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Over nearly 600 episodes, the family at the center of The Simpsons has forgotten or ignored an escalating number of domestic horrors. If they stopped to remember all of Homer’s near-death experiences, all of the workplace kerfuffles at the plant, all of Marge’s marital dissatisfactions, all of Lisa’s indignations and Bart’s academic struggles, the Simpsons probably wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. Sometimes the difference between comedy and tragedy is serialization, the point at which mounting misadventures are no longer one-off gags and become crushing.
Putting a test to that theory, but still remaining hilarious, is Netflix’s new animated comedy F Is for Family, based loosely on the childhood of stand-up comic Bill Burr, who created the series with The Simpsons veteran Michael Price.
AIR DATE Dec 18, 2015
F Is for Family premieres on Dec. 18, and the first season is a tight six-episode chronicle of the minor and major cataclysms impacting the Murphy clan over a single fall — setbacks and triumphs which, in isolation, are the stuff of standard family sitcoms, but which gain heft as they pile up and as continuity leads to real emotional payoffs by the end. It’s a worthy companion to Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, which also nimbly walks the line between light and dark in a very not-for-children way.
Set in 1973, F Is for Family centers on Murphy patriarch Frank (Burr), a low-level baggage handler thrust into management after his boss meets an end that’s both shocking and side-splitting. Pudgy, balding and beset by life disappointments — a great credit sequence set to “Come and Get Your Love” fills in his backstory — Frank thinks this may be the break he’s looking for, but with a strike looming, it probably isn’t. Wife Sue (Laura Dern) is also wondering if her life raising a family and occasionally peddling plastic containers to the neighborhood is enough. Eldest son Kevin (Justin Long) is only 14, but he’s already a drug-experimenting, prog-loving burnout. Bill (Haley Reinhart) is 11, and his relative sensitivity makes him a target for both a gap-toothed bully and his devil-may-care younger sister Maureen.
Episode by episode, F Is for Family is built around light comic circumstances. Frank struggles to balance his new authority with his desire to still be one of the guys at work. Different attempts to scare Kevin straight invariably lead to him learning the wrong lessons. Bill is horrified by football-stadium bathrooms. Maureen refuses to adhere to gender-specific Halloween costumes. It’s basic stuff, but it’s executed with smart writing, expressive animation and smooth vocal work particularly from Burr, American Idol favorite Reinhart and also regular guest Sam Rockwell, playing larger-than-life neighbor Vic as a clueless-yet-wise Matthew McConaughey-style himbo with a love for debauchery.
The ‘70s setting, expertly realized with an animated production design that embraces every tacky detail, is also fodder for comedy as well as thematic insight. From color TVs in bulky wooden boxes to expensive and unfathomable answering machines (also in bulky wooden containers), it’s a moment of imperfect technical expansion and also changing social norms. Frank’s favorite TV show is a Mannix-esque cop drama featuring a character named Colt Luger, whose catch phrase is “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man does,” a motto Frank tries to live up to even as society’s idea of what it means to be a man and a father and a breadwinner keeps changing on him. F Is for Family also features snippets from period comedies, commercials, holiday specials and news broadcasts, as well as music, that function as both parody and eerily accurate evocations.
But kitsch and laughter aside, what makes the show quickly special is its cumulative weight. The premiere ends with Frank optimistically declaring, “I think our luck is finally turning around,” but the specific circumstances leave no doubt this is wishful thinking. Frank’s involvement in labor strife, Sue’s personal dissatisfaction and Bill’s pre-adolescent traumas all snowball and develop, usually with plenty of R-rated language, occasional graphic sexuality and unfiltered behavior that seemed normal in 1973, but might horrify us today.
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Even what feel like Simpsons-style one-off jokes sometimes return and pay off, and those pay-offs can be sweet and bittersweet. There’s the old German man on the cul de sac the kids think is Hitler’s brother, but is actually a Holocaust survivor. There’s the leg-humping family dog, who may mean more to them than they know. There’s the band Shire of Frodo and Sue’s high school softball career and the seemingly parentless neighborhood ragamuffins, all good for jokes and then gravity. With only six episodes to play with, little is introduced incidentally.
The sadness and unrest in F Is for Family tempers the humor and keeps the show from ever getting too frivolous. The family of its title gives the show a hopeful core, but it’s always looking around the corner for the next stumbling block, so mostly, F Is for Family is entertainingly honest.
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