At the halfway point of its short first season, the rude, braying awfulness of F Is For Family’s world has begun to hem in the Murphys. The Murphys are pretty rude and loud themselves, but the series, in revealing that Frank’s seemingly insoluble work conundrum is going to threaten what little peace and security the family has, continues the thorny task of making the Murphys queasily relatable. The growing problem on the show is that they’re only so sympathetic because the rest of their world is uniformly unpleasant.
As has been the case in all three episodes so far, “The Trough” spins the family off in separate stories, in different groupings. Here, Frank—after finding out Kevin has unsurprisingly reneged on his promise of academic reform last episode—takes young Bill to the football game instead, using the tickets Frank received from his boss in order to ensure Frank’s loyalty in the looming strike at Mohican Airways. Sue takes Maureen to the mall to pick up supplies for her next knockoff Tupperware party (which sounds more like a scam the more we hear about it), and runs into an insufferably self-obsessed acquaintance who’s going through a divorce. Meanwhile, Kevin, left to his own devices and stinging from his parents’ rebukes, runs off to get high with his scabrous teen buddies under a bridge, bringing along the family’s easy-listening double album upon which to roll joints.
In each story, the world outside the Murphy home and family is horrible enough to send them all scrambling back together. Never mind that they’re all constantly at each other’s throats there—at least lower middle-class home is where they have to begrudgingly take you back in. Usually while calling you a “fuckin’ moron.”
F Is For Family is doing a good job in making its family’s pain affecting in spite of itself. The show exhibits a real feeling for the time and place, with little details like the rust and balky, leg-crunching door of Frank’s American car, or the fact that sports stadiums were always located in the bad (black) part of town stemming from co-creator Bill Burr’s childhood with real immediacy. A theme in Burr’s comedy is that we‘re all trapped by the specific ignorances of our upbringing, and that the best we can do is battle against the prejudices that were pounded into us. Burr’s Frank Murphy battles as best he can, but here, when confronted with an empty gas tank in a predominately black neighborhood, his innate bigotry comes out, landing him—via an unfortunately timed “white reporter undercover as a black man” exposé—labeled:
What’s interesting is that that reveal comes at the end of the episode, and isn’t presented as a big laugh so much as a dishearteningly inevitable development in the more nuanced depiction of the world that’s made Frank ripe for such humiliation. It’s Burr’s show, based on his own life, and if there’s criticism to be made about another show based on a white guy’s childhood, that’s fair. But F Is For Family keeps making Frank’s failings complicatedly sad and compelling.
In the history of white, working-class, not especially enlightened protagonists, he’s not Archie Bunker. Frank’s prejudices don’t hold much malice, or even conviction in them—as we see at the game when he turns into a groveling toady in the presence of the boorish CEO of the airline where he works (Gary Cole, doing his signature booming asshole authority figure voice), Frank’s mostly motivated by fear. When he tells Bill not to make eye contact with the black man asking for a lift to the gas station (actually the white reporter in blackface, it turns out), it’s a shitty thing to do, but it’s part of the portrait of racial attitudes that Burr and co-creator Michael Price are telling. It’s complicated by young Bill’s confusion at his father’s seemingly inexplicable choice to ignore a person in need, by the fact that the reporter is the same self-important, blithely bigoted newsman we’ve seen monopolizing all local, issue-based programming on TV, and by the fact that, in 1970s Massachusetts, a guy like Frank is most likely going to behave exactly like the reporter knows (and is hoping) he will. Not to beat the comparison into the ground, but this isn’t Family Guy’s racial humor, where the “we’re all thinking it!” button-pushing is the whole joke, but a more thoughtful, ultimately more character-based comedy. (Even if it is unquestionably told from a narrowly specific point of view.)
So when, later, Frank runs out of gas and into Rosie (Kevin Michael Richardson), his black friend from work, the depths of Frank’s entanglement in both his work dilemma and his blinkered attitudes trap him further. He likes Rosie and Rosie likes him, their solidarity as working stiffs in a lousy job bridging their social divide as lousy jobs have done since the beginning of time. But, in their beery camaraderie as Rosie (who seems to be the man at the local watering hole) dispatches someone to fetch Frank some gas, Frank’s screwed on two fronts. Bill innocently spills the beans about the corporate tickets to the game and his dad’s afternoon bonding with the boss, and, as Rosie learns later on the news, Frank’s terrified reaction to a black guy’s request for help is going to make him look even worse. Burr and Price are positioning Frank as the doomed exemplar of the unreflective man who just can’t understand why the world won’t give him a break.
