Promotional materials for F Is For Family don’t do the show any favors, hyping up comedian (and series star and co-creator) Bill Burr’s “anti-PC” credentials. The description, coupled with the series’ look (King Of The Hill crossed with 1970s Saturday morning cartoons) and Northeast-accented, blue-collar milieu bring disheartening echoes of Family Guy, and the idea of being outrageous for its own sake (or the sake of shock value and lazy jokes).
But Burr’s comedy, while “un-PC,” is deceptively nuanced in its worldview—or as nuanced as his rant-based standup can be. While Burr’s persona is that of a Masshole (he, like this author, is a Massachusetts native) with no patience for those who can’t confront—as he presents them—the realities of life, he’s also hardly one of the Blue Collar Comedy crowd. (He’s staunchly, if boorishly, pretty left-wing when it comes right down to it.) When, in his most recent special for example, Burr rails against those who attack Paula Dean, the Duck Dynasty guy, Donald Sterling, or any other celebrity of a certain age caught spewing racist or homophobic bullshit, his target isn’t so much those who are offended as it is those who are surprised. In Burr’s bombastic broadsides, the world is populated by blinkered dummies shaped to a helpless degree by their environments and the crappy hands they’ve been dealt, and the only thing a sane person can do is point, and laugh, and maybe even sympathize with how fucked we all are.
Frank Murphy, the protagonist of Burr’s autobiographical, 1973-set animated sitcom, is the embodiment of all Burr’s onstage rage. Presumably based on his own father (or other fathers like him), Frank is a Korean War vet, airport worker, and family man, with a wife and three kids. He owns his own, thin-walled home on a cul-de-sac in the ’burbs, and can’t afford a color TV His wife, Susan (Laura Dern) is supportive, even when her voice fairly trembles at those times she can’t help but let out her buried frustrations—like when the fancy new color TV she and Frank do buy to prop up his ego inexplicably goes on the fritz. His eldest son, a sullen stoner named Kevin (Justin Long), is deep into teenage rebellion and confused resentment. Protecting his younger brother from bullies, he whales on the thug until the kid slinks away, wet-pantsed—and then socks his brother in the stomach before stalking off himself.
In this first episode, Frank’s frustrations are established as the show’s driving force, and, in Burr’s barely restrained fury, pretty effectively. In his TV Review of the series, Zack Handlen feelingly describes how effective the show’s opening credits are in establishing Frank’s bona fides as the locus of 1970s white, blue-collar disappointment. It sees the young Frank graduating high school and soaring into the sky, literally high on the world‘s possibilities, only for the cold splat of a draft notice, a too-young marriage, bills, nearsightedness, hair loss, and a middle-aged spread to turn him into the man we see here even before he knows it’s happening. (It’s as effective a piece of preamble exposition as Watchmen’s.) What follows in this first episode is, for all its steady profanity and invective, a surprisingly thoughtful and affecting portrait of a guy who’s trying desperately to find just one moment of peace, because that’s all he thinks he’s got to look forward to.
The plot of the episode is standard sitcom stuff, as Frank boasts of a huge (33-inch!) television he doesn’t have in order to lure his neighbors to his house to watch the big fight, over the 32-inch promise of effortlessly smooth next-door neighbor Vic (Sam Rockwell, putting a deliciously placid Matthew McConaughey stamp on his ladies man character). When younger son, Bill (Haley Reinhart) innocently destroys the TV with his magnet science project, Frank’s fury sends him on a futile quest to get a refund from the asshole salesman who sold him the monstrosity (“the biggest and heaviest TV on the market”) in the first place, before Bill’s perhaps ill-learned lesson to emulate the “act first, think never” philosophy of his dad’s favorite television hero leads to a whole store of malfunctioning TVs, a replacement model, and the neighborhood fight night Frank wanted in the first place.
Never mind that the abandoned Vic can console himself with not one but two ladies orally servicing him during the fight (the episode’s rudest, most expertly deployed gag), or that Frank, celebrating his replacement TV, almost gets Sue, Bill, and himself t-boned by a truck by daring to celebrate (“You hear that world, Frank Murphy’s not a loser!” he bellows, right before almost being flattened), or that Kevin—momentarily taking the blame for killing the television—screams “I fuckin’ hate you!” to his dad before storming off. Frank won one, his night with his sort-of friends watching his favorite crappy (white, Irish) boxer get destroyed while eating deviled eggs and drinking fancy (meaning bottled) beer giving him just enough to get through to tomorrow.
