With ten episodes this season, F Is For Family is spending some time filling out its world outside the Murphy home. And while that’s a fine idea in theory, the series’ supporting characters continue to be jarringly unpleasant and—what’s worse—deeply uninteresting. Sam Rockwell’s purring hedonist Vic is always fun in the small doses (or bumps, considering his ever-present coke vial), and his story tonight gives us a little more Rockwell than usual, which is generally a plus. But an overwhelming number of the show’s side characters are awfully grating as a rule, with one-note characterizations, flatly conceived character models, and bellowing, shrill voices. In its six-episode first season, it was easier to brush past the show’s worst ideas and bit players. Giving them more time to do their thing in this second season is exposing how flimsy they are.
Except when they aren’t, as Michael Kenneth Williams’ turn as Frank’s prospective new boss Smoky is just as loud as you’d expect, but a lot more lived-in. F Is For Family, for as broadly as it goes at times, continues to make some ticklish comedy out of the show’s take on 1970s race relations. Here, as Frank makes an atrocious meal while he waits for Sue to come home from work, he’s in a particularly foul mood, even snapping back at beloved daughter Maureen’s “I love you,” with a petulant, “No you don’t! Nobody does!” When Rosie calls to tell him that Smoky is coming to pick him up for his trial run on the delivery truck (rather than Frank meeting him at the warehouse), Frank’s panicked “He’s comin’ here? To my street?” elicits a knowing response from Rosie. (“I know what you just..”)
Unlike another famous blue collar 1970s family man, Archie Bunker, Frank Murphy’s conservatism isn’t his primary character trait. It’s there, sure—in the episode, he’s interrupted by Sue’s arrival home in mid-rant against her “abandoning her post” by leaving the house and getting a job. But Frank’s anger at the world is so couched in his own self-loathing that he generally only lashes out at those who threaten his pride and ego directly (especially his loved ones). Still, Rosie knows what Frank’s talking about when Frank’s aghast at the thought of Smoky’s (as it turns out, graffiti-covered, backfiring) delivery truck pulling into the cul de sac, even though Frank’s shame at taking a job he thinks is beneath him (at $1.35 an hour) accounts for some of his embarrassment. And, unlike his neighbors, who either try way too hard to seem cool (“Hey, you’re black! I work with a guy who works with Hank Aaron’s niece!”), or outright shitty (Frank’s handyman neighbor Babe immediately springs out of his house wielding a baseball bat), Frank’s reaction to Smoky’s blackness is of a piece with all the other things about his situation that are making him miserable.
And Smoky matches Frank perfectly, in that he, too, just doesn’t give a shit. Not about anything other than making his paycheck and getting on with his life, at any rate. He simply needs a sucker to drive that rattletrap of a truck, not crush the Hershey bars, and not leave the back door of the truck open, something Frank does, sending the night’s hard-earned take of loose change scattered all over a busy street. Williams and Bill Burr find a funny rhythm as the odd couple co-workers, Frank’s desperate need to keep the job seeing him, equally desperately, trying to play along with the eccentric routine Smoky’s built for himself over the years. The biggest laugh of the episode is when Frank asks why Smoky’s rhyme-based door-locking procedure ends up with the car keys stuffed down their socks, rather than just on the key ring. “The rhyme came first, the system came later!,” snaps Smoky, leaving us to wonder at the workings of the guy’s mind. Similarly weird are Smoky’s allegiance to the two-strike rule (based on “American Legion, co-ed softball”), and his other rhyming coda about where to hide the change. (Frank attempts to add “coin to loin” to the rhyme, only to be reprimanded, “Don’t improvise motherfucker, this ain’t jazz.”)
The younger Murphys all show signs of everyday society’s racism seeping into their adventures tonight. Hearing the word “pimp,” on the television, Maureen asks for a definition, and Bill responds innocently, “You watch Colt Luger. It’s a black guy.” (Later, the two play the Colt Luger board game—hey, even Archie Bunker had one—where the TV cop’s recorded voice advises, “You just smacked a broad, roll again!”) And Kevin makes subtext text when he and his two friends/would-be bandmates go looking for drugs to bribe a DJ into playing their prog rock demo tape, and run through their checklist of what a drug dealer looks like. (Black, wearing a vest.) When they, indeed, run into a stereotypically dressed black guy, he turns out to be an actual pimp, who misinterprets their ten bucks and need for “white stuff” as payment for his white prostitute. F Is For Family is unapologetically told from the Murphys’ point of view—it’s inspired by Bill Burr’s childhood—but it’s not wholeheartedly endorsing it, either.
