(Screenshot: Netflix)

“Okay, that wasn’t us at our best,” concedes Frank Murphy after a frustratingly abortive session of morning sex with wife Sue. It really wasn’t, what with Frank wanting to leave his socks on then scraping Sue with his unkempt toenails when he takes them off, an errant knee in the nuts, and some especially untimely farting. Middle-aged parents of three though they are, Sue and Frank are still hot for each other, after a fashion, their unplanned-pregnancy-stunted young adulthood still emerging in respectably horny friskiness, whenever the kids are otherwise distracted and the family dog isn’t barfing in the background. Here, the couple wakes up still in a fight, Frank wheedlingly but peevishly apologizing for stealing Sue’s money. (Note to Frank, an attempt at burying the hatchet with a spouse shouldn’t start with “As I mentioned, many times yesterday…”)

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The Murphys have problems other than Frank’s desperation pilfering. Their money troubles have the couple living “like roommates,” as Sue puts it later in the episode, with Frank getting home from his delivery route just as Sue leaves for job at Plast-a-Ware. That leaves the kids more or less on their own, spurring childhood resentments that have repercussions Frank and Sue don’t even know about yet, while Sue’s anxiety over her big pitch to the head of the company leads her to forget the couple’s anniversary. Frank’s hurt, but brightens at the thought that Sue’s transgression evens the marital scales. “See? We all make mistakes! Exactly equal mistakes!,” he beams, imagining himself off the hook. And he is, for the moment, as he and Sue make plans for a date night, and start to make love. But, as ever, on F Is For Family, wallpapering over problems only delays the inevitable. In the morning, they can’t connect in bed. By the end of the day, they’re in separate beds (or couch, in Frank’s case), and Frank, calling to consent to Bob Pogo’s plan to get his old job back, confides to his old boss, “I need to save my marriage.” He’s not wrong.

F Is For Family is very much about how we do, or do not, allow our circumstances to dictate who we are. Frank and Sue finally have it out—not just their ruined date night, or Frank’s transgression in taking Sue’s money, or Sue’s in forgetting their anniversary—but everything. Laura Dern and Bill Burr scream themselves hoarse as the couple, summoned to Maureen’s school because her vice principal can’t fathom that a girl aced a math aptitude test without cheating, first start sniping about the day’s resentments, and then proceed to drop bombs on each other about the very foundations of their marriage. It’s a predictable scene, in a way, and a predictably loud one. F Is For Family operates on an upper register, the characters’ milieu dictating a certain manner of expression. They’re not subtle, is what I’m saying, and neither is the show. It can get trying. And yet, as Sue and Frank (in the persons of Dern and Burr) lay into each other, it becomes almost unbearable, predictable or not. When Frank finally blasts Sue with the fact that her unintended pregnancy with Kevin is the only reason they’re there dealing with the smugly infuriating mundanity of this situation in the first place, it’s with the joke of Frank getting way too specific about the nature of the sex act that caused it. Still, as Maureen and two bystanders are forced to watch and listen, the couple’s mutual destruction builds to a tragi-comic chaos. (It should be noted that Burr—nowhere near the actor Dern is—generally matches her on F Is For Family, nowhere more than here. This is clearly a world Burr can access with a painful honesty that ups his game.)

“What is the point of it anyway?,” aks Bill early in the episode, after Frank won’t let him stay home from school, despite Bill’s early-morning paper delivery schedule. “The point is that’s life and life has no point!,” bellows Frank, who then launches into one of those Frank Murphy tirades, ending with the inevitability of dying alone and your cats eating your face. Over the course of this season especially, Bill’s learned his father’s lessons about seething resentment all too well, his former role as the family’s goodhearted naif transforming gradually into the new neighborhood bully. Having engineered former school thug Jimmy’s banishment to “Catholic military school,” Bill now lets his anger at his father, and at life in general, inform a day of hooky, vandalism, and, eventually, genuinely dangerous mischief. When the reluctantly tagging-along Phillip balks at Bill’s plan to toss a leaf-stuffed effigy of Frank into oncoming traffic, Bill sneers, “You pussy!” and pushes him down. “I don’t want to be friends with you any more,” says the crushed Phillip, and Bill looks momentarily crushed as well, as his one friend rides away on his bike. And then he gets back to his dummy-related prank.

