If “F Is for Family” were only a collection of goofs and spoofs on 1970s suburban life, it would be a small pleasure. The new six-episode series, which is available on Netflix on Friday, is from “Simpsons” writer Michael Price and comedian Bill Burr, who has based the material on his childhood in Canton. It gives us an era that’s drawn to look as ordinary and working class as that last season of “Mad Men” was kind of glam.
The Murphy family gets around town in boxy cars and watches a boxy TV set. Frank (Burr) is a classic 1970s grouchy TV dad with a touch of Archie Bunker and a tad of Fred Flintstone. He relieves work stress by taking to his La-Z-Boy to watch a perfectly bad cop show called “Colt Lugar” that could easily have been part of Quinn Martin’s oeuvre, alongside “Barnaby Jones,” “Dan August,” and “Cannon.” Colt’s catchphrase is inspired nonsense, and also Frank’s philosophy: “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man does.” Bang.
Sue (Laura Dern), Frank’s long-suffering wife, channels her frustration into selling something called Plast-a-Ware. When she’s not crying alone over the emptiness of her life, the result of the sexist culture in which she is steeped, she’s looking for some kind of self-actualization, which puts her alongside Peggy Blumquist from another recent 1970s-set show, “Fargo.” Fourteen-year-old son Kevin (Justin Long) is an inexperienced stoner who worships prog rock and specifically a band called Shire of Frodo. The two younger kids, Maureen (Debi Derryberry) and Bill (Haley Reinhart), face neighborhood-kid class dramas. And next door, a hard-partying dude named Vic is living out a 1970s-style Hugh Hefner-like dream, irking Frank no end. He’s voiced by Sam Rockwell, but he looks like Matthew McConaughey.
“F Is for Family,” whose story lines are cleverly serialized through the six episodes, is more than an extended 1970s joke. It has heart and wisdom, qualities that aren’t easy to bring to an animated show. The characters begin as stock creations, but the voice work and the writing give them added dimensions. Frank is a grumbler, and he lives by quickly failing definitions of masculinity and fathering; but you eventually feel for him, as his hair continues to fall out and his belly continues to expand. He’s middle management at the fictional Mohican Airways, and he gets crunched between the owners and the baggage handlers, who are threatening a work slow-down.
When Kevin gets in trouble, Frank brings him to the airline for a day so his son can see what the real world is about. Kevin’s conclusions at the end of the day are devastating, as he sympathetically compares Frank at work to a “human urinal” and says, “Your soul must be weeping.” Not the lesson Frank was hoping for.
One of my favorite bits shows how “F Is for Family” can both toy with sensitive material and yet come out on the side of insight. An elderly German man lives nearby, and the Murphy kids are terrified of him. They think his accent means he’s a Nazi, and they think that long number tattooed on his arm is the number of people he has killed. Obviously a Holocaust survivor, the German man, along with all the other seemingly incidental details across the episodes, build into something much more than you might expect.
On the one hand, the show can turn young Bill’s trip to the men’s room at a football game into an epic comic nightmare. On the other hand, it can be awfully sweet and, by the end, surprisingly poignant.
F Is for Family
Starring the voices of: Bill Burr, Laura Dern, Justin Long, Haley Reinhart, Debi Derryberry, Sam Rockwell. On Netflix. First season available on FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.