In his daily rage at the world’s unfairness, Frank doesn’t acknowledge his own complicity. He drinks in the car in front of his son, and gets so drunk on the boss’ proffered brandy there that he has to keep the windows down on the way home (“So I can think!”), and, for the second episode in a row, nearly kills the boy by bellowing in defiance out of the moving car’s window. And, for the second episode in a row, one of Frank’s sons gets a first-hand look at how the ugly reality of having a job and being a grownup makes their father look a lot smaller. The title of the episode comes from one of those communal urinals that used to be the unfortunate norm at the sports arena, and when Bill—sent to pee alone since Frank is too busy sucking up to the CEO—witnesses the unholy spectacle of a roomful of drunk, pissing, shitting, stinking, swearing adult manhood, the wordless montage of the shattered boy finding his way back to his seat is a horribly funny and potent depiction of the disillusionment he feels with his father. (The jabber of nearly sub-verbal filth he hears in the men’s room is, along with the gag of an unspeakable shadow eclipsing the boy’s face, just the perfect accompaniment to the horror.) Like Kevin before him, Bill gets a glimpse of adulthood—and finds it degrading and gross.
Sue’s story, too, revisits the show’s exploration of her hidden despair, as her inability to escape the self-pitying tractor beam of the soon-to-be divorced Jenny leads to another, even more eloquent outburst. Finally frayed to breaking by Jenny’s incessant complaints about her marriage, Sue explodes, “My life isn’t perfect okay! Outside of being a wife and a mother I have nothing! I sell plastic that I cry into! We’ve all got our shit to carry, Jenny. Sometimes I wish I never got married!” Laura Dern kills the speech, naturally—she’s made a career out of scenes like that (do yourself a favor and watch Enlightened, by the way). And, as in last episode, the show’s broadening scope beyond Frank’s ranting unhappiness is a good thing. But to pick back up on my last review, F Is For Family is attempting a lot of heavy lifting without much time to accomplish everything it’s trying to do, and, if not for what Dern brings to the role, Sue just hasn’t had enough screen time for her story to be as affecting as intended. (Mo Ryan’s Jenny doesn’t help this storyline either—I get that Jenny’s meant to be a pill, but she’s too, well, cartoonish to be anything but an irritant.)
It’s fitting that Kevin—whose unwillingness to follow through on his promise to work harder in school—is the one who ultimately, if not uncomplicatedly, brings everyone back together in the end. After doubling down on his rebellion by getting stoned with some (again, too-cartoonishly awful to be entertaining) buddies, the pot and his festering resentment and confusion see him transforming the cover art of the album he’s brought into an idyllic vision of the family’s past, when he was little, and Frank loved him unconditionally. Like the other Murphys, Kevin’s stuck between loving his family and hating the limitations and disappointments they represent to him, and his idealized memory of a loving, wise Frank (“Remember this wonderful day ’cause there might be a time when you’re older and we’re not getting along so good. And you’ll remember that the most important thing in life is that I’ll always be your father and I’ll always love you”) sees him desperately trying to make it home in time to fool his parents that he’d been studying all day. (And putting the soothing former family favorite album on the turntable, softening the various Murphys’ festering resentments.) It also sees him bridling at Frank’s question of why he put the music on, spitting back, “’Cause I wanted to hear something sucky, okay?” Mood broken, swearing commences—in F Is For Family, home is hell, but it’s still the place you want to get back to when the outside world is so awful.
The problem is, as Frank’s story progresses, it looks like the world is coming in.
- In the show’s further deconstruction of 1970s TV heroism, potbellied detective Colt Luger adds “smacking broads” to his onscreen deeds.
- The nice old German-Jewish man that the kids keep theorizing is a Nazi gives Kevin a lift during the boy’s Ferris Bueller-esque race to beat his parents home. Seeing the man’s Star Of David air freshener, Kevin tells his siblings not to worry—he’s not a Nazi, but a super-cool Satanist! Baby steps, I guess.
- Frank telling Bill of the scabby football stadium, “It’s a cathedral” is another pitch-perfect evocation of the masculine romanticization of sport. I do it too, but also remember my first trip to Fenway Park, where the sight of that urinal trough made me question the idea. (They’re gone now.)
- Frank, trying to spin his day with the boss: ”I put a human face on the baggage handler’s union!” Rosie: “Which face am I talking to now?”