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Netflix’s F Is for Family examines the dark core of the angry sitcom dad

The animated series is one of the streaming giant’s hidden gems.

F Is for Family
Frank meets a new friend named Chet in F Is for Family’s third season.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 25 through December 1 is “Battle of the Sexes,” the fifth episode of the third season of Netflix’s F Is for Family.

Netflix’s F Is for Family is a weird little hybrid of a show. It’s sometimes very funny, and it’s sometimes very sad, which isn’t that unusual for a comedy — even an animated comedy — in 2018. But what makes F Is for Family notable is how both its sadness and its humor stem from exactly the same spot.

It would be tempting, if you only watched a single half-hour episode of F Is for Family, to conclude that it’s a series lamenting the rise of “political correctness.” Set in the ‘70s, it centers on a loud-mouthed white guy named Frank who’s at least vaguely threatened by women demanding something more like equality, and by the growing sense that the social order he stands atop is slowly eroding right beneath him.

What’s more, Loudmouthed white guys threatened by change aren’t unusual TV protagonists, either for comedies set in the ‘70s or for animated sitcoms. But F Is for Family’s spin on the type is defined as much by his sputtering frustration and total lack of confidence in himself and his abilities as it is by his anger. When Frank (voiced by series co-creator Bill Burr) shouts at his kids, F Is for Family doesn’t want you to laugh at how times have changed as much as it wants you to feel how limited he can be by his narrow range of emotional expression.

Yet the series isn’t afraid of occasionally dropping the hammer, of leaving viewers wondering where some darkly emotional turn came from. And so goes the end of “Battle of the Sexes,” the third season’s fifth episode.

F Is for Family nails a certain kind of male neediness

F Is for Family
Frank is covered in dead goose, and that’s all you need to know.

Coming at the exact midway point of a 10-episode season, “Battle of the Sexes” sends the season’s two big plots crashing into each other.

In the first plot, Frank has essentially been trying to woo new neighbor Chet (Vince Vaughn) to be his new best friend. Chet’s an Air Force pilot who married Nguyen Nguyen (Eileen Fogarty), a woman he met in Vietnam. Frank, who never met a cocky dude he couldn’t immediately try to emulate, begins spending more and more time with Chet, who offers to build a new room for the baby Frank and his wife have on the way.

But throughout Chet’s time on F Is for Family, the show drops more and more hints that he’s not the “great guy” Frank keeps insisting he is, especially when Chet suggests that both men cheat on their wives. (Frank refuses.) What’s more, the sheer number of times that both Chet and Frank say Chet is a “great guy” should lead most astute viewers to conclude that Frank knows, on some level, that the guy’s a fraud and Chet is compensating for something in hanging out with him.

Meanwhile, in the second plot, Frank’s wife Sue (Laura Dern) is reeling from the theft of her salad-tossing invention, which has made $1 million for another woman in town. She throws herself into trying to find a “second once-in-a-lifetime idea,” even as she’s balancing a pregnancy and trying to preserve a marriage she found herself more and more ambivalent about in season two. (It’s not uncommon for animated family comedies to suggest that their central husbands and wives are unequally yoked; only on F Is for Family do you suspect that such a marriage might really dissolve someday.)

Her second big idea arrives in the form of a weird kitchen multi-tool that contains a fork, spoon, knife, pizza cutter, and spatula, among other things. She and her friend Viv sink a fair amount of money into developing prototypes, but nobody else likes the idea, and Sue watches her grand ambitions slowly circle the drain, knowing that a baby will arrive soon and suck up plenty of her time and attention.

There are other storylines circling these two central ones — mostly featuring Frank and Sue’s three kids — but the center of the season stems, as is always the case when the show is at its best, from the ways Frank and Sue are limited by their histories, their frustrations, and their emotional limitations.

Frank, in particular, is a pitch-perfect sketch of a certain kind of male neediness. He at once longs to be as seemingly cool as Chet, while also feeling a bit thrown by how little another neighbor, the ultra-confident neighbor Vic (Sam Rockwell, doing a Sam Rockwell impression), seems to care about typical social niceties. (Season two revealed that much of Vic’s confidence is thanks to cocaine, which feels about right.)

