When Netflix revealed it was teaming with vulgar, rambling comedian Bill Burr for an animated comedy, I was naturally skeptical.
The product, “F is for Family,” to my thrill, turned out to be an undeniable success.
The Vince Vaughn-produced show, released Dec. 18, takes place in the 1970s and centers around Burr’s character, Frank Murphy, the patriarch of his family. The first season is short, just six half-hour episodes, and works just as well as either a one-day binge or spread out over a week.
The show’s opening credits, set to Redbone’s hit song “Come and Get Your Love” — released in 1974 — are some of the most brilliant I’ve seen. Starting with Frank as a fresh-faced high school graduate, he takes off into the sky but is hit with the Vietnam War draft, bills, a beer gut and a receding hairline — his hopes and dreams escape him as a result.
Once he comes crashing back down the ground, the show follows Frank and his family: wife Sue (Laura Dern), teenage son Kevin (Justin Long), young “princess” daughter Maureen (Debi Derryberry) and youngest son Bill (Haley Reinhart). Frank has settled for a 9-to-5 baggage handling position at the local airport and lives an unremarkable life in a suburban cul-de-sac.
Burr, famous for his rants on political correctness, manages to use those skills throughout the six-episode series, but it’s not a show of a middle aged white guy screaming about his issues with today’s world. The show is artfully done, managing to be nostalgic for the post-war era that backdropped Burr’s childhood while still showing awareness of the era’s faults.
Burr, the show’s creator, throws in controversial moments of casual sexism and the like, but akin to Burr’s brand of stand-up, “Family” is smart enough to show that the viewer should be laughing at its acknowledged political incorrectness and not at the jokes themselves.
While Burr demonstrates a desire for today’s modern culture, the show manages to romanticize now long outdated elements, like Frank wanting to buy a color television for a big football game, or a quick moment showing how long it takes to dial a rotary phone.
It would have been easy for Burr and crew to make a non-continuous sitcom with minimal weight to it, but instead the creators posit interesting and slow burning plots. The driving force is Frank getting promoted to management at the airline, and how he has to deal with the issues that come with it.
Frank’s boss puts him in the hard spot of preventing a labor strike, requiring him to betray his friends before having to deal with his spastic, moody children and dull marriage at home. The show makes sure to not let the other characters just be plot devices, though. All the minor roles, except for Maureen — who actually is just a plot device for Bill Murphy — have fully formed characters and stories.
Sue is miserable at home, where she works part time selling Plast-a-ware — basically Tupperware — and has occasional mental breakdowns. Bill Murphy has to deal with bullies while Kevin struggles with being seen as a disappointment and misunderstood.
But the show’s brightest aspect is the relationship between family members. All of them carry elements of their lives outside of their families back home, altering their relationships with each other rather than being smoothed over and forgotten.
For as much of a jerk as he is to his wife and kids, the show doesn’t let us forget that Frank really loves his family — no matter how much they frustrate him. In one of the series’ strongest moments, Frank and Sue have a fight over him turning down a promising job opportunity for Sue, who leaves the house to go to a batting cage.
When Frank finds her and apologizes, the writers don’t have Sue accept and move on as if nothing happened — as a weaker show would have — but they make it clear how Frank hurt her. Yet the marriage is strong enough that Sue can accept his apology, and they work through it.
It’s these subtle touches that make the viewer see the drawings as complex characters, that make “F is for Family” Burr’s best project to date.