clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Kevin Can F**k Himself’ and the TV Tropes We Still Allow to Persist

AMC’s new half sitcom, half drama wants to blow up the very idea of the understanding, accommodating, capital-W Wife

AMC/Ringer illustration

The CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait may be named for star, cocreator, and executive producer Kevin James. But three years after its 2018 cancellation, it may be best remembered for the fate of Erinn Hayes, the actress who initially played James’s wife. In the break between seasons, Hayes tweeted that she’d been “let go” from the show, where she’d dutifully inhabited her given role: the patient, visibly younger spouse of James’s retired Long Island cop. (Sources said the producers had opted to go in a “different creative direction,” according to Variety.) Then, Kevin Can Wait added insult to injury. For the show’s second and final season, Hayes’s character was abruptly killed off. After a flash forward, Hayes was effectively replaced by Leah Remini—who played James’s last sitcom wife, on The King of Queens. The switch was unusually callous and over the top, but it crystallized a universal truth: As an archetype, the sitcom wife is so thin and inessential that she can be literally swapped out on a whim.

The AMC drama Kevin Can F*** Himself reverses this scenario in more ways than one. (The show premiered last weekend on streaming service AMC+ and begins its run on the cable channel this Sunday.) As the trollish title suggests, the show takes direct aim at James and his most recent vehicle. But under creator Valerie Armstrong (Masters of Sex, Lodge 49), Kevin Can F*** Himself is also a much broader critique. Starring Annie Murphy, best known as the spoiled socialite Alexis Rose on Schitt’s Creek, as the beleaguered Allison McRoberts, Kevin Can F*** Himself wants to blow up the very idea of the understanding, accommodating, capital-W Wife. Behind every charming schlub is a woman who’s had enough of his shit.

To do this, Kevin Can F*** Himself relies on an exceedingly clever device. When Allison is around the titular Kevin (Eric Petersen), her world is flat, brightly lit, and set to a laugh track. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and Kevin’s is a lighthearted comedy about a man from central Massachusetts who loves the Patriots and his neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer). To the extent Allison even registers to Kevin, it’s as either a prudish buzzkill or a passive accomplice to his harebrained schemes. There’s no room for other points of view when your entire life takes place on a soundstage, 22 minutes at a time.

But when Allison is on her own, everything shifts. The room goes quiet; the light dims; the cinematography shifts from multi-camera, the signature look of the old-school sitcom, to single camera, a setup that’s traditionally more highbrow. (Think The Big Bang Theory versus Breaking Bad.) When we see the McRoberts’s shared life from Allison’s perspective, it’s not a pretty sight. Allison works at a liquor store; Kevin is a cable guy, a nod to another reliable source of lowest-common-denominator comedy. Allison has dreams like home ownership or a more stable career; Kevin does not. And when Kevin crosses the line from ignoring Allison’s desires to actively thwarting them, something in Allison snaps, prompting a decision that becomes the premise of the show. Like John Tucker before him, Kevin must die.

Kevin Can F*** Himself’s stylistic split is so compelling that the show initially powers through on concept alone. (Critics were shown four episodes of an eventual eight.) The parallel plots are an ingenious metaphor for both the failings of popular media and the schism in many real-life marriages. It may seem like elitist snobbery for a cable show to skewer a genre its own audience is unlikely to watch. But condescension requires looking down, and as the all-too-recent Kevin Can Wait debacle goes to show, the stale sitcom is nowhere near losing its prime place in culture. Kevin Can F*** Himself is unlikely to put an end to the epidemic of half-assed female characters. It’s a worthy goal nonetheless.

A solid theory gets borne out by execution. The pure sitcom parts of Kevin Can F*** Himself are almost a self-contained show within a show, with high jinks like neighbor feuds and get-rich-quick schemes played impressively straight. The series may belong to Murphy, who’s been doing plenty of press to promote her next move after the final season of Schitts swept the pandemic Emmys, but Petersen is admirably committed as an oblivious oaf. The show also has its fun with transitions from one mode to the next. Sometimes, the tone shifts when Allison leaves the room, as if she’s literally walking offstage and into “real” life. Sometimes, it’s Kevin who departs, taking the jokes with him as Allison stays behind.

But as Kevin Can F*** Himself enters its middle stretch, the show starts to stall out. The best scene in the pilot occurs when Allison comes to terms with her true feelings toward her husband—animosity, not just ambivalence. In a dream sequence of sorts, Allison offers him a beer, dressed to the nines in her Betty Draper best. But before he can drink it, she snaps the bottle and stabs him in the jugular, drowning a domestic fantasy in garish red blood. It’s a shocking, violent, darkly comedic crossover—one that doesn’t just juxtapose Kevin’s and Allison’s worldviews, but smashes them together and lets the shards fall where they may.

The moment feels like a promise. Instead, Kevin Can F*** Himself starts to ossify. The sitcom parts, at least, are deliberately stale. (“Hon, you know what happens when you try to be funny!” Kevin chides his long-suffering wife.) Before long, though, the Allison parts are too. There’s an intriguing dynamic with an old flame who moves back to town and leads Allison to reevaluate her life, but for the most part, her half of the show is driven by a single-minded mission: acquiring enough OxyContin to make Kevin overdose and pass it off as an accident. The resulting opioid abuse subplot could be copied and pasted from any piece of fiction about blue-collar white communities from the past five years. The point of Kevin Can F*** Himself is to prove that Allison is an individual. When her story starts to feel formulaic, the show contradicts itself.

If you squint, there’s another satirical point to be made: that dark, self-serious dramas are, in their own way, as constricting and clichéd as the laugh factories Kevin Can F*** Himself targets up front. (As Skyler White defenders can attest, prestige dramas have their own version of the martyred woman, plus the men who unfairly malign her.) Even if Kevin Can F*** Himself ends up pointing this out, however, it doesn’t seem to be with much intention. There’s more than enough room to shake up the show’s status quo in the remaining half season. For now, though, Kevin Can F*** Himself toggles between two staid formats when it has the chance to remix and recast them. Can Kevin cross over to Allison’s side? What happens if he does? Is there a sort of middle space between the two extremes? Kevin Can F*** Himself may deliver answers later on, but the later episodes drag enough that those questions drive more suspense than the actual story.

Still, some silver linings remain. The show’s most important relationship isn’t between Allison and Kevin, or even Allison and potential love interest Sam (Raymond Lee). The person directly responsible for waking Allison from her stupor is instead Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), a hairstylist who’s also Neil’s sister. (In true sitcom fashion, “the neighbor’s sister” is somehow a near-constant presence in the central couple’s lives.) But the bond between Allison and Patty isn’t anything so basic as sisterly solidarity; rather, it’s a complex blend of resentment, respect, pity, and jealousy. “I never really thought of us as a ‘we,’” Patty sneers, even as she casually blows up Allison’s life by revealing the extent of Kevin’s transgressions. Naturally, the relationship evolves. Unlike either half of Kevin Can F*** Himself, though, it defies stereotypes from the start.