But Frank is also unable to see beyond his own nose. He understands that Sue feels an immense frustration at the way her life has turned out, but he’s largely unwilling to dwell on how he’s played a big role in that frustration. Similarly, his relationship with one of his best friends, black co-worker Rosie (Kevin Michael Richardson), is defined by how often Rosie has to point out that Frank can’t understand Rosie’s frustrations, because Frank is white.

Season three of F Is for Family does soften Frank just a touch. He’s really trying in his marriage to Sue, whom he does love deeply, and he’s horrified when Chet suggests cheating on their wives. And when Rosie gets passed over for a promotion at work, Frank is upset for reasons beyond how much more work it’s going to make for Frank (though, to be fair, he’s mostly upset about the amount of work it will mean for him). But if Frank is softening, the world around him isn’t, necessarily.

“Battle of the Sexes” offers a dark twist at its end. But that’s true to what the show is.

F Is for Family
Sue learns something horrible about Chet and Nguyen Nguyen’s marriage.

The center of “Battle of the Sexes” is an impromptu neighborhood hangout at Frank and Sue’s house. Frank and Chet have been planning to work on the baby’s room, which leads to the other guys in the neighborhood dropping by. Sue, meanwhile, gathers her friends to offer feedback on her new invention. The kids hang out in the other room, too, watching the titular “Battle of the Sexes,” a jai alai spin on the 1973 tennis match of the same name.

Eventually, the three parties blend together in the largest group scene F Is for Family has ever done, according to series co-creator and showrunner Michael Price, as all of the characters gather around the television to watch a woman and man face off on the sacred courts of jai alai. As everyone watches the match play out, they crack jokes, both to diffuse the tensions that have built up throughout the night and to underscore the existing social order. A final bet from Sue ensures that if the woman jai alai player wins, the men in the room will do their respective household’s chores over the next week.

But the bet is masking a darker turn. Later, as Sue walks over to Chet and Nguyen Nguyen’s house to return a casserole dish, she hears Chet threatening Nguyen for the jokes she made at his expense earlier, then telling her she’s not allowed to leave the house the next day. Sue listens, then turns away — not returning the dish — presumably to go home and tell Frank.

This is a standard F Is for Family move. The show will frequently deploy a standard trope of the animated family sitcom subgenre — like a dad who shouts loud and abusive things for “comedy” reasons — then look at how harmful those tropes can be in other contexts. Frank’s bluster is funny because he’s ultimately not going to do anything about it. He’s just loud and angry, and he takes his family for granted, but he loves them too much to do anything except shout. Chet is very different (as, we learn later in the season, was Frank’s own father).

This willingness to dig into the darker subtext at play in its universe is what makes F Is for Family worth watching. The show has an immense amount of empathy for every character that lives in its little neighborhood, but it also understands how the limitations that keep them all in place manifest in traumas that travel down family trees.

And yet they don’t have to. Frank might bluster, but he’s not his father, and we can see the ways that his own sons won’t be like Frank when they grow up. And F Is for Family doesn’t pretend its “politically incorrect” elements depict the world as it really is, or something facile like that; rather, it focuses on the ways that Frank and guys like him created a whole system designed to flatter themselves into believing they are — or at least were — the kings of the world.

In season three, especially, F Is for Family is about a nation in transition, where Irish and Italian families are increasingly secure in their positions of power and privilege relative to other racial minorities and ethnicities, but where they still have recent memories of being cast out of the American mainstream (to the degree that a side character on a show that Frank’s kids watch is a very broad Irish stereotype). And yet the characters increasingly try to make things better, here and there, around the edges of their lives, if never quite at the center.

Okay, yeah, that makes the show sound more like a dark drama than an animated sitcom. And at times, that description fits F Is for Family — a funny show, but one that will never sacrifice a character moment, heartfelt or depressive or otherwise, in the name of a joke. It’s a long, boozy story, told by a very funny comedian, late at night, right before the bar closes. And you start out laughing, but then you’re just smiling, and then finally you’re realizing this guy has seen some shit. And then the story’s over, and the lights come on, and everybody goes home, through quiet streets.

F Is for Family is streaming on Netflix.