The premiere emotion that is touched on in Bill Burr‘s fascinating new animated series, F Is for Family, is disappointment in several different forms. For Frank Murphy (voiced by Burr), the husband and father of three at the center of the series, the disappointment comes from a life that went off course when he knocked up his wife, Sue (Laura Dern), and gave up his dreams of becoming a pilot; he now works as a manager of operations at the local airport. This dissatisfaction is shared with Sue, who often finds herself seriously questioning her marriage to Frank and her petty work as a plastic tupperware salesperson. And though the series does brandish a certain, irksome nostalgic view for misogynistic asshole-father types, it’s conception of the rest of the family’s lives, as well as the nuances of 1970s suburbia, puts the series in a slightly higher echelon than many of its ilk.
The six-episode series, which Netflix picked up earlier this year, is based on Burr’s own memories of growing up in Massachusetts, and though the show is clearly limited by its length, and Burr’s love of all things crude, there is an undeniable lived-in feel to the narrative trajectory. The oldest child, Kevin, voiced by Justin Long, listens to a nerdy prog band, an obvious take-off of King Crimson, and is having trouble finding his focus in school, while the youngest, Maureen (Debi Derryberry), has a tomboy vibe that causes her to identify with a pair of moronic yet adventurous boys; the middle child, Bill (Haley Reinhart), has a problem with bullies and is seemingly the sole sane member of the household.
More than any of this, however, the engine of the series is Frank’s promotion at work, which comes about when his predecessor is killed by a plane propellor that caught his necktie. As such, the series immediately intertwines professional success with death, and Frank’s increasing depression over his lot in life — as well as Sue’s — is tied directly to their age, and their sense of usefulness. At one point, Frank attempts to sabotage Sue’s career when he sees himself having to spend more time looking after the kids, which he both sees a compromise of his place as the sole breadwinner and as the man of the house. Not for nothing does he obsessively watch a cop show where an elderly cop beds younger women and kills any sort of criminal he comes in contact with — a rigid yet celebratory vision of outdated masculinity.
The ultimate fault in F Is for Family is that Burr only investigates these intriguing concepts up to a point, regularly returning to the openly crass humor that Burr has built his career on and Netflix allows him to vent in an animated venue. The result of this is that the show is consistently enjoyable in a familiar way, but Burr and co-creator Michael Price‘s best ideas are reduced to borderline decorative intrigues. This is most noticeable in Frank’s position as the primary arbitrator between the airline’s higher-ups and the on-the-ground workers of the airport, which hints at some brisk, blunt ideas about the struggle to succeed professionally while keeping the sly, unmistakable wisdom of the working class.
And yet, the series is ultimately primarily interested in the well-tread matters of family cohesion, what makes a family work despite their differences and makes family members want to succeed because of one another. F Is for Family has a potent sense of experience and era detail, and an intermittently inventive strain of humor, which is what makes all of its half-realized ambitions and dependence on routine characters and story arcs all the more disappointing, in a way that dulls even Burr’s most clever observations.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
F Is for Family premieres on Netflix in full on Friday, December 18th.