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F Is For Family [Season 4] (2020)

If there’s a defining image in Netflix’s adult animated sitcom F is for Family, then it’s the kitchen wallpaper, a nauseous pattern of green balls and orange bars. This is a show about the bilious 1970s, a decade unloved equally in America and Britain, when horrid fashions matched horrid attitudes, a time of strikes, war and rancour. Set in middle America, F is for Family is the anti-Happy Days; by that token, its protagonist is the anti-Tom Bosley. Meet Frank Murphy, a perpetually furious, foul-mouthed patriarch whose natural vocal pitch is sharply irate, rising to a yell sucking oxygen from a room.

F is for Family started on Netflix as a 6-part miniseries in 2015, with ten-part seasons dropping in 2017 and 2018. The fourth season dropped this June, and is described further down. The ‘70s setting is one of the things that makes F is for Family interesting, setting it apart from other family-centred animations, which often mock past decades but rarely stay there long. While the show’s full of absurd incidents, coincidences and the occasional gory demise (about .01 on the Kenny scale), F dials down the sitcom-fantasy from The Simpsons or Family Guy. There are no random celebrities or ‘unreal’ cutaway gags. Frank’s favourite threat to his kids is that he’ll put them through the ****ing wall, but the show’s own fourth wall stays unbreached.

The series has many running plotlines, often crossing between seasons, making it advisable to pick up from the start. Apart from Frank, voiced by the show’s co-creator Bill Burr, the main characters are Frank’s wife Sue (Laura Dern), who loves her family but who’s too strong not to rail against the damage marriage has wrought on her; their teen son Kevin (Justin Long), a struggling musician and walking, fumbling disaster; and Kevin’s preteen siblings Bill and Maureen. The third season started with Sue pregnant with another (unplanned) child; this pregnancy is nearing its end in the fourth season, and is one of the bigger storylines.

F is for Family isn’t a great show, but it is consistently impressive. The tone is continually abrasive without slipping into indifferent snark. Somehow there are enough moments of sane family interaction and glimpsed warmth to keep you watching through the endless family rows. As shocking as Frank’s rants are, and for all his threats of violence, it’s not suggested he physically abuses his family. A memorable scene in the first season involves Frank and Sue having a screaming match in their bedroom, which transforms in seconds into energetic sex. That’s not the scene’s shocker– we’ll leave that for you to discover. As a stream-only series, F’s content goes way past broadcast TV, though its gross moments, refreshingly, aren’t its selling point (and they’re few between in the newest season.)

Haters of cartoon sitcom aesthetics should stay away. F is a dialogue-led show with largely rudimentary animation, or what Chuck Jones slammed decades ago as illustrated radio. During verbal exchanges, the characters often look dopily lifeless when it’s not their turn to speak. But the designs are good, especially the middle-aged, middle-America Frank in his white shirt and tie. He looks plausibly ordinary, unlike many other animated sitcom dads, till the next thing makes him explode. The other family members are easily outshone by the large supporting cast, including Frank’s grossly obese boss Pogo at the airport where Frank works – Pogo gets a makeover this season – and the fading rock singer neighbour voiced by Sam Rockwell.

(Fourth season spoilers follow.) A new character is introduced this season; Frank’s previously unseen dad, voiced by Jonathan Banks, everyone’s favourite hitman Mike from Breaking Bad. Named William, the senior Murphy drops back into Frank’s life after decades of separation, while Frank’s family fail to square his memories of an abusive ogre-daddy with this lovely, avuncular new septuagenarian in town, who helps around the house and showers sweets on his grandkids. Other plotlines have Vic, Rockwell’s character, attempting to claw back his lost glory with the help of Kevin and his bandmates; a substantial side-plot involving Frank’s black workmate Rosie (Kevin Richardson) struggling to enter local politics; and of course, Sue’s pregnancy.

It still works. Some viewers may compare the plot unfavourably to F’s third season, which had Frank gain a father figure in the form of a jet-pilot ace, voiced by the show’s producer Vince Vaughn. That story (which ended badly for the characters, well for the viewers) is briefly alluded to in the new season, but there’s no substantial sequel. Fans of Bojack Horseman may snort that it handled generational conflicts more experimentally (the long-burning thread with Bojack’s mum). But F never claimed to be that kind of show – as an animation, it trips no further than an interlude in which the ‘shroomed Kevin thinks school trophies are talking to him. Granted, the father plotline starts badly in the season’s opening episode, with Frank’s memories of his parent framed as a Scorsese domestic-drama pastiche that just doesn’t land. But the story pays off well over the season, applying a moral from Disney’s Frozen to real life; relationships can’t be defined by a few moments of emotional intimacy between TV ad breaks.

Meanwhile, the storyline involving the black character Rosie looks inevitably different given contemporary (summer 2020) world events and arguments. In a first-time break from F’s format, Rosie has his own episode to depict his situation, complete with an alternate title sequence. In the titles for all the other episodes, Frank was shown soaring through the clouds until he’s sunk by the detritus of family life. In the alternate sequence, Rosie flies through the same clouds and, in a horribly on-the-nose joke, is chased down by a police ‘copter. Rosie’s episode is never as startling again, inviting derision from revolutionaries past and present. The fact that the episode is an animation, foregrounding black characters in ‘70s urban America prompts memories of Ralph Bakshi’s far more incendiary, incoherent and purposefully offensive 1975 film, a film so offensive we can't even print its name. It's a film I hate, but one I will remember longer than F’s safe respect.

However, Rosie’s story will surely reprise in F’s next season, if there is one. The last part of season four feels like a possible end-point for the series – not F’s best episode, but a mostly satisfying round-off without any sequel hook. A fifth season hasn’t been confirmed as of writing, though there are enough characters and story opportunities to sustain F further. With 36 episodes released over five years, there’s little risk of the series bloating to as many episodes as The Simpsons, or – a more apt comparison – Happy Days.


IN A NUTSHELL:  F is for Family’s fourth season is like F as a whole; never exceptional, but consistently impressive.


Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away, 100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net.