuffing. Duel stars Dennis Weaver as a mustachioed everyman chased across the desert by an enormous tanker truck (and its unseen driver) he once passed on the highway. It’s not spoiling much to say that Duel ends in a ball of flaming wreckage, but it’s a taut and effective thriller, which makes it all the more surprising when a burger-slinging cartoon character and his wacky family take the film’s premise and ratchet up the stakes.
“Christmas in the Car” begins like a typical Christmas episode, with Linda Belcher putting up the family’s Christmas tree on November 1st, before they’ve even taken down the Halloween pumpkins and cobwebs. By Christmas Eve, the Belchers are down two very dead, very flammable trees, which leads Bob to take the family on a last minute road trip to find a new tree before Christmas. All of the Belchers are focused on the holiday. Louise and Tina plan to capture Santa Claus at home, Gene wants to hear the inane novelty song “Jingle in the Jungle” on the radio, and Bob (his culinary ambitions ever thwarted) just wants to get home and take his ham out of the oven. So it’s understandable when Bob, distracted, accidentally cuts off a giant truck shaped like a candy cane. Linda exacerbates things by honking the horn to the tune of “Jingle Bells” (as Bob points out, the driver can only hear the honking), and the candy cane truck begins ominously following them, forcing them off the road and, later, nearly hitting them in a head-on collision, all because of holiday road rage.
What’s significant is that the show plays the chase scenes almost completely straight: the soundtrack intensifies at moments of near-collision; H. John Benjamin’s performance as Bob sheds its usual dryness for full-throated screaming, and the truck’s headlights glow like sinister eyes in the wintry darkness. The candy cane truck’s design is a nice touch of absurdity, turning a benign symbol of holiday sweetness into something threatening. It’s silly and scary. Bob also faces other challenges that typically befall a horror movie hero: at first, his family doesn’t believe him when he warns them about the dangerous truck, and later at a diner, Bob tries to alert the obligatory disinterested police officer, who dismisses Bob’s concerns after a misunderstanding makes him think Bob is the kind of trouble-maker he’s warning him about.
Duel is the story of an ordinary man who unintentionally crosses the wrong person and then must fight (and drive) for his life. “Christmas in the Car” raises the stakes because it places an entire family, including three young children, in the path of this speeding candy cane monstrosity. Of course, we know that the Belchers ultimately aren’t in real danger. This isn’t a “Treehouse of Horror” episode, and Bob’s Burgers lacks the mean-spirited absurdity of a Seth McFarlane series, so there’s no way this ends with, say, the Belchers dying horribly in the snow and then resurrected the following episode without any explanation. But for the moment, we hold our breaths, wondering, “How are the Belchers going to get out of this one?”
They get out of it, actually, through kindness and empathy. This is a Christmas episode after all, and Bob’s Burgers isn’t a cynical show. “Christmas in the Car” breaks its homage to Duel with Bob and the driver confronting each other face-to-face. Bob is disarmed to see his foe is actually a shivering loser with the eternally cracking voice of Bobcat Goldthwait, not the intimidating truck driver we’d been expecting. When the driver, Gary, explains that his road rage was caused by frustration over driving throughout Christmas and missing his family, Bob’s fear is replaced by sympathy, and he tries to make Gary feel better by letting Gary hit him. (“I think this guy’s having a worse Christmas than us,” Bob realizes.) Forgiveness is perhaps too easily given–Gary did endanger Bob and his family–but the Christmas spirit wins the day. Gary pulls Bob’s car from the snowbank it was trapped in, and Linda encourages Bob to give him their Christmas tree, the very thing that was the start of their ill-fated road trip.
“Christmas in the Car” is a surprisingly tense, suspenseful episode of Bob’s Burgers (I still remember throwing my head back and laughing, “Holy crap, it’s Duel!”), but ultimately it’s message is as warm and reassuring as a cup of hot chocolate.