“Why do they always run from me?” Frank Murphy wonders of his kids midway through the second season of the animated comedy F Is For Family, which debuted today on Netflix.
Frank (Bill Burr) is, as usual, oblivious, both about the many reasons his kids might have to run from him when he’s in one of his profane, loud, angry moods — which is pretty much always — and about the specific reason this kid in this moment is running from him. Frank has no idea what’s going on with kids Kevin (Justin Long), Bill (Haley Reinhart), or Maureen (Debi Derryberry), nor with wife Sue (Laura Dern), because he’s too busy drowning in resentment at a life that didn’t turn out at all how he planned.
This is at once the subject of the series — and particularly this darker new season (I’ve seen all 10 episodes) — and the thing that can make it a tough watch, despite sharp writing (the show was created by Burr and Simpsons veteran Michael Price), excellent vocal performances (including Sam Rockwell as Frank’s coke-sniffing playboy neighbor Vic), and animation that simultaneously turns the early ’70s setting into a wonderland and a nightmare.
Frank is far from the first unlikable modern comedy protagonist. Just counting adult-oriented Netflix animated shows, Frank’s screaming and general stubbornness isn’t a patch on all the horrible thinks BoJack Horseman does to the people who care about him. But the series’ small scale, and the nuance that Burr, Price, and the other writers bring to the lives of the Murphy clan, wind up making Frank’s particular brand of old-school belligerence much harder to take, particularly in a binge — which the serialized storytelling invites — and particularly given the more economically and emotionally stifling set-up for the new episodes.
We pick up a few weeks after the end of season one, when Frank was fired on Christmas from his job as the head baggage handler at the local airport. The Murphys were never well-off to begin with — it was a huge deal when they bought a new color TV — and Frank’s joblessness stretches their budget, and everyone’s patience, to the limit, as Sue’s part-time job for a plastic ware company becomes the only thing keeping them afloat, much to the irritation of Frank, who fancies himself the family’s best and only breadwinner.
All of the details of the strain put on the marriage, and on the three kids, are extremely sharp and nuanced. Many of the first season’s stories were about how the ’70s was an era when kids were left to fend for themselves during the day, and what an adventure that could be; here, the neglect from two overextended parents starts turning it into misery. Like BoJack, F Is For Family is actually stronger as a psychological drama than it is as a comedy, even as the new season expands the boundaries of its reality a bit, including the introduction of Frank’s replacement at the airport, a grotesque bigot with a massive dent in his head that’s only bearable to look at because it’s animated.
But even more than in the first season, the laughs come as a relief, whether it’s Frank apprenticing in a new job restocking vending machines with a cantankerous-bordering-on-unhinged boss named Smokey (Michael Kenneth Williams, hilarious), 14-year-old Kevin trying desperately to lose his virginity (in ways that make this a “family” comedy for adults-only even more than Frank’s language), or Sue learning to fend off the Anchorman-style sexism of her male colleagues at the office. Life is difficult for the Murphys this season, which only makes Frank madder, which only makes things more difficult for them — and, at times, for the audience.
The new episodes keep flashing back to the early days of Frank and Sue’s relationship in the late ’50s as a way to illustrate how hopeful and kind he once was before life got in the way, but the show’s brilliantly economical main title sequence — in which Frank ages from carefree teenager to harrowed middle-aged man while flying through an increasingly crowded sky — has already done that job. And even if we understand how Frank got this way, his behavior is still so monotonously pig-headed that empathy only goes so far.
I like so many things about F Is For Family, and the way it’s thought through the inner lives of even the most minor and/or broad character, like all we learn this season about the twisted, repressed psychology of Bill’s nerdy best friend Phillip (also voiced by Derryberry). And I’m usually in favor of shows embracing what they’re about as much as possible, which in this case is the hardship of being Frank Murphy and/or someone related to Frank Murphy. But there were a lot of moments this season where I wanted to be like one of the kids and run as fast and far from Frank as I could whenever he approached.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: Since the whole season’s available, and since I’m probably not doing a separate spoiler post, feel free to discuss and and all of it in the comments.