The 70s were a strange (waterbeds) and pivotal time in our nation’s history. The socially progressive movements begun in the decade prior formed the backbone of the monumental anti-Vietnam War effort. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandal saw journalists uncovering mass deception of the American people and the near-removal of then-President Richard Nixon from office, a first for the country. Bill Burr’s “F is for Family” opens a satirical window into the life of an average American family during this time, and though the oddities of 70s America felt terribly distant and shocking when the series began in 2015, the unprecedented rollercoaster that our own time has become makes them seem rather blasé.
The adult animated Netflix original stars the Murphys, a dysfunctional small-town Pennsylvania family consisting of quick-tempered patriarch Frank Murphy (Bill Burr) who works as a baggage handler for the fictional Mohican Airways, suffocating housewife and hopeful entrepreneur Sue (Laura Dern), dim-witted high schooler Kevin (Justin Long), lily-livered tweenager Bill (Haley Reinhart), and 9-year-old science wiz Maureen (Debi Derryberry). Their family dynamic is strained by Frank, who frequently threatens to put his kids “through a f-cking wall” and much of the humor comes from Frank’s inability to get ahead as karmic punishment. Whenever he attempts a reconciliation with his family they call his bluff – he never gets an easy out by opening up or offering a lame apology at the end of an episode – but they all love each other, really.
Season four loses its footing in the wake of its outstanding predecessors. As the family prepares for the birth of an accidental Murphy, Frank’s abusive father, William “Big Bill” Murphy (Jonathan Banks) moves in. Big Bill is initially kind and even-tempered, betraying Frank’s description. Most twists in this plot are telegraphed from a mile away, and the resolution is similarly uninspired – the season finale feels a foregone conclusion. The arc pales in comparison to season three’s domestic struggle between a charismatic Vietnam vet and his wife brought back from the front, and the finale is a fizzle compared to the terrorist attack that capped off season two.
The world of “F is for Family” amps up the problematic, but never past the point, unfortunately, of believability. This is the comedic conceit of the world, but even as a historical piece these moments are more bittersweet than anything. They are not so distant anymore.
Mohican Airways’ logo is a Native American caricature with a flaming airplane nocked in his skyward bow. Only in the past few months did the Washington Redskins begrudgingly reconsider their ridiculous name, and the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo keeps going strong.
Maureen’s gift for science is entirely overlooked by her parents because she’s a little girl, and Sue is at one point confined to a women’s daycare because Frank isn’t there to pick her up. A few years away from the historic Women’s March, women’s rights are an ever-present facet of our national dialogue.
Frank’s colleague and friend, Chauncey “Rosie” Roosevelt (Kevin Michael Richardson) is elected alderman in season three despite the obstacles in his way as a Black man. The episode “R is for Rosie,” follows his family instead of the Murphys and chronicles Rosie’s attempts as alderman to benefit the Black community. It is a high-point in the show’s worldbuilding, but as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to make headlines, Rosie’s struggles as a Black man in America in the 1970s are a grim reminder of all that has not changed since then.
The strong point of “F is For Family” is its characters. Pothead Kevin is obsessed with high fantasy rock band “Shire of Frodo,” but when his bookish crush loans him “The Fellowship of the Ring” he is dumbfounded – “Frodo’s in a book?” The Murphys’ wealthy neighbor, coke-addicted disc jockey Vic Reynolds (Sam Rockwell) is aged out of the business at age 30 and goes through a satisfyingly pathetic midlife crisis as a result. Banks’s performance as Big Bill Murphy brought to my mind his role as Mike Ehrmantraut of “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” another morally questionable father figure.
“F is for Family” is definitely coming back, poised for a new chapter in the Murphys’ lives. The consistently entertaining cast and clever writing is the greatest argument for the series’ continuation, and I can respect that the solemn reminders the series offers have value in their own right. But given our tumultuous reality, I can’t help but feel that we are better served looking forward rather than back. It remains to be seen whether, come season five, we’ll be laughing at this portrait of 1970s America, or crying as we find ourselves looking in a mirror.