F Is for Family wears its ambitions on its sleeve. Not only is Netflix’s animated comedy, co-created by and starring Bill Burr, the story of a working-class, suburban white family set in 1973; its name immediately brings to mind All in the Family, Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom of the same era. It’s easy to see what Burr and collaborator Michael Price (of The Simpsons and, oddly enough, Lego Star Wars) are aiming for: an Archie Bunker type we either love to hate or hate to love, bolstered by a family that tolerates him — barely. And it’s equally easy to see how they fall short.
As The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum famously pointed out, Bunker was the canary in the coal mine for both the Age of the Antihero and the unanticipated audience response to it. Portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, the patriarch was an out-and-out bigot, albeit a charming one. While Lear “hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs,” the demo Nussbaum would memorably christen “Bad Fans” only got the first half of that message.
With F Is for Family, Burr and Price align themselves more closely with Lear’s Bad Fans than the legendary comedy writer himself. Burr’s blue-collar airport worker Frank Murphy has Bunker’s casual racism and aggrieved masculinity in spades; his favorite TV hero’s signature catchphrase, delivered after he beats up some cartoonish-even-for-a-cartoon Asian villains, is “A man’s gotta do what a man does.” What the show he stars in doesn’t have is any real sense of what Frank’s prejudices are there for, other than some period detail and mild shock value.
This stands in stark contrast to The Carmichael Show, another new series with Lear as an obvious influence. Like F Is for Family, The Carmichael Show was created by a stand-up comedian, Jerrod Carmichael, and debuted with a limited run of just six episodes. But where Carmichael abandoned the Bunker-esque bigot, though there are certainly shades of him in David Alan Grier’s conservative Joe, while keeping the spirited, family-wide debates on social issues, F Is for Family lets its Archie figure do his thing without anyone to square off against or even register a token objection to him.
Instead, there’s unfulfilled housewife Sue (Laura Dern!), pothead prog-rocker Kevin (Justin Long), and resident cute kids Bill and Maureen. Collectively, their antics lean away from the political and toward the domestic, in the spirit of animated family sitcoms like The Simpsons or King of the Hill. Kevin’s flunking his classes; Sue’s “job” selling Tupperware knockoffs isn’t enough to give her life meaning; Frank’s promotion to management puts him at odds with his former colleagues, who plan to go on strike. That last storyline feels a bit tacked-on, an attempt to serialize the plot in the spirit of streaming-era 2015 rather than keep episodes self-contained, à la the ’70s shows it’s modeled after and sometimes (gently) mocks.
Because this is a comedy show, however, the real problem is the jokes. Many of them boil down to little more than “People sure used to be racist, huh?” an attitude that doesn’t so much endorse Frank’s views as imply it’s enough to smirk, move on, and let them sit there, untouched. It’s an approach Burr and Price take across the board, whether Frank’s refusing to stop for a stranded black driver or constantly threatening to put one of his children “through the fucking wall.” The desired response doesn’t seem to be a belly laugh, but a knowing chuckle. Look at those kids playing with rusty metal — you couldn’t get away with that these days!
The second most common strain of humor is the use of various four-letter words as jokes in and of themselves, making this the first streaming series I can recall to do so. BoJack Horseman uses expletives sparingly, and NBC-generated Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t use them at all. F Is for Family drops them everywhere. These aren’t the elaborate, almost Shakespearean bouts of profanity you’ll find on Veep; like Frank’s outbursts, every time a little kid screams “shit,” it’s meant as the setup and the punchline.
It’s easy to imagine a more successful, more funny version of F Is for Family, one that isn’t content to lay out its premise and leave it at that. You can even see it in some of the more pointed period references, like Sue’s haircare routine or the cover of Kevin’s latest favorite album. Unfortunately, it never quite peeks through.
F Is for Family is available to stream on Netflix this Friday.