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Review: ‘F Is for Family’ is a Bracing Examination of Emotional Abuse, But Somehow Still a Comedy

Review: 'F Is for Family' is a Bracing Examination of Emotional Abuse, But Somehow Still a Comedy


Drawing comparisons between two shows simply because they’re on the same network isn’t always wise (and is often lazy), but I couldn’t help but flashback to when “BoJack Horseman” premiered while watching the new Netflix original, “F Is For Family.” Part of the reason is because of a review I posted in haste for Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s brilliantly scathing comedy, basing my opinion on only six “pretty funny” episodes; the same number of episodes available to review for “F Is For Family,” but here they make up the entirety of its first season. Yet after shooting through three hours of Bill Burr screaming profanities at his family, another commonality became surprisingly clear: Both “BoJack Horseman” and “F Is For Family” are about the effects of emotional abuse on children. The main change? “BoJack Horseman” is more concerned with the kid, while “F Is For Family” seems stubbornly focused on the father. 

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When it comes to basic plot, the two series couldn’t be more different. The soon-to-be-junior entry eviscerates the L.A. culture of vanity and celebrity with a sly smile, a beating heart and a soft voice. “F Is For Family” is, if nothing else, very, very loud. Focusing on the Murphy family, Bill Burr’s ’70s set comedy aims to be a brash, unfiltered look at middle-class family life during a time when male white privilege was at its peak. Frank Murphy, the father and patriarch of a five-person nuclear family, works in middle management at an airport, where he’s torn between pleasing the large group of employees one or two rungs below him and his powerful bosses promising him more power and money.

While his split loyalty takes up a good chunk of the season, the larger focus is on how his job affects those closest to him — with a strong emphasis on the “affect” part. We don’t so much spend extra time with many of the side characters — though the two boys (Kevin and Bill) notably get their own storylines while little Maureen is largely just a facilitator — instead focusing on how the family spends time together and what goes wrong when they do. Be it an annoying phone call during dinner or a child’s mistake, it doesn’t take much to set Frank off.

But watching him explode isn’t like seeing Homer choke Bart for talking back. Explicitly, Frank’s outbursts are vocal, not physical. He doesn’t resort to violence, but his verbal assaults are shocking.  “F is for Family” is far too grounded in reality — a reality many may prefer to forget — for scenes of Frank calling his oldest son a “disappointment” or his youngest son a “pussy” to be interpreted as comedy. Moreover, there are a handful of scenes focusing strictly on the devastating results of Frank’s verbal abuse and neglect. Without getting spoiler-y, all I can say is that I desperately want to know what kind of adults these kids turned into.

The answer might be staring us in the face. Naming the youngest son Bill may be a blunt indication that “F is for Family” is creator Bill Burr’s interpretation of his own childhood. In the press notes for the show, Burr said inspiration for the series came from “doing stand-up and telling stories about my family.” Without pretending to be overly familiar with Mr. Burr’s stand-up, and thus not knowing his personal history, it seems safe to say a few choices scenes could play as oddly specific memories. If so, “F is for Family” might be a bit more intriguing, but placing focus on the father still brings up a number of issues for anyone watching the series without personal insight into the creator’s life.

To that end, I’m not sure I want to keep watching “F is for Family.” After six episodes, much has changed and the focal points indicate a knowledge of the deeper impact Frank has on his family. The first season even sets up beautifully for a fascinating and much-needed role reversal in Season 2, but the overall tone leaves much to be desired. Primarily, it’s not very funny. While not all animated shows or even half-hour episodes have to fit as snugly into the comedy category awards shows are so eager to put them in, there are obvious attempts at humor here that indicate you’re supposed to find at least portions of the proceedings amusing. Some work and some don’t, but the jarring shift of fearing for these kids’ futures and chuckling at a knowing jab toward the rampant sexism and discrimination of the ’70s.

And it’s here where “F is for Family” has me stumped. With only six episodes to analyze, there seems to be an even split between self-awareness and ignorance. I want to believe by consciously shifting to the perspectives of Frank’s traumatized children, the series will get around to making a stronger stand against their father’s parenting style (if you can call it that). I want to think it’s telling these stories from this specific time period because there’s something to be learned from them, both in terms of our overly P.C. modern leanings and in awakening those headstrong parents who still believe this kind of thing is okay. I want to see Burr’s series find that sweet spot in between these two ideologies and show us how each side can learn from the other.

But I haven’t seen it yet. Just as I was overly cynical with “BoJack Horseman” after seeing its first six episodes, now I find myself with similar feelings toward “F is for Family.” Only this time around, there’s no sharp-tongued humor to fall back on or alluring animation style that sucks you into such a unique world. While “BoJack Horseman” integrated its storyline of emotionally abusive parenting via flashbacks to explain why the lead character makes the choices he does today, “F is for Family” asks us to live in that period setting and identify with the abuser instead of the abused. It’s a tougher challenge, for sure, and one worth taking on. Viewers may have to decide for themselves if they trust where this story is headed. As for me, let’s just say I’m cautiously pessimistic.

Grade: B-

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