F is for Family is the newest offering from the Netflix line-up, which consists of winners such as BoJack Horseman, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Jessica Jones; and some real duds like Hemlock Grove and Marco Polo. F is for Family falls somewhere in the middle on this quality continuum. It doesn’t have the dizzying ingenuity of a BoJack, but it certainly has a lot more to offer than something as maudlin and hackneyed as Hemlock Grove. The show centers around Frank, the patriarch of a lower-middle class family living in the early Seventies somewhere in middle America. The show was created by comedian Bill Burr, who voices Frank, and Michael Price, best known for his award winning writing on The Simpsons (a show that F is for Family owes a lot to). The first episode follows Frank as tries to throw a party to watch a boxing match, but is forced to buy a new TV when he makes a promise he can’t keep.
Here are some thoughts.
1. This animation seems different
There’s something about the animation that hits you immediately. It’s not exactly what we’ve seen in the past; it still looks a little cheap, but there’s a certain fluidity to the movements. It’s not quite uncanny, but there’s a certain alienation effect happening. My guess is that if the show takes off and is allowed to flourish, the animation will become cleaner. It’s not a complaint. Adjusting to it is relatively easy. This is no Home Movies.
2. Frank has an anger problem
If you’re familiar with the comedy of Bill Burr, you know that his persona is very much the crotchety old man, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days.” That is all on display here, with Frank acting as the megaphone of self righteous rage. And there is a lot of rage. Most of it directed at various people trying to sell him stuff. When a telemarketer calls in the middle of dinner, Frank explodes with indignant rage over being robbed of the one time during the day he can spend with his family. Later, a TV salesman refuses to give him a refund after his son accidentally breaks their new TV. Frank is clearly an amalgamation of himself and his father, both of whom have deep seated anger.
3. The opening credits are spectacular
It starts with what we presume to be a young Frank, gliding through the clouds; happy, blissful. But then he gets hit with a draft notice, then a child, then marriage, and suddenly he’s flying through a barrage of responsibilities and choices until he is weighed down by everything and goes plummeting into his home, next to his wife and kids, looking confused and miserable. It tells us everything we need to know about our protagonist immediately without having to use stilted exposition. The effect of a good opening credit sequence cannot be underestimated.
4. This is a demonstrably different time
Racial slurs are thrown about with abandon, wives are docile and quiet, and the children leave in the morning and come back at night without having to check in with parents every half hour. There’s a lot of nostalgia drawn into every frame and you can’t help but feel wistful for what looks like a simpler time, even if you weren’t alive to be nostalgic for it. Bill Burr has a lot of affection for the days of his youth (i.e. the early seventies) and a lot of the world is viewed through rose-tinted glasses. However, it does run the risk of romanticizing a time in which a lot of the country was still segregated, where women were told to know their place. It certainly can be difficult with our modern, progressive eyes to see some of the things that were considered acceptable. At one point, the manager of the TV store apologizes to Frank for his TV being on the fritz, blaming it on “the Asians” because “their hands are too small to work properly.” Burr often rails against PC culture (with good reason!), but the show would be wise to not tacitly approve of such language, even if it is accurate for the era depicted.
5. There are some real gems in the script
Vic, Frank’s rich, well-adjusted neighbor, is the focus of Frank’s impotent rage. He represents everything that Frank is not: happy, easy going, wealthy. So when he finds out Vic is also throwing a party to watch the fight, it becomes that much more important for Frank to get that 33″ TV he told all his friends he had. Vic has some of the funniest moments in the pilot. At one point, he asks his girlfriend to make him mac n’ cheese. “But not the swirly kind,” he cautions. “They make me dizzy.” Random jokes like these are the best moments of the show: where for an instant here and there, complete absurdity issues from the mouths of people who otherwise seem aggressively normal.
6. The soundtrack is great, too
A lot of seventies and sixties classics that instantly place the show in the era it depicts. It’s great, even if it does sound a lot like Guardians of the Galaxy.
7. This isn’t really a comedy
Yes, there is humor. But the story we’re being told is a story we’ve been told since the birth of the sitcom. It’s a “keeping up with the Jones'” plot line, without much of a twist. Sure, the situation is humorous, but it’s the kind of humor you hear from your uncle when he’s telling you about the weird look the bagger at the grocery store gave him. That is, firmly mundane. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of the stories we’re going to be told are pulled straight from Burr’s childhood. Which is why there seems to be a current of panicked melancholy shot through the center of this show. Frank is clearly unhappy with the way his life turned out. Yes, he loves his family, but there are many aspects of his life gone unfulfilled. While watching a TV show about a “bad boy detective” which I think is called Colt Luger, Frank narrates, following with rapt attention as the conspicuously overweight hero bobs and weaves out of various big action set pieces. “This is a real man!” Frank declares, looking to his children in an attempt to share a teachable moment. And when his oldest and surliest son, Kevin, points out that the hero is clearly a stunt person, Kevin’s mother quickly shushes him. “This is one of the only things that brings your father joy,” she says. It’s played as a joke, but that is a deeply sad thing she is telling her son. Frank does not object.
8. Kevin is a fascinating character
Speaking of Kevin, he’s the character that holds the most promise going forward. Played with angsty abandon by Justin Long, Kevin is fond of macking on the “loose girl” down the street and beating up on his kid brother, Bill. But when Bill is threatened by the neighborhood bullies, Kevin steps in and beats the ever loving shit out of them. At the very sight of Kevin, the lead bully pisses his pants. And once Bill is safe from his tormentors, Kevin promptly punches Bill in the stomach and walks away. And later, after Bill inadvertently breaks his father’s new prized TV, Kevin takes the heat. Kevin is clearly an angry, confused kid. But he loves his brother and will go to great lengths to protect him. There’s a lot of potential for growth with this character. I’m excited to see where it leads.
9. This is an intensely personal setting
This is very clearly a world that Burr cares deeply about. I mean, that’s no surprise considering it’s very much autobiographical. There’s a sense of desperation underlying most of the characters on the show. Even Vic, Frank’s well-to-do neighbor, seems to be clinging to youth with all his might. Despite it’s humor, there’s a lot of pain in this show. My guess is that as we go along, it’s only going to get more personal.
10. But there is a smidgen of light
At the end of the episode, Frank finds out he’s getting promoted. Granted, it’s because his boss dies, but it’s still cause for celebration. And despite all the set backs, Frank gets to host the fight at his house and get’s an even better TV than he had bought before. So while there is a darkness that hovers over the whole episode, there is indeed a touch of hope peeking in around the edges.
Tags: Bill Burr, f is for family, Justin Long, Netflix