For the second out of five episodes, Bill Murphy sees things he can’t unsee. Only this time, he hears things that are even worse (if, indeed, anything could be worse for a little kid than a long, lingering shot of his father’s sagging, thrusting scrotum as his parents are having sex). Like his glimpse of the disgusting future manhood seems to hold for him in the spectacle of a football stadium bathroom, Bill once again is treated to a vision of adulthood that is—even to the extent that he can understand it—horribly scarring.
Bill Burr has talked about how F Is For Family is inspired by his family, his childhood. And while the series is primarily centered on embattled, embittered patriarch Frank Murphy (who’s voiced by Burr), the show has focused increasingly on how young Bill (presumably a stand-in for Burr) is being shaped by Frank’s hostility, frustration, and abusiveness. And now nutsack. Both Bill’s horrific disillusionments have been accompanied by the sight—the most baldly (sorry) unappealing representation of masculinity the poor kid could be subjected to. Hiding under his parents’ bed in order to wait out the end of a school day he’s secretly suspended from, Bill sees the “primal scene,” but what he hears before his parents’ to-him inexplicable sex talk (“You taking my socks off?” “Yeah… leavin’ one on… you like that”) is even worse. (Yes, even worse than that shot.)
F Is For Family has posited that the Murphys’ problems aren’t solvable by the traditional sitcom ending. Last episode, Sue won her battle to take a part-time job (for money, even) selling Plasti-Ware, with Frank—in his most relatably humble moment so far—acceding to his wife’s need for some measure of independence. Here, Frank’s petulant and furious that he’s eating TV dinners while his wife is, once again, ferrying an inexplicable number of butter tubs to some woman in the next town (what’s Julie’s deal, anyway?) while maintaining his supportive demeanor to Sue’s face. Meanwhile, Kevin’s still trying at school, his efforts last episode having earned him a previously unimaginable ‘C’ in History, and forcing Frank to make good on his promise to Sue to treat the boy more nicely by mumbling “I’m proud of you,” and offering to get Kevin tickets to see his favorite prog-rock band (the perfectly named Shire Of Frodo). And Bill’s battles with the brutish bully Jimmy continue, too, with Bill screwing up his courage to sucker-punch the creep after school. Unfortunately, loyal sister Maureen’s attempt to defend Bill from Jimmy’s retaliatory strike earns Bill only worse scorn—and that suspension. (Frequent suspendee Kevin expertly forges Frank’s name on the form and urges Bill to just hide out for the day. “I don’t know why they just don’t call. But until then… ”)
The show’s done an admirable job in broadening its scope from just being about one angry, ranting “un-PC” white guy’s problems (the definite tack of all Netflix’s promotion) to examine how economics, place, time, and plain old existential disappointment can form a seemingly inescapable mess for an entire family. And it all comes down on Bill’s head, literally (in the form of his parents’ copulating bodies crushing him under the bed) and figuratively (as his parents, thinking they’re alone, engage in a nakedly brutal screaming fight beforehand). One of the themes that’s made F Is For Family paradoxically affecting is that, as Frank (or Burr) might say, “we’re all fucked.” No one’s happy, or, if they are, that happiness comes from someone else’s pain.
What we, and poor Bill, find out (apart from the fact that Frank accidentally let Kevin drown for two minutes as a toddler) is that his outwardly loving (for all their screaming) parents harbor deep resentments and deeper depths of cruelty toward each other. (“You are a horrible rotten human being and you’re losing your hair!,” screams Sue at the fight’s crescendo.) But, even more crushing to the boy is Bill’s pronouncement in response to Sue questioning his parenting, “Bill’s a fucking pussy.” (The detail Frank gives that he “has to rub his back during a war movie” is heartbreakingly, complexly specific.) Again, we stay focused on Bill’s face, the comedy of his parents’ angry make-up sex inextricably bound with his stomach-churning confusion of emotions at everything he’s just experienced. (Indeed, seeing his parents canoodling playfully later at dinner, the kid projectile barfs all over the table.)
So when Frank (having grudgingly secured concert tickets from radio station bigwig neighbor Vic) leaves Bill and Maureen alone for the night, Bill, still smarting from the dual echo of being called a pussy at school and now by his father, lashes out—hard. (“Heya Billy—filled with rage at something?,” placidly asks a next-door neighbor.) Stomping to the tough kids’ clubhouse in the woods (where, as one imagines of all such places, a stockpile of fireworks and porno mags await), Bill lights a flare and attempts to call out Jimmy once more. When, predictably, things get out of hand, and the clubhouse—then seemingly the whole suburban woods—catches fire, it’s an apt encapsulation of the Murphy family’s endemic rage. Accurate or not, they all see themselves as trapped by circumstance, their rage tamped down by the world’s unfairness. Something, inevitably, is going to explode.
