When a story has necessary beats, its harmonies become that much more important. Frank lost his job and, as a white, lower middle class suburbanite father and husband in the 1970s, he’s going to have to confront what the loss of his traditional, all-important role means for him as a person. Same for Sue, whose entry into the business world, now as a secretary for Plast-a-Ware’s braying asshole boss Tracy, will see a woman similarly confronting the one step forward, two steps back road to independence. Kevin’s a 15-year-old wannabe rebel who will come of age (and cramped, humiliating puberty) trying to escape his family’s limits, while at the same time looking to his parents for the way forward. Bill is the watchful, worried middle child, desperately trying to put out (or, ideally, avoid) fires on the home front. And Maureen, who Frank infantilizes and idealizes as “Princess,” is brimming with unfettered promise—she wants to go into the new and “unladylike” field of computers—but whose future is likely going to depend on how the older members of her family sort themselves out. Or don’t.
In this third episode, we see everyone (except the mostly offscreen Maureen) taking steps. Sure, they’re halting, sometimes unwise steps that flirt with disaster, but that’s life on F Is For Family. Frank can’t bring himself to swallow his pride and apply for unemployment (he lies to Sue that he went to the employment office, tellingly), instead helping the hooky-playing Kevin stake out an asbestos, lead paint, and gas-filled warren in the Murphys’ cluttered, moldy basement. Bill gets himself an early morning paper route, and finds that the working world is all too prepared to take advantage of little kids whose idea of helping out at home is buying themselves a replacement hockey stick (rather than asking his dad for one). Sue‘s work experience sees her sitting aghast and flushing as Tracy and his two boorish cronies belittle her and sling double entendre that make Michael Scott’s “That’s what she said” sound like Oscar Wilde in comparison, until her female boss Vivian schools her on her particular strategy to hang with the boys. (Basically, every time they say something crudely sexist, you say something crudely homophobic in return.) And Kevin, after bonding with his dad for a profanely productive afternoon of cellar-mucking, winds up back in the now-barren concrete cave in the night, after he witnesses the humiliated Frank lie to Sue about having done what he promised.
There’s a well drawn family story in here, with a finely observed sense of the series’ time and place. Gasoline lines, workplace sexism, the mid-seventies recession that not only made finding a job hard, but that signaled the first major post-WWII economic slump in America—they’re not just window-dressing, there for throwback gags and cheap laughs. Sure, the fact that Frank is bummed out to see that the star of TV’s Colt Luger has embarked on a Shatner-esque spoken-word record career is a goof, but it, too, is rooted in a time when all the changes the country was going through led down some pretty odd entertainment cul de sacs. Instead, the malaise that Jimmy Carter so memorably was to put a name to later in the decade was just getting a firm grip. Things were… different. For Frank and Sue, the sure path they thought they knew was suddenly gone, or full of pitfalls they couldn’t have dreamed of when they accidentally conceived Kevin.
Frank, spouting the same sort of venom about “leeches,” and “hippies,” that—as the current political climate has thrown into stark, ugly relief—is how those who have not much separate themselves from those who have even less. When the line between them and Frank is blurred, he lashes out. He’s not a racist, not really. Not like the white woman at the unemployment office yelling that the blacks are getting all the good jobs—although, as the shared but isolated embarrassment and desperation of the place shows, nobody is that far from pinning their own problems on a convenient target. Frank sneers to Sue about “hippies with dirty feet and Beatles haircuts” (even spinning out to attack the Beatles themselves), but, when it comes down to it, Frank just can’t face up to admitting that, in his eyes, he’s failed at the one identity that he thought was his birthright, and goal. Provider. Man.
