It’s 1974, and things are worse than even F Is For Family’s rage-fueled patriarch Frank Murphy could have imagined. As the second season of this autobiographical animated sitcom from creators Bill Burr and Michael Price begins, Frank’s unemployed, his ultimately successful attempt to broker a peace between Mohican Airlines workers and ownership having cost him his job, on Christmas Eve, no less. Sporting a perpetual five-o’clock (yesterday) shadow, Frank alternates between ferrying wife Sue to her job hawking knockoff Tupperware to reluctant housewives and slouching around the house, too downtrodden to even abuse his kids properly. (“I liked it better when he yelled at us,” says sullen Murphy teen Kevin.) Faced with the prospect of a snow day, the bathrobe-clad Frank greets Sue’s determination to make it a family fun day at the sled hill with a beaten, “You guys have a good time. I’m gonna curl up in an afghan and slowly cry myself into a nap.” Welcome to season two.
F Is For Family is a lot of things—1970s social satire, blue collar sitcom, character study of Baby Boomer angst—but, unifying all those ideas, it’s a study in a specific sort of white, lower-middle-class disappointment. Still the best current credits sequence on TV (unchallenged now that Powerless has been cancelled), each episode opens with the young Frank soaring into the sky to the enduringly optimistic groove of Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love,” the beaming teenage Frank immediately being whapped in the kisser by a succession of life’s harsh realities. By the time he crashes down into his suburban crackerbox, Frank’s a balding, paunchy, nearsighted middle-aged father of three, life’s constant, pummeling disappointments having deformed his youthful, hopeful visage into a bewildered, resentful scowl. The season begins with a brief flashback to 1958, where cocky Korean war veteran Frank waits outside Sue’s sorority house, big-times a worshipful kid who looks on him as a war hero, and then zooms off in his convertible with beautiful, college-age Sue, insouciantly flicking away his cigarette, and clearly inviting the world to eat his dust.
Compare that to the present where he, the family station wagon emblazoned with his wife’s company’s logo, waits for the exhausted Sue to finish selling her wares, gets harassed by a punk kid calling him a pervert, and eventually humps all of Sue’s unsold merchandise back into the car. As miserable as Frank was as breadwinner, he at least could prop up his self-worth with his moderate success in his traditional role as head of the family. Now it’s up to Sue, not only to bring home the bacon, but also to intimidate that brat (who remained immune to Frank’s signature, obscene insults), as she flicks her guilty cigarette right off the little bastard’s forehead (“Get the fuck outta here!”) before the Murphys drive off together.
F Is For Family, in its guise as boorish celebration of Frank Murphy’s no-bullshit, “tell it like it is” assholery, has always been a way for Burr and Price to dig into the psyche of the stereotypical blue collar sitcom dad. (And, one surmises, Burr’s own dad.) Like Burr’s standup, the show’s portrayal of Burr’s Frank Murphy is less about being “un-PC” for its own sake, or for shock value, and more about building comedy on a fuller examination of who Frank Murphy is, and where his worldview came from. Like those opening credits establish, there’s a riot of overwhelming, frightening, humbling stuff whirling around inside Frank Murphy’s head, and sometimes lashing out and threatening to put an officious nurse right through a fuckin’ wall (Frank’s go-to threat when things get really bad) is, if not heroic, then understandably cathartic.
Season one saw Laura Dern’s Sue overcoming her own creeping depression as overlooked, underappreciated housewife and getting her own job, all while navigating her husband’s fragile ego. Now, as de facto head of the household, she’s feeling the weight of holding down the family’s one source of income while also trying to play cheerleader for Frank as he sinks deeper into depression, and to hide the stark realities of their precarious finances from the kids. After bailing Frank out of yet another humiliation by slipping some of her Plasti-a-Ware cash into his wallet at a restaurant they can’t afford, Sue sneaks down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to replace the company’s money with a tenner she’s squirrelled away in the fridge. (Along with her cigarettes, they’re hidden in a never-opened container marked “liver.”)
Mining comedy out of desperation isn’t easy, and “Heavy Sledding” doesn’t always find the right balance in this first episode. For one thing, the show’s supporting characters remain steadfastly unpleasant, and not in an entertaining way. Youngest daughter Maureen (showing a, to Frank, incomprehensible interest in science) persists in hanging out with the feral kids from the neighborhood, whose references to their junkie mother’s “arm vitamins” and era-specific and dangerous ideas of play traffic in lazy yahoo humor. (That the local sledding destination is a landfill, rings true to guy who grew up in the same era, however.) Mo Collins makes both town bully Jimmy and Sue’s glibly thoughtless friend Ginny shrilly unpleasant to listen to, and the same goes for Kevin’s dong-dong friends, whose vulgar responses to Kevin’s attempt to woo a pretty girl aren’t amusing or original enough to make them watchable. The lone bright spot here continues to be Sam Rockwell’s mellow cokehead neighbor stud Vic, whose blissfully blasé advice for Frank to get over his depression about being broke by going to Hawaii is punctuated by him roaring off with his sexy girlfriend while yelling gleefully, “This isn’t my snowmobile!”