F Is For Family has only become more wrenching as its gone on, and, with just one episode left (there’s no word yet of a continuation) it has to be asked what, exactly, this show is. Again, it’s hardly the cathartic, boorish broadside it looked like in the pre-air ads (none of which made me want to watch it, honestly). As far as Netflix animated sitcoms that make you hurt inside, it’s not as darkly funny as Bojack Horseman. In fact, the show’s stabs at straight-up comedy are its weakest element—here, in addition to one of the “dirty kids,” Kevin’s unpleasantly stupid stoner buddies, and Frank’s grossly overweight and crude boss, we get a union lawyer representing the baggage handlers at Frank’s job, an obvious Mafia caricature (gun used to silence the restaurant’s animatronic bears and all). Sam Rockwell’s McConaughey-esque Vic is worth a chuckle or two every episode (“That kinda feeling you get when you have a dragon on your shirt, you know?”), but F Is For Family has revealed itself to be more of a character piece, shading in the true desperation of a family unable to escape what they steadfastly imagine the world has turned them into. Far from being a mouthpiece for blue-collar, no-bullshit values, Frank is a deeply miserable victim of them, whose victimhood is equally defined by his victimization of his family.
When Sue gingerly prods Frank to be nice to Kevin, she brings up the magazine quiz she had Frank take about whether he’s “an abusive parent.” It’s a little shocking to hear her say the words, as it further distances the show from any concept of Frank’s incessant assholery as inherently hilarious. Driving Sue and Kevin home from the concert, he, still feeling the afterglow of the afternoon’s rage-sex, waxes nostalgic and conciliatory, telling his son about how he’d once been accepted to pilot school (and even soft-pedaling the fact that Kevin’s unplanned arrival scuttled that dream). As they drive up the cul-de-sac toward home, he launches into the sort of placating summation a traditional sitcom wallpapers over its characters issues. “We started a family instead. We have our ups and downs, sometimes we haven’t gotten along, but it’s moments like this that I know I wouldn’t trade what I have for… [he sees the flames his earlier abuse of his other son have indirectly caused] …FUCK!”
- Despite Frank’s honest efforts to find a compromise, it looks like a strike is inevitable at Mohican Airways.
- Frank, conceding his complicity in Kevin’s childhood accident: “Agreed, two minutes without oxygen is not ideal.”
- Kevin, incredulous at Bill’s intention to have Frank sign his suspension slip: “You’re gonna narc on yourself?”
- Burr and Laura Dern really commit to that sex scene talk.
- David Koechner’s blobbish Bob invents the stuffed-crust pizza as part of his metaphor to the union workers.
- The show attempts to give Jimmy some depth by showing him as a sensitive woodworking enthusiast when not beating the shit out of littler kids. Again, the voice acting and writing of supporting characters on F Is For Family aren’t the greatest—for all the nods toward three-dimensionality, Jimmy remains staunchly repellent.
- Similarly, Maureen remains the one uninteresting Murphy. I did like the running gag of her demanding blackmail from Bill about his suspension (a dollar, a sandwich), then spitefully ripping them to shreds in front of him.
- In F Is For Family 1970s offensiveness this episode: TV dick Colt Luger’s new enemy is a duplicitously evil black preacher (with a scythe). “The kindly preacher of Harlem Hill Heights” is also nicknamed “Sickle,” for a cleverly added bit of awfulness.
- Oh, and Mohican Airways continues its era-specific tone-deafness about its name, fashioning an entire TV commercial around a Native American (“Chief Feathercorn”) asking “How?” a lot. He also freaks out when a stewardess offers him a blanket, because of smallpox blankets. (Thank goodness no major sports franchises would ever dream that this sort of branding were acceptable these days, huh?)
- Kevin’s favorite band is revealed to be the much-derided prog-rock opener for a crudely sexual Led Zeppelin-esque band. Both cleverly written songs come off like two different iterations of Spinal Tap. (Think “Stonehenge” vs. “Sex Farm” eras.)
- The shirtless Robert Plant clone, vamping on the band’s hit “Lick My Pickle”: “I wonder if you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about my penis!”