“A Girl Named Sue” opens on the same flashback to 1958 that opened the season, flipped to the college age Sue’s point of view. Happily studying a physics textbook in her sorority house, she’s roused by her housemate’s announcement that “another pervert” is lurking outside. But Sue’s delighted to see Frank in his convertible, trim, smoking, and cocky in his Air National Guard uniform, telling her friend dreamily, “I just have this feeling. Like, if I’m with him, we can have everything.”
Any fictional character, especially one in an essentially miserablist sitcom like F Is For Family, who says such a thing is doomed to disappointment. The series is largely about dealing with life’s inevitable disappointments—specifically those of the white, working class post-WWII generation that Sue, Frank, and series co-creator Bill Burr’s parents are part of—and of how those disappointments shape (or deform) us into the people we eventually become. For present-day Sue, that means quickly sweeping the extremely overdue bills into a drawer as she assures the unemployed Frank that she’s always believed in him, realizing that the job she fought to take in order to prove her self-worth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and occasionally interrupting a quickie with your husband because the family dog just barfed on the floor.
Last season, Sue’s journey to employment and semi-independence was one of F Is For Family’s best realized character arcs. Naturally, it doesn’t hurt when a character coping with stifled ambitions and barely contained anguish is voiced by Laura Dern, but Sue’s story also allowed the show to escape the box its marketing put it in (and continues to put it in). It’s difficult to read any description of the series that doesn’t claim* that Burr and co-creator Michael Price’s mission is to “show the absurdity of political correctness!,” a label that, to some potential viewers, acts as a big neon sign warning of deliberate button-pushing for its own sake. (As an example, I refer you back to one of my first A.V. Club reviews—and first ‘F’ grade—the sub-Family Guy animated abomination Brickleberry.) But F Is For Family isn’t that. Or, rather, it is, in the sense that everyone on the 1970s-set show is profane, abusive to their kids, and/or boorishly insensitive on issues relating to women, gays, people of color, and anything remotely outside their immediate experience. It still mines most of its biggest laughs from its characters’ bursts of creatively profane rage, and it’s hardly aghast at the idea, but F Is For Family, at its best, couches all the boorishness firmly in its characters’ world, in all its often ugly complexity.
Here, Sue’s continued employment with Plast-a-Ware comes to a head once Frank, his depression-beard shaven and a song in his heart, tells her confidently that she can quit now that he’s got his old job back. We can see Frank’s downfall coming (and more on that is coming), but Sue’s response shows how much more subtly the show is prepared to delve into its characters’ disappointments. Sue is stunned at Frank’s words, and, considering how hard she had to fight to get Frank to climb off his “no woman of mine” high horse last season, the fuse is lit for a fight. But Sue’s overjoyed, but not because she’s thrilled at Frank’s oblivious idea that she can do anything she wants, “as long as you’re home by three.” Instead, Sue’s excited because work sucks, especially as a middle-aged woman selling plastic crap door-to-door. Her female boss smiles sweetly as she barks demeaning sing-song orders at her, and Sue’s continually dissatisfied number one customer is a crazy cat lady who complains about her butter tubs not burping properly. Zoning out in the woman’s cat-crawling house, Sue imagines herself the star of a TV sitcom called “The Woman Who Gave Up Working And Went Back To Being Just A Mom And There’s Nothing Wrong With That Show.” (She does recast Frank with the young James Garner, because why wouldn’t you?)
Meanwhile, Frank’s too-good-to-be-true job offer from former supervisor Bob Pogo is, well, too good to be true. At least it sure seems that way, thanks to Bob’s iffy communication skills. As we saw with his weirdly discursive answering machine message last episode (where he, among other things, took time to scream endearments to his wife on the other line), Bob can’t get to the point, and here it costs Frank. Like Sue’s story this week, Frank’s defeat comes to us in unexpected ways, as Bob first starts out by recapping how Frank’s post-firing vengeance cost Bob some fingers in that cold Cadillac (he also crapped himself “for warmth”), before he reveals that Frank’s only needed for a three day gig training up his odious replacement. Frank’s with us in intuiting that Bob’s call was all a cruel bit of payback, so he launches into one of his usual, insulting tirades—costing him the job at another airline Bob had planned to arrange for him. It’s a contrived way to keep Frank unemployed, but one rooted in the characters’ established antagonism, and sold with full-throated comic commitment by Burr and David Koechner. “It’s called storytelling! I was building to it!,” booms Bob when Frank asks why he’d led with the bad news, a wonderfully odd touch that almost makes up for the way Bob’s Jabba-like corpulence keeps being played for gross laughs. (Ugly generally equals awful on F Is For Family, with unsightly moles on women being this episode’s other character model shorthand.)
