In a climactic moment from the first episode of The Great North, FOX’s new animated comedy, a family fights about change. It’s a familiar sitcom setup: the patriarch struggles with the fact that his children are growing up and fears that they’ll drift apart. The execution, however, is unique in that the kids are gentle in comforting their father and assure him that he doesn’t have to let them go, just grow.
The Great North, which makes its official debut on February 14, is a wholly benevolent show. The series stars Nick Offerman and Jenny Slate as members of a tight-knit Alaskan family who spend their days side-by-side, fishing off of the family boat and partaking in town traditions.
The series comes from the Molyneux Sisters, the Emmy Award-winning duo behind some of the most beloved Bob’s Burgers characters and storylines, including several Thanksgiving, Boyz 4 Now, and Gayle episodes. Their specialty–the mix of euphoria and devastation that makes up teenage girlhood–landed them an Annie Award for their 2017 episode “The Hormone-iums.”
“Working on Bob’s was in a sense like learning a trade,” Wendy Molyneux tells The Daily Beast in a joint phone interview with her younger sister, Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin.
“I think we’ve been talking about doing something for probably the past five years at least. And when we really started to think about what we wanted to do, I think we took a lot of influence from how Loren [Bouchard] created Bob’s,” Molynuex-Logelin says, describing the Bob’s Burgers and Central Park creator’s process of starting with actor-comedians he enjoyed working with and then creating the story.
“From there, I think it was just sort of figuring out what would be an interesting world to put them in,” she says. “How could we fill a family out around them? So I think it started from there and then just kind of snowballed slowly into where we are now.”
The Molyneuxs, along with co-creator Minty Lewis, started out intent on writing a show for Offerman and Slate. They decided to make them a father-daughter duo, and the idea morphed into a large family living in Alaska. Offerman voices single father Beef Tobin, who lives with his daughter Judy (Slate), and sons Wolf (Will Forte), Ham (Paul Rust), and Moon (Aparna Nancherla). Wolf’s Californian fiancée Honeybee (Dulcé Sloan) has recently moved in with the Tobins. Megan Mullally and Alanis Morissette round out the cast, with the latter voicing a fictionalized version of herself who appears in the northern lights to advise Judy.
The Great North is the latest addition to the family-centric animated comedy canon, a group of mostly FOX TV series that have dominated the adult-ish cartoon scene since The Simpsons premiered in 1989. The shows–Family Guy, American Dad!, King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers–follow similar rhythms: a precocious younger child, a girl or young woman coming into her own, major dilemmas wrapped up within 23 minutes. The shows’ greatest asset is that almost nothing ever changes, apart from animation quality through the years.
The Great North follows the comforting patterns of its predecessors, but it still has a unique bite. Within the first two episodes, which are already streaming online, viewers find the Tobin family adjusting to life after the mother leaves them for a new boyfriend in Pennsylvania. The kids, remarkably, are alright with their new home life. “She was a really bad mom and it was actually better when she left,” Judy calmly explains in the pilot.
It’s the father who struggles the most with his wife’s departure, despite the potential love interest Alyson (Mullally). His main goal is to keep the family as close as possible, which leads to panic when Judy gets an afterschool job at the mall and when Wolf and Honeybee want to move into the guest house in the backyard.
“When we started the show, I think a lot of the inspiration for Judy came a little bit from our own experience growing up as teenage girls who maybe weren’t the most absolute popular girls in school or maybe who hadn’t been on a ton of dates by age 16 or sort of dreamed of more, a big artistic life outside of just going to high school. So I think some of Judy definitely came from that,” Molyneux-Logelin says. “Wendy and I are both parents, so I think a lot of Beef’s attitude toward his family, his kids, just liking to be around them … I think there was definitely inspiration there.”
Bob’s Burgers follows a family in a city, so the Molyneuxs were looking for a more rural setting, reminiscent of the part of their childhood they spent living in Indiana. They settled on Alaska after hearing stories from Molyneux-Logelin’s brother-in-law, who resides outside of Anchorage.
“Wackiness is never our goal in this family of shows – the Bob’s Burgers, Central Park, Great North matrix. Wackiness is not our thing. It’s always about being grounded,” Molyneux says. “And in Alaska, you can stay grounded and still have these incredible things happen. I think that was really inspirational to us.”
“If the show were to go for many years, there’s so much to explore and see up there that we felt like we’d never run out of stories,” she says.
The Great North, which has already been renewed for a second season, is most reminiscent of Bob’s Burgers because of its benevolence. The characters seem to genuinely enjoy spending time together, which sets the two shows apart from other similar series that take on a more sardonic tone. Although she enjoys watching “edgier and darker stuff,” Molyneux admits that she finds it harder to write.
“I think in some ways our shows are not escapist in a way of, like, you’re getting transported to space or anything like that, but like escapist in the sense that there’s a sense of acceptance of everyone and their weirdness that you don’t always get in life,” Molyneux says. “And I think it’s OK to imagine a more utopian world where you do, at least at home, get to be accepted and loved by your family and the people around you.”
While the sisters recognize that this isn’t always a reality, they try to infuse as much of their work with oddities and acceptance.
Molyneux adds: “I think that’s always been a little bit of a mandate, from Bob’s to CP to Great North, to create those worlds … We know it’s a little utopian, but I mean, hey why not? Why not show it? Why not try for it?”