Rare is the comedian who can turn his profanities and peeves into something more meaningfully positioned against the current tide of safe spaces, trigger warnings and other demands for respect that are seen, by many, as an undue rush toward political correctness — and a threat to provocative comedy.
Bill Burr is one of those with a knack for mouthing off in a way that invites rather than repels. Whether in his stand-up act, podcast or as a talk-show guest, Burr has a talent for humorously criticizing hypersensitivity without seeming too much like an out-of-date crank.
He often rails against feelings, which are out of sync with the memories he holds dear of his no-nonsense, high-decibel upbringing in the 1970s. As Burr’s new animated Netflix series “F Is for Family” attempts to demonstrate, our world was better off when it was ruder, cruder and less patrolled.
At least that seems to be the central theme. “F Is for Family,” co-written with “Simpsons” alum Michael Price, struggles in its six episodes to distinguish itself from a long line of cartoons (everything from “King of the Hill” and Seth MacFarlane’s oeuvre to more recent niche hits like “Bob’s Burgers”) in which a nuclear family exhibits high levels of toxicity with brief reprieves of tenderness. One can almost imagine an assembly line of overseas animators realizing that they can save time by pasting old scraps of cartoons we’ve seen before into “F Is for Family,” simply by drawing longer sideburns on the men.
Burr supplies the voice of Frank Murphy, a cog in the local airport’s baggage-handling operation and married father of three who lives in a cul-de-sac and wants nothing more than to watch his favorite sexist cop show on the new color console TV.
As a riff on Archie Bunker, Frank is as jaded as a human can be — he’s opposed to letting his wife, Sue (Laura Dern), seek career satisfaction as a plastic food-container sales agent, he’s down on the Catholic Church, and he’s convinced his children are destined for worthlessness. The show’s best moment might be its opening theme sequence, in which a young 1950s Frank takes off for the sky until he flies too close to the sun (to the tune of Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love”) and runs smack into the endless accoutrements of domesticity, middle-age and a big capital F that sends him crashing into the despair of his cartoon dystopia, where everyone is worthless and ungrateful.
“What are we having?” moans the teenage son, Kevin (Justin Long), when called to the dinner table.
“More free food. What are you bitching about?” Frank snaps.
Frank’s screeds will be familiar to anyone who has caught Burr’s superior stand-up act, but something gets lost when bringing that voice and sensibility over to a scripted, animated format. “F Is for Family” spends too much time working itself up to a full boil — which arrives only in the last episode-and-a-half. The period details gleaned from the setting (1973 suburbia) are occasionally fun, yet there’s also an argument to be made here that the Me Decade is spent in every way — both visually and as a source of sharp humor. (The brilliant, recently wrapped season of “Fargo” is an exception.)
It’s never quite clear if “F Is for Family” is a work of nostalgia or regret or some combination of the two. Is it a paean to lost freedoms or a send-up of the emotional brutality that came with being a kid 40 years ago? Is the cheek still stinging from the slap, or is it wishing for the return of the father’s angry hand?
F Is for Family (six episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.