I’m watching and reviewing this Netflix series one episode at a time (as is my habit), so I’m choosing to believe that F Is For Family will address some of this first episode’s weaknesses by the time the sixth and final episode rolls around. While it’s critic boilerplate to say that pilots are tough, the fact that this show’s first season only has six episodes (and that it was all released as a single entity) means that it is already what it’s going to be—which means that the two younger Murphy kids (Reinhart’s Bill and Debi Derryberry’s Maureen), and Frank’s neighbors (Rockwell’s Vic excepted) aren’t especially well-drawn. Additionally, the episode isn’t laugh out loud hilarious—but that seems more like design.
When, in the first scene, Frank attempts to ignore the ringing phone that’s interrupting family dinner (and the doomed-to-disappoint work story he’s dying to tell), both his futile plan to let it ring and his eventual spitting rage at the guy trying to sell him an engraved bible (“I almost bled out in Korea! I have met God!”) are pitched less for broad laughs than as an introduction of Frank’s bottomless, barely acknowledged impotent frustration. When Frank repeatedly slams the wall phone back in place and stamps wordlessly into the garage (and his heavy bag), Sue just as wordlessly places the casserole lid over his dinner to keep it warm. This has happened before.
- One of the interesting things about F Is For Family’s 1970s setting is that there’s no such thing as “PC culture” for Burr’s Frank to deconstruct. Instead, former Simpsons writer* (and co-creator) Michael Price is free to seed little era-specific satirical moments throughout, like the running gag that local television current affairs programs (one about the civil rights movement, one about feminism) are both broadcast in the wee hours, and are both hosted by the same insensitive white guy. Or that Frank’s moment of triumph in getting a new, American-made replacement TV for his Korean-made original comes soured with the store owner’s observation, “Those Orientals don’t do good work, their hands are too small.” There’s a lived-in offensiveness in everyday life that goes a long way toward advancing Burr’s usual themes. *(Michael Price has reached out to inform me that he’s still a writer on The Simpsons. Apologies for the error, and for inadvertently kicking Mr. Price out of the writer’s room.)
- Even the super-cool Vic’s laid-back worldview is unthinkingly narrow, as he rebuts a neighbor’s assertion that they should all be rooting for the white boxer by relating how black people are cool because he once ran into one of the Four Tops washing his armpits at the radio station where he works. “We made eye contact,” he asserts, proudly.
- The 1970s details are specific but not overdone in this first episode. Frank’s taciturn cop show hero (Colt Luger) beats up longhairs and “ethnics” exclusively, and appears to be wearing a girdle.
- I can attest to the fact that 1970s white Massholes were inordinately invested in mediocre white boxers (think Gerry Cooney), like the episode’s brilliantly named “Irish Mickey Ireland,” who, during the long-awaited rematch with the black champ, has already started bleeding from the nose before the fight even starts. “He was wearing a turtleneck,” rationalizes the white announcer, “And those are very difficult to remove at this altitude.”
- I can also confirm and confess that I ruined the family TV by fucking around with a magnet when I was a little kid. And that I, like Bill, just prayed my parents would assume the thing was simply faulty. (Sorry, Mom & Dad.)
- And the idea that 1970s suburban neighborhoods in Massachusetts were invariably bordered by stretches of yet-undeveloped woods full of abandoned washing machines and mean big kids looking for trouble.
- One neighbor (too nondescript to have a name as yet), calls Frank’s bluff, proclaiming, “Frank, I look through your window every night—you don’t have a color TV.”
- That credits sequence is set to Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love.” As much as it served to express rootless rapscallion Peter Quill’s carefree existence in Guardians Of The Galaxy, its smoothly upbeat groove ironically underscores how the young Frank’s options are methodically closed off here.
- I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer for the next six days. Look for my reviews at noon, and, as ever with streaming shows, spoilers in the comments will get you flagged into a million pieces. As Willow Rosenberg once said, “A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend.”