F is for Fickle in the Final Season of 'F is for Family'
I have a soft spot for F is for Family. That’s not to say that it needs someone to have a soft spot for it to be successful- it’s a great adult animated sitcom that differentiates itself from its contemporaries with a unique rendering of 70s middle-class America, roughly based on show creator Bill Burr’s childhood. Although the show can sometimes be over-reliant on vulgar jokes and gross-out comedy, it has also proven capable of finding humor in how its characters react to the world changing around them, which also allows for the exploration of issues like masculinity and emotional abuse. I’m a sucker for comedy dramas (hello Succession), and seasons 2-4 of F is for Family are fantastic meldings of the two genres.
Unfortunately, the fifth and final season was very scattered and poorly structured compared to previous seasons. Past seasons had well-defined arcs for their characters with clear end goals, and those arcs would intersect and contribute to a larger show-wide narrative. Although it delivers decent and occasionally great plotlines and jokes, season five sacrifices that “bigger picture” aspect in an effort to bring closure to every possible plot thread and character arc, and it ends up trying to do too much.
The side characters of the show have primarily been utilized as comic relief, with intention to poke fun at their absurd behaviors. Throughout the series, Frank’s (Bill Burr) neighbor Goomer (Trevor Devall) is portrayed as a one-note weirdo. He prefers pooping outdoors and likes to steal and wear his neighbor’s clothes. In season five, when neighbor and newly single dad Vic (Sam Rockwell) turns to Goomer for advice on keeping his baby happy, Goomer’s wife Evelyn (Eileen Fogarty) becomes obsessed with Vic’s child. It’s already been revealed in past seasons that she had a miscarriage, so in that sense, her behavior is understandable and almost sympathetic. However, past seasons never tried to flesh out this plot, so for the final season to revisit it makes it seem like they’re just throwing ideas out there to pad the runtime. The season doesn’t even explore the issue in a meaningful way: it just brings it up once or twice an episode as if it's an item on a side-character storyline checklist.
The Goomer-Evelyn baby plot (if you could call it that) is just one example of my issue with this season. All the character development is seemingly shoehorned in for the sake of finality. The show’s examination of generational trauma and abuse generally centers on Frank and the kids, and even saw a palpable emotional climax in the death of Frank’s father Bill (Jonathan Banks) at the end of season four. In season five, Sue’s (Laura Dern) parents visit to make up with their estranged son Louis (Neil Patrick Harris), who they disowned for being gay. Sue’s parents also disapprove of Frank.
Sue’s role in the show has always been that of a progressive woman in the 1970s trying to forge her own path, but season five approaches things from the perspective of “Frank dealt with his fucked-up dad last season, now it’s Sue’s turn.” Sue certainly has unresolved issues with her parents and brother, but they’ve never appeared to be an integral part of her identity like they have with Frank. The inclusion of the plotline with her parents and brother seems to have been tossed in there so that Sue would have some kind of emotional journey worthy of a series finale, even though the birth of her daughter would be ample material for a final season.
Despite all of this season’s shortcomings, it still manages to have some great moments. Season opener “The Mahogany Fortress” is a classic F is for Family episode that hits all the right beats. Frank tries and fails to deal with his emotions surrounding his father, Maureen (Debi Derryberry) experiences something morbid while hanging out with an embalmer, and Bill (Haley Reinhart) determines that he can do whatever he wants without repercussions after learning about the Catholic rite of forgiveness. Those incidents set up the comportments for each of the characters throughout the season. I especially love how Maureen’s obsession with the macabre intersects with her feelings of jealousy toward her new sister, which ends up driving her storyline about trying to resurrect her grandpa so that she can be Frank’s favorite daughter again.
Maureen’s storyline is an example of what makes F is for Family work. It takes its characters' quirks to an absurd level to show how they deal with life’s more difficult moments in their own way. Unfortunately, this season didn’t always understand that. Even Frank’s storyline falls short. Throughout the season, he’s searching for a “Box 16” owned by his father because “Box 16” were his father's last words. This turns out to be meaningless, as Frank’s father actually said “Bach’s 16” (Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue Number 16), which was the jingle for his favorite brand of beer. That’s it. It doesn’t have any deeper meaning and Frank doesn’t learn any larger lesson from it. The only outcome of this plotline is Frank realizing he needs to be at home with his family for Christmas so he can be a better parent than his dad was. This would be a profound character moment, but Frank had already arrived at that conclusion in previous seasons.
The show ends on that hopeful note of Frank working toward being better, but it would feel more meaningful if it wasn’t treading old ground. Season five, in trying too hard to create a sense of finality, forgets what made it a great show in the first place. Regardless, it’s still an exceptional entry in the adult animation pantheon that captures the angst and anxieties of the 70s in a memorable way, and I’ll always look back upon the series fondly.