The return of Netflix’s adult animated sitcom brings with it a few moving moments and arcs, but it’s too lacking in laughs.
Picking up soon after the end of season 3—albeit with virtually zero references to toxic neighbor Chet Stevenson (Vince Vaughn)—F Is for Family is much as we left it. Murphy patriarch Frank (show creator Bill Burr) remains as short-fused as ever. Matriarch Sue (Laura Dern) remains pregnant, and, if anything, is increasingly ambivalent about how another child will affect her life. Oldest son Kevin (Justin Long) is still disappointing as the brood’s dimmest member, middle child Bill (Haley Reinhart) keeps on being the anxious scion, and the younger Maureen (Debi Derryberry) remains precocious and overlooked.
It’s a loud and often-unhappy group, but there’s a stability to it—that is, until Frank’s dad, William (Jonathan Banks), shows up. Besides reminding Frank of all the cruelties of his childhood and adolescence, William has the nerve to have mellowed with age. The only thing that upsets Frank more than his father’s old behavior is that he can’t seem to get anyone to believe it, especially with the kindly septuagenarian William appears to be now.
All and all, it seems an excellent setup for F Is for Family’s fourth season. However, a strange thing becomes increasingly clear. While the show remains fascinating, it’s harder and harder to deny that it just isn’t funny anymore. Too often in these 10 episodes, the show seems to be defaulting to “hey, here’s some profanity” as a substitute for punch lines. The show’s skill at building situations as platforms for jokes remains intact. However, when it comes time to deliver the humor, the execution is undeniably lacking.
There can be a tendency to respond to this kind of criticism by pointing out the show is willfully politically incorrect, and if it offends someone, well… perhaps the viewer is just too much of snowflake to handle it. However, F Is for Family has always proclaimed its rejection of PC culture more than it’s actually delivered on it. The show has never really been offensive unless you dislike profanity in and of itself.
At times, it can feel downright progressive. For instance, were suburban towns of the ‘70s really so easily accepting of married men coming out as gay, divorcing their wives, and becoming single dads as this show suggests? It certainly would be excellent if they were, but history suggests otherwise. So no, it isn’t that the jokes offend. It’s just that they largely sit this season out. The attempts to provoke either fall flat or feel as if they’re trying hard to offend without realizing that said attempts are benign clichés.
The attempts to provoke either fall flat or feel as if they’re trying hard to offend without realizing that said attempts are benign clichés.
What is striking, however, is that the show remains interesting despite the humor deficit. While definitely not as strong as previous seasons, Family is wrestling with some fascinating topics. Sue’s struggle with the life she imagined for herself and how motherhood derailed her dream feels both appropriate to the era and relevant to our times. Frank’s attempts to be a better dad than his own while falling into the same patterns is honest and even quite heartbreaking. Even coke-loving DJ neighbor Vic (Sam Rockwell in a performance by way of Matthew McConaughey) gets a storyline with depth, as he has to acknowledge getting older will cost him things he loves.
Ultimately, however, this is an animated sitcom, and sitcoms need laughs. Without them, even Burr’s signature rant delivery begins to lose its potency. The themes have potential and are even compelling from time to time, but without the humor for a foundation, the season slows to a crawl. For the first time, the Murphys feel less like a family you enjoy visiting but would never want to belong to. Now they’re more like a family you like catching up with during a three-minute walk to your respective cars but would never invite over for a barbecue.
Season 4 of F Is for Family shacks up on Netflix this Friday, June 12.