One weird television trend that took hold in 2015 was the six-episode sitcom that channels the look and feel of the best comedies of the '70s — especially those produced by Norman Lear, of All in the Family fame.
The summer's The Carmichael Show was terrific fun (read our review), but at only six episodes, I kept hoping it would be granted a little more room to spread out. (It was renewed, so maybe season two will benefit from just that.)
And even though it recently completed its third and final season, HBO's Getting On was the kind of deep dive into American health care that Lear would have appreciated.
But Netflix has saved the Lear-est for last in F Is for Family, an animated comedy that the network dropped into the world, largely sans promotion, a week before Christmas. Normally, such a move would signal that a series isn't so great, but F Is for Family is quite a bit of fun.
If you have the time to check out six half-hour episodes — and, let's be honest, you probably do — it isn't a bad way to kill a few hours.
F Is for Family excels because it's so angry and sad
One thing Lear excelled at was digging into the darker sides of his characters. Archie Bunker might have been a bigot, but he had his own dark past, which came out in dribs and drabs. Lear's characters were often tormented by the America their own parents grew up in, one dominated by the Great Depression and World War II. (In this regard, Lear's characters had a lot in common with Lear himself.)
And, for as well as F Is for Family works as comedy — there are tremendously funny lines and comedic bits in every episode — it almost works better as a dark tale of American despair during the Nixon administration. The series is set in 1973, and it deals forthrightly with disappointment and despair.
This is perhaps expressed nowhere better than in the series' opening credits, where paterfamilias Frank Murphy (voiced by co-creator and stand-up comedian Bill Burr) graduates from high school, soaring into a sky filled with possibility, only to be weighed down by a draft notice, a baby bottle, and an expanding waistline. He's ended up far away from where he wanted to be (a pilot, fittingly), and is instead stuck in a life that happened while he was making other plans.
But F Is for Family finds moments of both laughter and sorrow in its other characters, who struggle with societal expectations just as much as Frank does. Frank's wife, Sue (Laura Dern), grapples with the idea that she'll simply stay at home to raise her kids, while it seems that oldest son Kevin (Justin Long) become a burnout before he had a chance to take off. Kids will go out and play by themselves in the suburban twilight — but their bullies loom larger than they might have in a more sheltered environment.
F Is for Family is set somewhere in the Rust Belt, and you can almost feel the wheezy way stories unravel as the show progresses. In its best moments, it feels a bit like it takes place in a shopping mall where half of the storefronts are unoccupied.
Netflix is making a bid for a more traditional animated audience
Netflix has dabbled in animation before, with several series aimed at kids and, of course, the transcendent BoJack Horseman. F Is for Family is a slightly more traditional example of the genre, in that it's not too hard to imagine it airing in Fox's animated sitcom bloc between The Simpsons and Family Guy — or, indeed, even being produced as a live-action series. (In this regard, the show is perhaps most similar to King of the Hill.) Occasionally, the animation is deliberately minimalist, the characters' reactions frozen in a way that reflects their general inability to communicate what they really want.
What's most refreshing about F Is for Family is the way that it's structured so that every episode tells its own miniature story, even as the larger season follows a more complicated arc about Frank's workplace woes and conflicts with the union. (Sue's career trajectory also factors prominently.)
Creators Burr and Michael Price (a Simpsons vet) have worked hard to make sure that the serialized plot doesn't take over, which keeps things feeling a little more earthbound. Frank's job worries become just another thing he has to think about, right alongside more mundane problems like getting the TV fixed or dealing with his kids' issues.
As with many six-episode series, F Is for Family ends just as it feels like it's getting started. And with per-episode running times of 25 minutes or longer (around four minutes more than a standard network animated show), there are some pacing issues and general fuzziness here and there. But for the most part, it's a neat little series with potential to be a whole lot more — and it's well worth sampling on a gray, wintry afternoon.
F Is for Family is streaming on Netflix.