Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Netflix’s first foray into adult-oriented animated comedy, the bizarre and touching Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman, only really came into its own earlier this year, during a vastly improved (and much darker) second season. Progressing from clever amusement to excellent character study, the show somehow succeeded in at once being one of television’s most rawly hilarious comedies, and one of its most poignant, occasionally soul-crushing dramas. Its brilliance has not yet been fully observed by the masses but, with a third season on the way, there’s still time for more people to catch on.
Now, with something like BoJack in its programming stable, Netflix set the bar exceedingly high for future animated originals, and it’s admittedly tough to watch F Is For Family, created by stand-up comedian Bill Burr alongside Simpsons writer Michael Price, without comparing the two. But luckily for the streaming service, all holding one up against the other does is reveal what wonderfully complementary – yet distinctly formed – creations they are. Judging from F Is For Family‘s first season (which spans just six half-hour installments available for streaming on Dec. 18), Netflix has another thoroughly funny, unexpectedly thoughtful winner on its hands.
Drawing inspiration from Burr’s own childhood, the show focuses on the day-to-day struggles of the Murphy clan, a family of five that alternately falls apart and draws together as its members encounter events both monumental and minute over the course of one fateful fall. At the top of the food chain is Frank (Burr), the worn-out patriarch who has endured enough successive misfortunes in his life to actively resent most everything about his current lifestyle, from his balding head and expanding midsection to the three disrespectful kids for whom he’s set to endure decades more of the daily grind. (F Is For Family‘s phenomenal opening sequence, amusingly set to “Come and Get Your Love,” does such a superb job of highlighting some of his biggest disappointments that it’s hard not to feel for the guy by the time he’s dumped, head still spinning, into an armchair with wife hovering on one shoulder and young daughter hanging off the other, wearing a look that says, “What the hell just happened?”)
To keep the lights on, Frank works as a baggage handler at the local airport, where he’s casually disrespected on all sides. An unexpected promotion to management early on in the series seems like the lucky break he’s been looking for, but an imminent strike by the other handlers quickly makes him realize it’s anything but. The home front offers little relief; as wife Sue (Laura Dern) wrestles with growing discontent about parenting as a full-time job, Frank’s relationship with aimless, pot-smoking son Kevin (Justin Long) continues to deteriorate. Meanwhile, his thin-skinned younger son Bill (Haley Reinhart) and reckless daughter Maureen (Debi Derryberry) contend with the usual set of childhood stumbling blocks, from getting picked on by the schoolyard bully to duking it out with their parents over Halloween costumes.
So far, so standard – there’s a normalcy to most of the conflicts Frank and his clan come up against, though F Is For Family is particularly good at mining its well-trodden ground for fresh laughs. A considerable amount of the credit for that should go to the ace voice cast, particularly Burr, Reinhart and recurring guest stars like Sam Rockwell as the free-loving, hard-partying Vic, a neighbor so liberated that the boxed-in Frank naturally detests him. These performers turn traditional sitcom characters into nuanced, often uproarious personalities, and the show soars because of it.
The well-realized ’70s setting is another boon, functioning not just as a backdrop but as an instigator of great strife. Frank, who grew up learning increasingly outdated models of masculinity and fatherhood, is particularly flummoxed by this time of evolving technology and shifting societal standards – the addition of an answering machine proves cataclysmic for Frank, who’s not accustomed to having his words come back to haunt him. Later, he’s infuriated when his little girl wants to diverge from dressing up as a feminine figure for trick-or-treating. That Frank runs into some trouble adjusting isn’t all that surprising given how he rounds off his breadwinner role by coming home to watch a (hilariously bad) detective show whose shoot-first-get-answers-later hero spouts off the catchphrase, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man does,” before planting a kiss on an appreciative dame. The engaging animation style (reminiscent of King of the Hill) also gets some comedic mileage out of the clunky tech and recognizable fashion of the times.
What really makes F Is For Family special, though, is how it functions not only as an episodic comedy series but also as a serialized dramatic narrative. A fair number of jokes carry over across multiple installments; some are introduced early on only to pay off in a big way later on. Such continuity allows certain aspects of the series to function both comedically and dramatically, and occasionally as both at once. There are characters like the Murphy’s elderly German neighbor, whom the kids believe to be a Nazi but actually survived a Holocaust concentration camp, whose significance only really becomes clear in the final minutes of the series, or the two hillbilly kids whose lack of hygiene and intelligence is amusing before it becomes worrying. Often, the series pursues tough, typically serious subject matter but, crucially, it doesn’t short-change any of it, instead finding heart in the darkness.
The series possesses a rare comic voice tinged with melancholy and mounting discomfort, one that delivers some gut-busting moments and other times makes the laughs catch in your throat. As the Murphys navigate through mishap after mishap, they in subtle ways grow both wearier and wiser. The show’s humor is grounded in the deep pain and existential ennui that hangs heavy around Frank and Sue’s necks – much like BoJack Horseman, the series reaches into dark corners and favors sometimes brutally harsh realities. While undoubtedly a comedy, its bleak world view and unflinchingly honest portrait of the American family hit harder than a lot of dramas.
In just six episodes, F Is For Family will certainly make you laugh, but its dramatic heft is so unexpectedly huge that it might also move you to tears. Though Netflix has bigger, buzzier original content landing around the holiday season, this one is an unexpected, much appreciated gift for fans of good television everywhere, as well as a terrific reminder that its streaming service home is doing more amazing things for the medium right now than just about anyone else.
In just six episodes, F Is For Family will certainly make you laugh, but its dramatic heft is so unexpectedly huge that it might also move you to tears.