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Kevin, heretofore the Murphy most likely to skip school, opens the episode inside Vic’s obliging girlfriend (who Vic refers to repeatedly here as “Cutie Pie,” which is about as much agency as she continues to have). Still, the consequences of the adult woman having sex with her boyfriend’s 14-year-old neighbor comes crashing down in a way that belies how blithely she seemed to be into the deed for the purposes of the visual gag that closed out last episode. (“Cutie Pie” is still a disaster of a character, but at least she feels bad about having sex with a kid. I guess?) Kevin, swearing “Stupid dick!” at his actual dick as the woman shoos him back out into the cold, is further along in his resentment than his little brother, but what he imagined was his graduation into manhood leaves him just as confused and hurt as before. (Voluptuously porny tableau of him curled smilingly up against “Cutie Pie”’s nude breasts and 1970s-appropriate bush notwithstanding.) Plus, when the even more coked-up than usual Vic invites his band to play at a party Vic’s throwing, Kevin is certain he’s about to have his block knocked off by a grown man.

The youngest Murphy gets her dose of disillusionment, too, both in the form of everyone’s assumption that a girl can’t be as smart as she definitely is, and in watching aghast as her parents take big, vicious bites out of each other for things she can barely understand. The joke of Maureen’s computer science ambitions running counter to her dad’s generational notions of what she can/should be has been brewing all season. But here, when her parents’ very public fight winds up breaking down the little Asian boy everyone thinks she cheated off of (thus introducing a whole other poor kid struggling against stereotype), Maureen’s “Now can I join computer club?” lands like a punch line with all the juice squeezed from it. Nobody’s laughing.

Even though Sue and Frank both score a few minor victories along the way here, the entire Murphy family winds up awake, and staring at the ceiling, alone. Sue had summoned her passion—and some healthy anger—to finally sell her meek Salad-Tosser pitch to the snooty “Mrs. Plast-a-Ware,” Henrietta Van Horne. Frank, after ineptly faking sick to Smokey so he could get the night off, is instead given it as soon as Smokey understands it’s Frank’s anniversary. (Frank and Smokey’s improbably growing mutual respect remains one of F Is For Family’s most deftly sketched relationships.) But, again, there’s just too much the Murphys have collectively buried for anyone to come away with a happy ending—or even a night’s sleep. Anyone but Bill, who smiles in his bed, imagining that the catharsis of his day’s acting out has made all his problems go away. When the episode ends with the now-buzzcut Jimmy leaving the military school meant to straighten him out, only for the little creep to stand, Shawshank-like in the thunder and rain and bellow at God, “Is that all you got, pussy?,” it’s an ominous reminder that all this anger and pain and disappointment is going to come out—somehow.

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Stray observations

  • Henrietta is another side character whose broadness jangles against the more nuanced (if incessantly loud) Murphys. I did like that the wealthy old woman has a collection of monkeys’ paws, though, and that her superciliousness to Sue is eventually portrayed as a supportive—if tone-deaf—sisterhood.
  • The fact that she’s voiced by Allison Janney doesn’t hurt, either. “No pressure dear—your five minutes began 46 seconds ago,” is a finely calibrated taunt.
  • Henrietta, on the Salad-Tosser: “As I said to my high school choir director, ‘I want this baby! And I want to sell it!’”
  • Smokey, pretending to buy Frank’s flu excuse: “Why don’t you come down, so I can take your rectal temperature… with my goddamned foot!”
  • Still, Smokey’s hobby of sabotaging a number of his delivery condoms (along with kindly Holocaust survivor Mr. Holtenwasser saying that Jimmy makes him “see the other side of sterilization”) are the sort of gags that come off as too calculatedly “edgy.”
  • And why do we need the sub-(sub-)plot about Ginny and her closeted husband, Greg? It was tough to be gay in the 1970s, sure, but the joke here that Greg loudy hooks up in a department store changing room every week while Ginny chatters on obliviously outside isn’t original or funny enough to be anything but exhausting.
  • “I felt that song in my balls!” “Coming from your balls, that means a lot!”
  • Scoop continues to terrorize everyone at Mohican, here spraying Bob with a fire extinguisher while yelling “Who wants ice cream?” David Koechner makes Bob’s horrified “No! It burns! The ice cream burns!” another big laugh from the strange mind of Bob Pogo.

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