Review: Bill Burr goes back to the '70s for Netflix's 'F is for Family'
It's not a knock on Netflix's "F is for Family" to say that its title sequence is far and away the best thing about it. The animated comedy, set in an unnamed Rust Belt city in 1973 where Frank Murphy (Bill Burr, who co-created the show with "Simpsons" vet Michael Price) works in the baggage handling department of a local airline, has a pretty dazzling one that tells you everything you need to know about its hero — his backstory, his frustration, and the main themes of the story — in a brisk 45 seconds.
We start with Frank as a teenager graduating high school in the early '50s. As the opening chords of Redbone's 1973 hit "Come and Get Your Love" plays, Frank tosses aside his graduation robes and literally flies into the air, an entire world of possibility ahead of him. Suddenly, a draft notice smacks him in the face and his clothes are replaced by an Army uniform for his time in Korea. He keeps flying, but new obstacles — a wedding cake, a baby bottle, a pair of glasses to help his aging eyes — keep crashing into him, until his waistline is thicker, his hair is thinner, and the sky is so full of the accumulated stuff of a middle-aged family man's existence (including all the literal baggage he has to handle in a job that puts him at the airport but never lets him fly) that it sends him crashing down to earth, where he sits on a lounger surrounded by his wife and kids, bewildered by how he ended up with this life.
It's a wonderful sequence, one I've watched far more often than at the start of the six "F is for Family" episodes that Netflix will release on Friday. The show itself is very promising, albeit uneven, as almost any young comedy is, and fits neatly into the dark and very adult animated comedy brand Netflix started for itself with the great "BoJack Horseman."
The show looks like a bunch of "Super Friends" animators were handed a stack of "All in the Family" scripts by mistake, and if Norman Lear isn't the series' only creative touchstone, it's easy to imagine Frank being one of those viewers who thought the show was celebrating Archie Bunker and making fun of Meathead. The early '70s were a time long before political correctness (Frank's favorite TV show is "Colt Luger," a cop drama whose aging, pot-bellied star clearly wears a toupee, and whose villains are all racist caricatures), when women's liberation was still struggling to gain traction (Sue Murphy, voiced by Laura Dern, sells a Tupperware-style product part-time, but Frank dismisses that as her "hobby" and bristles at the idea that it might become a job that will prevent her from cooking dinner every night), and when little kids were just sent out to play unsupervised for hours on end, and if they came home with all their limbs intact, so much the better.
As the title sequence suggests, Frank's life is disappointing and miserable, which more or less does the same for his wife and kids. He keeps a punching bag in the garage for when he needs to take out his aggression — assuming he hasn't already cursed a blue streak (unbleeped, because it's Netflix) in front of the family — and in one episode is annoyed to find that Sue has parked her car inside, blocking his access to the bag.
"I'm sorry, I thought you were going to be happy tonight," she tells him.
"Never assume that!" he replies, and by then, you can understand why she'd be foolish to make that assumption.
It's a tough comic balance to maintain when the main character is exasperated and yelling at least two thirds of the time. Burr and Price do an excellent job of making the Murphys feel like a real family, despite living in only two dimensions, and there's a lot of nuance in the ebb and flow of Frank and Sue's marriage. But the show's funniest material has more to do with the world around them, riffing on social mores of the time (Frank's employer Mohican Airways has a Native American mascot so their tagline can be "Your comfort is our chief concern"), or when the animators get to do something particularly trippy, like Frank and Sue's trip to an appliance store to buy their first color TV, or Frank's youngest son Billy (Haley Reinhart) discovering to his horror what a pro football stadium men's room looks like after the first quarter.
It's an eclectic cast — Reinhart was an "American Idol" finalist back in season 10, Sam Rockwell plays Frank's very Wooderson-esque neighbor Vic, Justin Long plays Frank's prog rock-loving delinquent son Kevin, and professional voiceover actors like Kevin Michael Richardson, Trevor DeVall, and Debi Derryberry mix in with sportscaster Joe Buck — but one that works well together. You wouldn't instantly think of Laura Dern, for instance, for this kind of role (though she guested a couple of times on "King of the Hill"), but she brings real vulnerability to Sue, while also generating laughs in those moments — some tender, some incredibly filthy — where Sue is reminded of why she's married to Frank.
Like most streaming shows these days, "F is for Family" is serialized, as Frank tries to prevent a union strike, Sue gets frustrated with the state of the marriage, Billy has an ongoing feud with the local bully, etc. But Price has enough "Simpsons" experience to understand the value of crafting individual episodes that can stand on their own, and there's always some kind of plot (buying the new TV, going to the football game, taking Kevin to see his favorite pretentious band, Shire of Frodo) driving each half-hour.
But like most serialized shows, it benefits from familiarity. (And might have benefited even more from a slightly longer season, given the growth curve of something like "BoJack" over its first year.) Spend enough time around Frank, and you get not only get used to his belligerent nature, but can appreciate how the family has gotten used to it, too. Frank's a man who in one breath can dismiss his entire world by telling his wife, "Face it, Sue, our family is pretty fucked up," and only moments later declare, "I've got the best family," and completely believe it both times.
Once upon a time — not even as far back as when "F is for Family" is set — debuting a TV show this close to year's end would be a signal that a network was dumping something it didn't believe in. In this case, this was a window that made sense given the show's production schedule and the fact that the finale takes place on Christmas, but also a sign of how much the TV world has changed. There are no slow times of the year in TV anymore, and a fun and promising show like this could pop up anytime, anywhere.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com