The show’s social satire remains strong, though, with the family’s daily life flooded with a constant barrage of 1970s background insensitivity. The celebratory Mohican Airlines’ commercial (which undercuts Sue’s assertion that the place is doomed without Frank) touts the company’s newfound harmony by having a squaw-costumed stewardess winkingly urge viewers to “make a reservation!” (The Native American actor in the shot can only bury his face in his hands.) Johnny Carson (as Carnac) makes an “Asians eat their pets” joke, while Ed McMahon guffaws gleefully offscreen. And while seemingly every school in the area is named for a civil rights leader or person of color, Frank’s choice of restaurant for that celebratory dinner is named “Sam’s Starving Boy,” features a logo of a black child begging for food, and has items on the menu like “plantation dogs,” “Ranaway root beer,” “Uncle Tom’s turkey platter,” and two orders of “clucks clams.” (Say it fast.) It’s all just part of the Murphys’ world, as Burr and Price continue to ground their characters’ in the specifics of their time and place.
For Frank and Sue, the immediacy of their need (Frank’s still trying to pay off that fancy color TV he bought last season) leaves little time for debate about their gendered roles in the family structure, even as their disillusionment with the choices they’ve made informs everything they do. Sue talks about Frank being “depressed,” although the 70s take on depression sees her urging Frank to “snap out of it” in a moment of exasperation. Sue’s hidden smoking and tired eyes show that the self-esteem she derived from bucking Frank’s chauvinistic opposition to her getting a job has run up against the inherent humiliations involved in working for someone else. And Frank, barely able to summon the will to wash himself (he warns Sue off from oral sex, admitting “I haven’t showered in days”) only finds some of his old vigor when a series of sled hill mishaps finds Maureen sporting a badly wounded eye. Snapping to, Frank takes charge of the situation, leading to a signature Frank Murphy tirade in the E.R., where he roundly and cruelly berates everyone within earshot in order to get Maureen help. Sure, he’s an asshole about it—he goes all in on that nurse, as well as girl who laughs when Kevin falls through the ice at the sled hill, screaming “He almost drowned as a baby, you heartless whore!” But Maureen gets treated, his family looks at him admiringly when he wakes up (he’d passed out mid-tirade), and he and Sue assure each other in the car that “It’s okay, we’re a team.”
Of course, life’s not that simple, and neither is F Is For Family. Sue still has to bail Frank out at the restaurant, the kids overhear their parents’ insufficiently secretive admission that they’re in big financial trouble, and, even after all her gung-ho cheerleading, Sue winds up alone and smoking in the kitchen in the middle of the night. When she plays the overlooked answering machine message from Frank’s old supervisor Bob Pogo (David Koechner, as ever, making the corpulent Bob sound as if he’s breathlessly surfacing in a pool of gravy) seeming to promise that Frank’s about to get his old job back, her orgasmic shouts of glee ring through the neighborhood. (“All right Frank!” cheers the coke-sniffing Vic next door.) But, as the return of F Is For Family continues to assert, life rarely gives you exactly what you want.
- Even Frank’s heroic TV exemplar of manly virtue, the increasingly be-girdled copper Colt Luger, is looking passé. Mirroring the later Dragnet seasons where Joe Friday’s buzz-cut self-righteousness looked ever more silly as he lectured pot-smoking hippies, Luger runs up against a bra-less drug fiend whose “psychedelic dandelion” sends him hurtling out the window, screaming “There’s a lizard in my brain!”
- Middle child Bill continues his traumatic introduction to the unseemly world of adult sexuality this season, his scarring memories of not one, but two adult male ballsacks last year joined by the horror movie flashes of what he inadvertently catches big brother Kevin doing with a tub of margarine.
- “Monsignor Krieger married us.” “Who?” “Oh, he’s Father Pat’s father. Long story.”
- “Polio’s a gateway disease to leukemia!”
- “I like your army jacket. Is it from a real dead guy?”
- Following up on his dismissal of Maureen’s “unladylike” desire to be a scientist, he greets her delight over her new eye patch, snapping, “For chrissakes, Maureen, girls can’t be pirates!”
- There’s a joke about Ginny’s husband trying to “pray the gay away” which is not something the show needs to flesh out. Just one guy’s opinion.
- Koechner makes Bob’s meandering answering machine message a little masterpiece of improv-sounding character weirdness, as he starts out by restating every fact about their relationship, just in case Frank’s forgotten him in the three week’s he’s been gone. (“Frank? It’s Bob Pogo. We used to work together at Mohican. Airways. It’s an airline. Down at the airport.”)
- Welcome to the A.V. Club’s season two coverage of F Is For Family. I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer. Reviews will go up every other day at noon CT, following the premiere. As usual with a streaming series, I’ll be reviewing these episodes in order, without referencing future events. Let’s all do the same in the comments, yeah? Don’t be spoiler person. Nobody likes spoiler person.