The main problem with this series all along has been its occasionally wobbly ability to make the most grotesque elements it’s satirizing funny in an original way. I keep harping on the supporting characters, but F Is For Family, as well as it handles some of the central characters, too often relies on gross broadness (or is that broad grossness) for what the writers imagine to be huge belly-laughs. When Kevin and his friends (who may be the most egregiously unlikeable pair on the show) speed away from the pimp and his prostitute, it’s at least partly because she’s made morbidly obese and all-around unappealing. The shot lingers on her dealing with her mammoth, stretchmarked breast lolling out of her blouse while she and the pimp argue, loudly. There, for all the satirical lead-up, the payoff is the woman’s grossness. It’s, well, gross. Earlier, as the boys rehearse their song, they take hits from a bong fashioned from a baby doll, (I’ve seen weirder), but it’s all to facilitate the punchline, “Whoa, he’s suckin’ the shit out of that baby!” Kevin—who has a drug freakout where he hallucinates that he’s turning into his father (his greatest fear)—has a decent heart inside all his sullen teen angst, but, as comic relief, his buddies are just unseemly. And, again, not even amusingly so.
With Frank out on his rounds, Sue, taking Frank’s soggy dinner salad and a broken washing machine as inspiration, strikes upon the idea of the salad-spinner, essentially, a brainstorm that promises to vault her ahead with her shit-talking Plast-a-Ware colleagues. A lot of ”working class” sitcoms use their characters financial circumstances as backdrop, crappy jobs and wacky work pals just fodder for the gags. But F Is For Family, like Roseanne, to pick perhaps the best example, shows how work and money inform much of who its characters turn out to be, how they interact with each other, and how they see the world. Here, Sue’s extravagant fantasy of success (she’s named “greatest woman of the 20th century” and slams a handful of spun lettuce into her boss Tracy’s decapitated head) is as much about her triumphing over the humiliating grind of having to work at the sexist, plastic job in the first place as it is about becoming a kitchen gadget mogul. Her tired eyes perk up and she starts excitedly scribbling designs on a piece of paper—abandoning the board game she was playing with Bill and Maureen, and coming up with a Plast-a-Ware-stye wisecrack at the absent Frank’s expense. Needing to work means needing to do things we don’t want to do, things that make us feel unappreciated, small, and humiliated. (Not reviewing though. That’s all sunshine.) Grasping at something to alleviate one perceived wrong often means being blind to how our allocation of attention slights others—who then have to make adjustments of their own.
Finally, Frank—after scrabbling in the gutters to pick up every last, lost nickel from the truck—gets the job, Smoky grudgingly handing over a delivery uniform after telling Frank, “You’s a desperate motherfucker. I like that.” Frank drives the horrible truck back to his suburban driveway, parks it, pulls out an ambitiously long strip of the flavored condoms that make up part of his rounds, and goes to bed with a surprised but delighted Sue. It’s ungodly early in the morning, Sue has to go to her day job, and, last we saw, Frank was handling a dead rat in search of filthy pocket change, but, in Frank and Sue’s world, it’s a win.
- Vic’s story sees him handing out payola (in the form of cocaine) to a recalcitrant DJ balking at playing a teen singer’s new bubblegum anthem. Again, Rockwell makes Vic one of the few memorable supporting characters on the show, so we’ll see how his growing radio station ratings problems pan out. Here, he does miss out on naked cupcake time with his vacuously beautiful girlfriend, so that has to hurt.
- On the other hand, neighborhood bully Jimmy winds up with a mailbox flag stuck in his head after prematurely setting off an M-80 in the box of Frank’s kindly old German neighbor. Don’t hurry back, Jimmy.
- Same goes for the similarly head-wounded Scoop back at Mohican, who is legitimately nuts, screaming that their own planes are the enemy and firing off a flare gun.
- Kevin’s betrayal at Vic sullying “the integrity of the music business” with his bribery strikes just the right note of genuine teenage disillusionment, driving him to storm Vic’s station with the band’s demo tape in hand. When Vic gets the station to use two seconds of the song as the bumper for the midnight weather report, Kevin’s disproportionate joy is likewise just right.
- Frank, on depression: “I woulda killed myself, but I don’t wanna haunt my own house.”
- “Don’t put my own words in my mouth.”