With only six episodes to play with in its first season, it’s wise that F Is For Family isn’t wasting any time in introducing its characters’ individual problems and issues. Instead of easing into Frank Murphy’s barely suppressed rage at his lot, or wife Sue’s better-hidden depression about hers, or the Murphy kids’ various growing pains and fears, the series dives right in in “Saturday Bloody Saturday.” By the end of this second episode, we’ve got a fuller picture of how Frank’s job joins with his family pressures to keep him perpetually on the boil, how Sue’s traditional placater role hides an equally desperate dissatisfaction (that no amount of off-brand Tupperware can alleviate), how Kevin’s grunting rebelliousness covers a lot of pain and a decent heart, and how Bill and Maureen’s rambunctiousness doesn’t preclude the youngest Murphys from being aware of what’s going on around them. The weakness in F Is For Family’s storytelling is in the gap between telling and showing.
In a season so short, the series’ admirable rush to lay everything out there requires an immediacy of feeling for these characters that hasn’t been wholly established yet. In a recent review for another show, I made the case that simply intending something to be moving or resonant isn’t sufficient if the emotional groundwork hasn’t been laid down first. What you’re left with in that case is just that—a case with too little inside. The difference is that that was a show that’s been around for 27 years, while F Is For Family is looking to get viewers invested after about 35 minutes of television.
“Sunday Bloody Saturday” doesn’t not work—it’s just that it’d work better if certain aspects of the show were better realized. (And I get that it’s asking a lot of a show with only three hours to establish its entire world, but, well, that’s what F Is For Family has set out to do.) Bill Burr remains the series’ biggest asset, his familiarity with and investment in Frank’s story lending his performance the immediacy the role needs. Even though Burr’s bluster as Frank is consistently entertaining, it’s a testament to how well he’s built up the character from the start that two of Frank’s best moments in the episode are silent. When he’s driving Kevin (who he’s just discovered is flunking nearly all his classes) to some unknown destination, the lingering, wordless reaction shots of him stonily not responding to his son’s increasingly desperate demands to know where he’s being taken are effectively funny—and in Frank’s voice. Similarly, the bookended scene at episode’s end—where Frank stares blankly ahead while Kevin appreciatively recounts the hell he’s just witnessed that is his dad’s work life—is an eloquently, painfully funny sequence because we can hear Burr’s Frank even in the silence.
Sue’s story approaches the same level of emotional intensity, as she, after chirpily and efficiently running down her Tupperware (here called “Plasti-Ware”) party checklist in her empty house, sits for a long moment—the silence broken only by dripping faucet and ticking clock—before breaking down into wrenching sobs. (Even alone but for the Murphys’ brainless, hump-happy dog, Major, she crams a transparent plastic bowl over her head to try and muffle her despair.) Dern, always a world-class weeper, really throws all she’s got into Sue’s story here—her desperately cheerful explanatory chat with Major afterwards is just as worrisome as her breakdown. (“No, don’t go. Here, more cheese!”) The only thing holding Sue’s portrait back is that, unlike the ranting, front-and-center Frank, Sue’s only had a handful of lines up ‘til this point.
Where F Is For Family struggles most is in the Murphy kids. Kevin—central to much of “Saturday Bloody Saturday”—continues to come across best of the three, which makes sense. He’s older, for one, his burgeoning awareness of the narrowness of his life choices making him more in line with his parents’ (and the show’s) depiction of life’s built-in futility. And Justin Long’s a good, funny actor. It’s just that he’s not necessarily a great voice actor. Voice acting’s a specialized skill, and great actors don’t always translate to great animated characters—here, his marble-mouthed inarticulateness just isn’t an original or distinct enough creation. Just listen to Kevin Michael Richardson’s performance here in the small role of Frank’s work buddy Rosie, where Richardson’s decades of experience in the field helps create a rounded character in just a few lines. Long’s doing fine as Kevin, but, even in his big emotional scene where the terrified Kevin buys into Frank’s lie that he’s going to be sent off to Vietnam, Long hasn’t made Kevin specific enough a character to make the character’s emotional pain as immediate as it should be.
The same goes for Bill and Maureen, although perhaps too much experience might be the culprit there. For all Debi Derryberry’s extensive work in animation, her Maureen (and singer and former American Idol contestant Haley Reinhardt’s Bill) are too shrilly similar to the cartoon kids we’ve heard over the years. The show is working at differentiating them—here, Bill’s tasked with keeping his little sister safe and out of trouble, while Maureen continues to utilize Frank’s blind spot about his “Princess” to get away with reckless mischief—but their adventures with the “dirty kids” down the street aren’t as well integrated into the flow of the show so far. (F Is For Family hasn’t distinguished itself with its supporting characters in general—those “dirty kids” are just excuses for lazy hick humor up to this point.) The episode swings for big heart with their final line, the bruised Maureen answering Bill’s concern with the little girl’s “I can walk, but I still want you to carry me.” It’s sweet, but their story is by far the weakest.
All of this may make it seem I’m down on F Is For Family, but that’s not the case. This is a surprisingly ambitious show (especially compared to its pre-release advertising, which suggested something far dumber and cruder). I’m hearing some Bojack Horseman comparisons out there, and, while F Is For Family isn’t on that level, it’s playing in the same ballpark. Both shows are taking advantage of the Netflix model to ply a specifically dark and thoughtful spin on the traditional sitcom, and, while this series’ short running time might hold it back from reaching Bojack’s layered success, I’m appreciating it the more it reveals.
- The death of Frank’s boss revealed at the end of the first episode is not only more horrific than first understood (his head was lopped off by a plane propeller on the runway!), but also sets up Frank for both new opportunities and new headaches at work. His baggage handler coworkers are contemplating a strike, and now Frank is technically management (with corporate tickets to the big football game and all). For a guy who just wants to get by without any hassles, Frank’s strategy for now is to hope no one gets mad at him and that everything will turn out okay.
- Kevin’s rapprochement with his father upon seeing how shitty Frank’s job life is might come off a little rushed, but the way he articulates his sympathy, not realizing how crushed Frank is, is just the right note of bleak comedy for the episode to end on. (“What an awful job you have. You’re like a human urinal. I was so embarrassed for you. Your soul must be weeping. She was, like, shoveling her own feces into your mouth and you just had to keep eating it.”) Burr’s timing is especially good, inserting little “uh huh”s and “yep”s without slowing down Kevin’s unthinking litany of his father’s humiliations.
- Sam Rockwell’s Vic continues to rub his seemingly ideal bachelor’s existence in Frank’s face without meaning to, here interrupting his lawnmower riding (with a topless ladyfriend) to invite Frank to come to the beach (for some “wave humpin’”).
- Frank’s funniest and darkest line of the series so far, convincing Kevin that he’s being sent off to Vietnam: “It’s a win-win—you’re done with school, and we might get a nice folded flag out of it.”
- Second place goes to his line to Bill about being nice to Maureen: “And be nice to your sister. Someday you’re gonna be sleepin’ on her couch after your first divorce.”
- And this: “Oh, we all wanna go home, Kevin, but sometimes you have to destroy an entire culture first before that’s possible.”
- It is easy to imagine young Bill Burr in Bill’s line to his sister, “I’m just tryin’ to protect you! Do you have a death wish, you stupid fuck?”
- That’s David Koechner, putting some phlegm in his voice as Frank’s Jabba-like Boss, Bob. Again—Koechner’s a funny guy, but Bob’s more gross than distinctively funny.
- In this episode’s example of 1970s insensitivity (aside from Frank’s TV hero Colt Luger burning some Asian stereotypes alive):