In F Is For Family’s terrific opening sequence, a cap-and-gown-wearing graduate leaps into the sky, flying toward the bright future ahead—only to be brought back down to earth by the inevitabilities of real life: a draft notice, marriage, and a slowing failing body. It’s a great visual set up for the series, establishing the life of not-so-quiet desperation that will run through the entire show, but it’s also a slyly misleading one. The young graduate launched into the stratosphere grows up to be Frank Murphy (Bill Burr), baggage handler and disgruntled patriarch of the Murphy family. The story of Frank‘s struggles with work and home life are a big part of each episode, but where the credits suggest a one-man-against-the-world scenario, F Is For Family turns out to be much smarter than that. Frank’s important, but nearly every member of the Murphy clan gets their chance to suffer in the spotlight. It’s these shifting perspectives, and the way they frequently contradict and overlap with each other, that makes the show so promising.
Don’t misunderstand: This isn’t an epic family saga. There’s plenty of sharp humor to go around, from slapstick to absurdism, although the latter never completely breaks the show’s essentially realistic approach. But having several well-defined characters to follow around helps the comedy and the storytelling, and the way the various Murphys develop over time is an unexpected delight. Frank’s wife, Sue (Laura Dern), is the perfect example: Starting as what looks like the standard-model sitcom wife (supportive, glue that holds the family together, the sanest grown-up in the house, etc.), F Is For Family slowly pulls back to reveal Sue as a woman driven to despair by the limitations of her life. The extra layer saves her from being a stock figure, and the way the show handles her efforts to broaden her horizons manages to be funny and heartbreaking all at once.
That’s crucial, because if it wasn’t funny, F Is For Family would be almost agony to watch. For a show without a body count, it manages to pack a lot of misery into its short first season, and the tone veers wildly between heightened sitcom nuttiness and dark-night-of-the-soul anguish, sometimes within the same scene. Those shifts don’t always work, but even the clumsiest transitions have a power to them. At its best, it can be hard to tell if you’re laughing to keep from crying, or just laughing—or if it matters at all. The six episodes tell a surprisingly tight narrative, but that serialization doesn’t get in the way of storytelling on an episodic level, which makes for an impressive, and effective, balancing act. Each individual entry is satisfying in its own right, but the way they build off one another makes them more than the sum of their parts. It’s an approach that more shows might do well to follow.
The downside, though, is that with such a short run, F Is For Family is an experience that feels almost, but not quite, whole. The sixth episode works hard to tie everything together without being overly complete, and the effort shows. The ending isn’t too neat, not by a long shot, but it feels like something good that left off just as it was becoming great. With only six half-hours to work with, the writers do solid work with the Murphys, but leave nearly every other character on the show as a series of broad, frequently cruel caricatures. Only Vince (Sam Rockwell), Frank’s agonizingly cool next-door neighbor, has something of an arc by the end.
While living in a world of hateful or indifferent monsters makes the Murphys’ tenuous connection as a family more important—and also allows for some solid, out-of-left-field gags—it sacrifices one of the writings’ great strengths. Every time we discover something new about one of the family members, or watch them trying (and almost always failing) to pull things together, it leaves a mark. Without those marks, F Is For Family would be a solid, but unimpressive way to spend an afternoon. With them, it’s a bitter, but deeply empathetic portrayal of suburban malaise and depression that also doubles as a very funny TV show. Hopefully future seasons will expand on other characters as well as the Murphys themselves, and live up to the high expectations it establishes here. For right now, it’s a great start, but one that’s only starting to soar.