So he lies, his need for distraction from his own depression (and shitty daytime TV) seeing him first lashing out at the convenient Kevin—and then putting his enthusiasm and effort into making Kevin his own basement bedroom. (Kevin comes upon his father weeping, as Frank repeats, “Oh shit, I fucked up,” Burr’s best moment of the episode.) The father-son bonding here is touching, in it’s brusque, intermittently abusive way, although it comes on too quickly, considering Frank and Kevin’s perpetual generational war. Last season, they had a similar day of antagonistic bonding, which was also a little undercooked. There, the fact that F Is For Family was only in its second-ever episode accounted for the fact that their relationship wasn’t as developed as it could be. Here, the two go from screaming to chuckling (and back) too abruptly as well, although Bill Burr and Justin Long find a nice rhythm to their joshing about Kevin’s untimely birth. (“I sure ruined your life.” “Yes, you sure did!”)
Sue’s story, too, suffers, although for a different reason. F Is For Family has a volume problem. No, not the yelling, necessarily—although the Murphys’ near-constant outbursts are much easier to take than the actually constant shrillness of almost all the series’ supporting characters. The sexist assholes in Sue’s office are simply not calibrated properly, all their gross come-ons and junior high insults just not well-written or -performed enough to be anything but grating, almost from the start. Sue works with vintage sexist jerks, sure, but their effect is just deadening to listen to. Still, Laura Dern makes her tiniest triumph ring with a much more profound defeat, as her sincere condemnation (“You guys think you’re the bee’s knees, but I feel sorry for you. Because you’re all just a bunch of ignorant, small-minded…”), dribbles off with the resigned, forced insult, “cock… people.” The men, and Vivian, laugh, and Sue’s one of the gang, although her face looks like she’s just broken inside, just a bit.
That night, Sue, her exhausted post-work bath interrupted when she sees all their basement stuff in the yard, softens when Frank lies to tell her he signed up for unemployment. His repeated mantra to Kevin that “A real man never lies” registers in his son’s face so that Frank can’t even look him in the eye. Later, when Sue looks to burn off some of her day’s frustrations with sex, her admiring mid-coital talk (“You’re honest and good! You’re dependable and trustworthy!”) makes Frank unable to perform. The scene lingers, both Frank and Sue’s worried, wordless reactions to Frank’s, one suspects, unprecedented impotence keeping them separate in their bed. Kevin, in his poisonous new basement room, wails a song he’s just written, about a an evil wizard who “lied for years, and the bullshit took its toll.” Earlier, he’d burst out with the teenaged conviction that he was going to save the family by becoming a prog-rock god, but now, to his mind, there’s precious little to save. “You’re the wizard, you dildo,” he explains to the absent Frank. Frank, awake upstairs, phones the number Rosie gave him and begs for a job. Sometimes like really does make you feel like a dildo.
- Bill’s journey into the world of the newsies is all too accurate, as this one time 1970s paperboy can attest. The disreputable middle man with his van full of bundles and suspicious smells. The pride of competent and relatively carefree delivery followed by the dread of having to go door-to-door collecting reluctant payment. Bad dogs, mean kids from school on your route (Jimmy throws at cat at Bill, naturally), and the stomach-dropping count-out, where you realize you’ve made about a dollar an hour for your troubles (if you’re lucky). Miserable stuff, although Bill’s joy at earning his first ever five-dollar bill is just right, too.
- Bill has his own Milhouse, a braces-wearing little guy who goes fetal at the first sign of bullying and responds to the Bill’s pothead boss (T.J. Miller) demanding that he has to tell if he’s a cop met with a panicked but comprehensive, “No I don’t! That’s a popular misconception!”
- Frank, taking over for Sue as head of Maureen’s Honeybee troop, is a predictably inappropriate role model. His resentment at his diminished role sends him on a wildly graphic rant about that time he tried to stuff the wrong guy’s intestines back in in Korea.
- Frank’s grisly Korean experience has left him not a fan of the M*A*S*H* TV show, which he describes as “a bunch of doctors playin’ grab-ass in the Hollywood hills.”
- Sue, responding to Frank’s hope that Bob Pogo hasn’t blackballed him at all the airlines in the area: “You almost killed him Frank, and the only thing he can reach is his phone.”
- Frank and Kevin: “I understand what you’re going through. I hated my dad, too.” “I don’t hate you, Dad.” “Well, I hated my dad.” That’s progress, anyway.