Netflix continues to pump out some of the most modern and groundbreaking series currently on air (or online, rather), yet it is also has a habit of churning out shameless indulgences in nostalgia, for better (right on, Stranger Things) or worse (cough cough Fuller House). However, one such series feels simultaneously nostalgic and critical (more on that later – stay tuned!): the Bill Burr-fronted F is for Family, a 6-episode cartoon miniseries following a wildly dysfunctional family in the early 1970s. Despite being set two decades after the 1950s series we watched this week, the show bears a lot in common with the early family sitcoms while also feeling somewhat corrective of them.
Patriarch Frank Murphy is something of an exaggerated Ralph Kramden; isolated, lonely, and frustrated, he feels cheated by his menial airport baggage handling job, undermined by his critical wife, and disrespected by his trouble-making children. Furthermore, Frank resents those around him who have the material markers of success he lacks – particularly his next-door neighbor with his large house, shiny convertible, and expensive boat. Similarly, matriarch Sue Murphy reads as a darker, more depressed Lucy Ricardo; relegated to the domestic duties of housewifery, she is dissatisfied with her life and craves something more, though unlike the starry-eyed dreams of Lucy, Sue simply desires some sort of meaning or purpose outside of being a housewife.
In the opening credits to the Netflix cartoon, a young Frank Murphy throws his graduation cap into the air, sheds his robes, and flies into the sky, smiling and ready to take on the world. Yet things don’t go as planned. As he flies through the sky, he gets hit by unexpected life experiences: the draft, a wedding cake, a baby bottle. His gut expands, his hairline recedes, and he tries to dodge a swarm of other objects headed his way – telephones, cassette players, other advancing forms of technology – before giving up, covering his face and crashing into them. Eventually he falls out of the sky, crashing into a working class home and surrounded by a family. It’s a brief but effective opening sequence that communicates so much about Frank’s character (and many other patriarchal characters of early family sitcoms): The life he’s living is not what he expected for himself. He’s struggling to adapt to the new and changing world. And he is disillusioned by all of it.
Still from F is for Family, “The Bleedin’ in Sweden” (Season 1, Episode 1, 2015).
In this new and changing time, Frank clings to the familiar comforts he’s used to. His young and successful neighbor represents changing ideals of masculinity while Frank seems to find his only solace in that which reinforces his outdated views on what makes a man a man: old television shows with a butt-kicking, womanizing action hero and bloody boxing matches. Yet Frank feels his vision of masculinity is quickly disappearing from this new cultural climate. He feels over-worked and under-paid. And he feels like his status as “king of the castle” in his own house is constantly challenged. As such, he is angry, isolated, and lonely. His character actually comes across as quite inspired by Ralph Kramden and other disillusioned patriarchal characters of the time, thus asking the question, “what kinds of fathers would these men actually make?”
The answer is “not good ones.” As Ben Travers asserts in his review for IndieWire, F is for Family bears some similarity to another Netflix original animated series, BoJack Horseman, in that both examine the effects of emotional abuse on children. BoJack’s depression and self-loathing is rooted in an emotionally abusive upbringing, among other sources, which is revealed through a series of flashbacks that are themselves of a similar era and aesthetic as early family sitcoms. As such, both series may offer something of a critique of such shows, although BoJack Horseman certainly does not make it the central focus like F is for Family does. Frank’s anger and isolation make him a pretty bad parent, as he takes his frustrations out on his children, each of whom (save for maybe the daughter) are clearly damaged after years of abuse.
Judy Kutulas explains how as new generations grew up and took over the reigns behind the camera, they depicted the sitcom family as more in-line with their own experiences and as they wish they could have seen on TV growing up. It seems Bill Burr has done just this with F is for Family, creating a sitcom family bearing little in common with TV families of the 70s but a lot in common with real families of the 70s (at least as he experienced it). Or perhaps it’s more of a hybrid of the two, suggesting that characters like Ralph Kramden would have been terrible fathers and caused a lot of emotional harm on their children. Thus, in many ways, F is for Family could read as anti-nostalgic: rather than reveling in how great things were in the past, the series does the opposite, suggesting things were actually pretty terrible.