Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Idiot Boxing: F is for Family, season 1 (2015); Lady Dynamite, season 1 (2016)

The Murphy family - far your typical, PG-rated animated
sit-com crew.
F is for Family, season 1 (2015)

A rather different entry into the animated sit-com world, and one that shows more potential than it completely realized in its first six-episode season.

The basic template of F is for Family is abundantly familiar: a nuclear family with three children - two boys and one girl - deal with the typical stresses of daily living. The focus is mostly on the father, Frank, whose hair-trigger temper sends him into fits of aggravation and rage at nearly every turn.

The show is set in the early 1970s, complete with the shifting landscape of U.S. culture of the day, when a wild assortment of beliefs and lifestyles were evolving and colliding throughout the country. In the middle of such social upheaval, the patriarch Frank becomes a bit on an Archie Bunker, though with an infinitely shorter fuse. Understanding that many prevailing, now-ignorant viewpoints of the time by middle-class, white Americans provides humor at times, but it is sometimes merely awkward. The show sometimes displays just enough self-awareness to turn an uncomfortable situation funny, but it sometimes leaves things a bit too matter-of-course to be anything but upsetting.

This was an interesting show to start watching with my wife. We both love many things about Bill Burr's stand-up comedy. Though he can occasionally veer just a hair too far into ignorance and insensitivity, he is more often self-aware enough to admit his own shortcomings. And his storytelling abilities are on par with some of the very best comedians in the last 30 years. And yet, despite my wife's appreciation for Burr's sense of humor, she gave up on F is for Family after watching the first episode, and I understand why. It is yet another family sit-com focused almost exclusively on a frazzled dad whose own ignorance creates many of his own issues. While the show is able to add profanity and more adult themes than the animated shows on network TV, there is an unfortunate lack of examination of the other family members. Recognizing this, I stuck with the remaining five episodes, and generally enjoyed them.

Bill Murphy, suffering the post-trauma of going to a horrific
men's room at a football stadium in the 1970s. Such odd shocks
make up some of the funniest moments in this first season. 
One thing that stood out was how this was the first animated show of this type which actually had a story arc. All other such shows, from The Simpsons to The Family Guy to the plethora of others have almost exclusively stuck to single, self-contained episodes. F is for Family, however, has several plots which actually progress over its half-dozen shows. The primary one involves Frank becoming a middle manager at his airline company and trying to broker a deal between management and the workers. Others involve trying to get his older son to take school seriously and the other son to grow some form of a backbone. Eventually, Frank's wife Sue has her own story involving getting a side job selling plastic-ware. While the actual character development is minimal, it is there, and this was a nice change to the typically static worlds of animated series. It will be interesting to see just how far the writers take this sort of continuity, perhaps even having the children gradually grow older. As far as I know, this would be a first for an animated series.

Ultimately, though, the main question for any animated comedy is whether it's funny. The short answer is yes. Maybe not all of the time, and maybe not as much as the writers are hoping, but every episode had at least one hilarious moment and several others that had me grinning with amusement. No, it's never as good as the very best episodes of the best animated series like The Simpsons or even Archer, but this first short season set up some possibilities for the show to grow into something better and rather unique.

The trippy, surrealistic image from the Netflix ads gives you
some idea of the mania and oddity that you might expect
sprinkled throughout Bamford's show.
Lady Dynamite, season 1 (2016)

Maria Bamford is one of the quirkiest, most unique and talented comedians out there, though she can be a bit of an acquired taste. Her new show on Netflix is representative of her singular persona: often hilarious, with the odd dash of bizarre or simply uncomfortable.

Lady Dynamite draws from Bamford's own life as a stand-up comedian, actor, and sufferer of bipolar disorder to give us an exaggerated, fictionalized version of Maria. There's plenty of fun poked at the narcissistic and greedy mania of Hollywood showbiz culture, along with familiar relationship woes experienced by Bamford.

The structure of the show can be disorienting. The first episode features an odd "meta" moment at the end that set me wondering if much of the series would be too self aware for my tastes. Such was not the case, as the remainder of the season stayed within itself for the most part. The narrative jumps between "Past" and "Present", each signaled with a brief title card. Despite the clear marking, I found it difficult at times to keep straight what, exactly, was happening when. Often, the past was clear due to the blue sepia tones that the sequences take on to denote that Maria was back in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, where she experienced her severest bouts of depression. The rest of the show jumps, often frantically, between two different times when Maria was carving out her acting career in Hollywood. While the timeline was not always clear, the continuity is hardly the most essential part of the show.

Maria and her pugs, Blossom and Bert. Fortunately, Bamford
doesn't lean too heavily on the dogs' cuteness for cheap
amusement, but Bert certainly becomes one of the odder
elements in the series.
The comedy is what it is really all about, and Bamford is one of the most uniquely funny people out there. Thanks to the freedom that Netflix tends to give its show creators, Bamford and her writers were clearly allowed try out anything they could dream up. Some of the bits come off as simply bizarre, such as a few sequences involving Maria communicating directly with her pet pugs, but many of them hit in surprising and novel ways. Even the more traditional gags can be hilarious, thanks to Bamford's incredible physical acting and skills as a voice actress. Whether it is a fake voice or simply her facial expressions, she often completely sells what would otherwise be a merely-modestly amusing joke.

I suspect that any potential future seasons of Lady Dynamite could be even stronger, as this first season felt a bit like the show was trying to find a consistent voice and tone. As much as I enjoyed it, I feel as if it could become even better, and I certainly hope Bamford and her crew are given the chance to try.