In the end, as Bob bellows, it’s Frank’s ego that scuttles his return to work, along with, I’d add, one of those crowd-pleasing, mean-spirited outbursts that the series’ advertizing plays up. The same goes for Sue, whose “take this job and shove it” (she does, in fact, tell the cat lady to shove things up her ass) moment when she thinks Frank has got the job turns to abject begging once Frank calls drunkenly from the bar where he’s drowning his sorrows with now-former co-worker Rosie (Kevin Michael Richardson). Applying for a job at Plast-a-Ware HQ, Sue swallows her pride as she strides resolutely to meet her new boss, Tracy, Helen Reddy’s soft-rock feminist anthem “I Am Woman” playing over the scene.
That Tracy turns out to be a cartoonishly sexist man (he’s looking at a porno mag and assesses Sue’s “rack” within 20 seconds of their meeting), Sue can only swallow her pride even more. Again, the guy behind the desk is who Frank would be if this really were a show about thoughtlessly cruel, smirking assholes. The show’s shift to a Mad Men-style sexist office environment for Sue’s story promises to draw that distinction further, although Tracy’s broadness echoes a lot of what’s off about this episode (and F Is For Family when it’s not at its best).
Peopled almost exclusively by brash, broadly drawn characters, and animated with a hit-or-miss eye for grotesquerie, F Is For Family can get awfully trying when it’s tipped too far into caricature. Those feral neighbor kids have yet to grow on me, Mo Collins’ let’s call it “gift” for over-the-top voices seems to come out of all the most objectionably loud characters, and Justin Long’s moaning teen mumble as Kevin has yet to develop into anything relatable. Plus, “A Girl Named Sue” begins with the promise that we’re going to get Sue’s side of the Murphys‘ family saga. In practice though—despite Dern’s formidable pipes as Sue threatens her squabbling sons once she’s reached the end of her rope—she gets drowned out too much of the time.
*A previous version of this sentence was unclear, in that I made it sound like Price and Burr’s mission was an attack on “political correctness.” The correction is meant to indicate that the show is more nuanced on that score than its marketing generally makes it seem.
- Sam Rockwell’s Vic seems headed for a drug abuse storyline this season, as we see him snorting a huge line of coke off his steering wheel on the way to work, his gleeful, “I can quit any time I want!” as he peels out of the cul de sac a funny omen of things to come.
- After his “go to Hawaii” advice for Frank last week, Vic suggests getting a tiger. He knows a guy. They’ll even file its teeth down so it’s like being bitten by “a 400-pound duck.”
- Kevin keeps beating up Bill for borrowing his comedy album by the suspiciously Cheech and Chong-esque team of Bong Water and Spliff.
- Kevin’s subplot about him wooing mean girl Claire might serve to give Kevin some depth, if the presence of his enduringly crude and unfunny two pals didn’t continue to make his scenes tough to sit through.
- That’s John DiMaggio as Frank’s replacement, boss’ son, and racist former baseball player, Scoop Dunbarton. He has a dent in his head and yells. A lot. We’ll see.
- Rosie gives Frank a lead on a delivery job, after responding, not unkindly, to his friend’s complaints by stating, “I’m trying to sympathize, Frank, but you’re in a black man’s bar. Your bottom is six floors above our ceiling.” (“These people really like to participate,” deadpans Burr, after everyone in the bar chimes in in agreement.)
- Youngest Murphy Maureen continues to hint at her interest in computers, although her dad isn’t picking up on it. Referring to Maureen’s proffered coloring book picture of a computer technician, Frank beams of her reluctant entry into the Girl Scout-like Honeybees, “Princess, you’ll do lots of coloring in Honeybees. That’s all you’ll do!”