The more prestige dramas there are, the harder it is to watch all of them. They’re long. They’re heavy. And for most content on Netflix, they’re far too loosely edited, which only makes them feel longer and heavier. So as the streaming giant prepares to release a 30-minute live-action comedy-drama hybrid this week (the much-anticipated “GLOW”), it’s important to note Netflix has been killing it when making shorter dramatic content, with the most recent example being “F is for Family.”
And by killing it, I do mean death is but a heartbeat away in Bill Burr’s R-rated, animated take on “Married With Children.” It’s not so much that the ’70s-set family show deals with existential fears (like “BoJack Horseman”) or knocks off characters left and right (like most dramas these days), but that Burr’s fictionalized memoir of growing up deals with the era — and those living through it — as if though there’s no going back.
Literally, there isn’t (until Doc Brown gets around to inventing the DeLorean), but “F is for Family” approaches its period story as being stuck in time rather than nostalgic for a time gone by. Take, for instance, the opening credits, which show a young, happy, idealistic Frank Murphy (voiced by Burr) slowly transform into an old, frowning, pessimistic father of three. There’s no next step for Frank. His arc, literally embodied by flying up into the air and plummeting back to earth, is closed. He started with dreams, and he’s ended up here.
The show itself mimics this mentality with a nuanced thematic goal for its lead character. Frank struggles to regain the dreamy perspective he once had, but he’s only hoping to remember specific bits, rather than dramatically change his life. He’s unable to turn back the clock, and he knows it. So how does he survive in the now?
Season 2 focuses on his marriage and how the destruction of his dreams led him to de-prioritize his wife, Sue (Laura Dern). Throughout the 10 new episodes (released May 30, just in time for Emmy consideration), viewers are given telling flashbacks to how Frank and Sue met, and it’s unclear if we’re seeing the beginning and end of their marriage arc — witnessing its end in the present day and its beginning in the past — or if we’re meant to see why Frank might have an ounce of hope (and why the ever-patient Sue stays with him).
Without spoiling the result, the not knowing is what makes “F is for Family” Season 2 such intriguing TV. If the safety nets presumed to be included with 30-minute animated TV shows aren’t completely gone, they’re lowered far enough to be out of sight and out of mind. And the other plots of Season 2 only make this reflective character study all the more unsettling.
Kevin (Justin Long), the teenage son, gets into a spot where he’s technically the victim of statutory rape. While presented, at first, as the dream conquest of any pubescent boy, Kevin’s moral struggle and inability to talk about what happened is fleshed out well. Bill (Haley Reinhart), the youngest of three kids, learns a harsh life lesson too soon and resorts to operating outside the innocent moral parameters of boys his age. Last season, he saw things he can’t un-see (and neither can we), but this season finds Bill making seemingly minor choices that could permanently change the man he’ll become.
And then there’s Sue. In Season 1, there was a nagging lack of outside perspective when it came to how Frank treated his family. The series felt far too supportive, understanding, or, at the very least, permissive of an emotionally abusive father. But Season 2 is Sue’s season, and she’s had enough of her husband’s attitude. Fixing their relationship involves respecting Sue as a full partner, not just someone who handles the kids while Frank’s at work.
Her determination to make Frank see her as an equal gives the new episodes a stronger sense of self-awareness as well as a darker edge. Frank has had a tough go of things, but that’s no longer a good enough reason to behave the way he does. “F is for Family” isn’t a comedy making light of horrific childhood moments; it’s a drama depicting how pain can be transferred from husband to wife, father to son, family member to family member.
While “Bloodline” and “House of Cards” may earn the accolades at awards shows and attention from critics, Netflix has been steadily churning out deeper, more challenging dramas in briefer installments. “F is for Family” illustrates why it’s important to see series for what they are, rather than through the genre lens thrust upon them. But it’s also a show that benefits from unveiling its drama in shorter, 30-minute chunks, rather than stretching out episodes to fit the hour-long standard perpetuated by the industry.
As more and more scripted series are produced, hopefully more are allowed to be told in whatever format and whatever length is best. Animated series have long usurped expectations, from “The Simpsons” to “South Park,” but it’s time all series follow suit and upend these outdated genre assumptions.