The premise behind Kevin Can F**k Himself should be enough to inspire any viewer’s curiosity. It’s two shows in one: (1) A satiric take on the sitcom wife who, for whatever reason, puts up with a (schlubby) manchild, who frequently hurls sexist and gaslighting remarks in her direction; (2) A prestige-esque drama about a deeply unhappy wife on the verge of going further than Betty Draper did with the birds. I do believe that this show’s a valuable entry that’s rife with commentary about what TV viewers consider entertainment, and how audiences are, in fact, complicit with characters’ suffering in the sitcoms that inspired this hybrid entry. This show also wants to light a fire underneath Tim Allen characters who make grunting noises and Kevin James playing the outwardly likable but occasionally manipulative guy, who (despite being clearly out-of-shape) does things like request that his stunning spouse lose “a few tiny, tiny pounds.”
That last reference comes from James’ The King Of Queens, and this AMC show’s title and inspiration, without a doubt, draws from a wife-killing sitcom-stunt (from James’ Kevin Can Wait) a few years back. That show swiftly fell from dubious grace, and that was earned. Not only did Kevin kill off Erinn Hayes’ wife character, the show did so to replace her with James’ former TV wife, Leah Remini. It was a tone-deaf move that spotlighted the problematic aspects of the domestic-sitcom genre, and Kevin Can F**k Himself seeks to right such wrongs. However, this show must thread a careful needle, and it asks its audience to suffer, at least temporarily, before inching toward a payoff.
It’s not an insubstantial ask, especially for those of us who have long since tired of the trope that inexplicably remains forgivable for audiences. Tim Allen’s back on the air, after all, and Kevin James comedies definitely keep coming elsewhere, and the trope’s a not-fine tradition that’s existed since the dawn of TV dinners. The wife characters in these sitcoms almost always adhere to a prescribed narrative, even though, as was the case with The King Of Queens, the wife’s allowed some abrasive comebacks. The laugh tracks push back at these wives, though, and they tell us that, by God, the husband’s antics will rule. The wife’s just a “nag,” you know? Fun should prevail, dammit.
You didn’t think sleep was necessary to stay sane, right?
Well, with Kevin Can Go F**K Himself, the laugh track finally stops laughing along with its dubious “hero.” The setup, at first, is purposefully jarring. Especially during the first episode, you might find yourself gritting your teeth at the onscreen banality. There’s, of course, the intrusively loud canned chuckles. There’s garish lighting and beer pong and obnoxiously rendered Boston-type accents that sound terribly “off” even for a non-East-coaster like myself; the abominable spouse, portrayed (far too well) by Eric Petersen; the ever-present group of friends and a cynical dad. It’s a lot, but to understand the suffering of Allison, portrayed by Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek fame, the audience must endure a taste of what she’s coped with for a decade.
Kevin’s not simply an annoying nuisance; he’s a slippery soul-sucker, and one wonders why Allison found herself attracted to him, let alone why she’s stayed married to him for a decade. Yet the deeper issue is that, as a species, the sitcom-wife really never had a choice. They wake up in these shows and find themselves in their situations with a laugh track going, and they must perform for the audience. In Allison’s case, she’s also not a housewife; the show is very clear about how she works as hard, if not harder, than he does. She’s also, naturally, doing all of the housework and cooking and putting up with her husband’s ego and putdowns and sh*tty behavior. Meanwhile, the audience’s POV is represented by a neighbor, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), who starts out as “one of the guys,” but the writers do have better things in mind for her.
The realization of Allison’s misery is where the second show inside of Kevin Can F**k Himself can grimly shine. Whenever Kevin leaves the frame — and fortunately, he increasingly does so throughout the first half of the season screened for critics — the tone of the show shifts. Likewise, the over-bright lighting disappears, the multi-cam sitcom approach evaporates, and Allison is finally left, or shall I say is permitted to, acknowledge her true feelings. The overall effect at once frees the viewer from feeling trapped in repressive sitcom land, yet we’re also feeling as trapped as Allison does. And that’s the point. Fortunately, it’s not a total downer. Murphy’s irrepressible energy carries through on both sides, and she adeptly handles the heavy lift during both halves of this show. And yes, we see Allison fantasize about killing Kevin and begin to form a plan in that direction. It’s tantalizingly invigorating to consider.
Yet Kevin Can F**k Himself is faced with this unavoidable truth: satire is tough, man. That’s also the case with sustaining a premise that is f*cking funny for existing at all, and it would have been just fine as a one-liner, never to be thought of again. Who among us didn’t giggle when hearing that this show existed? C’mon. And then we went on with life for awhile, and this show now exists. Revisiting the premise is not always a smooth ride, but what works with this series is this: Murphy and Petersen really go for it. You will despise Kevin, and you may not always know how to feel about Allison, but she is nonetheless a compelling presence to watch. Together, their chemistry is akin to, say, pairing the worst Joker ever (yes, even worse than the Leto version) with a rather sketchy, less-insane-in-a-forthright-manner Harley Quinn. One can hope that she’ll pull herself together, but he’s also a master at string-pulling.
Allison’s situation is tricky. Some viewers will ask why she simply doesn’t, you know, get the hell out of dodge. As with real life, the show doesn’t let things be so easy. There are moments when she starts to make progress before the walls close in again. Murphy’s interactions with the outside world show us that Kevin has ruined every inch of progress that she’s attempted to make in life. Yet there’s a palpable spark inside of Murphy that informs us there’s hell to pay for Kevin, eventually. As with many other protagonists these days, there’s a Breaking Bad vibe stewing underneath Allison’s blonde exterior. It will be a lot more fun than Kevin’s brand of “fun” to see how far she goes, and how long the writers can extend her plight before Allison cracks.
There is, of course, a question of longevity. The show’s officially a series, not a limited series, yet how long can this concept sustain itself? Either Allison doesn’t kill Kevin, and the premise wears thin, or she does kill him, and game over — unless Kevin turns into a zombie, which could present AMC with the weirdest The Walking Dead crossover idea ever. Fortunately, supporting characters do add wonderful texture that could be built out. Inboden’s Patty grows layers, and Allison’s ex, played by Raymond Lee, is there to add warmth, even if suggestions of adultery feel slightly uncomfortable. I don’t want Allison to fix her situation by running into the arms of another man, you know? That would be cheating viewers out of watching Allison come into her own power. That’s what this show must deliver. Again, I’m pinning hopes on the Patty character because, again, she’s the audience. And that’s what Kevin Can F**k Himself feels like it’s here to do: inspire audiences to demand the best from TV shows. This show makes promising steps in that direction, and my fingers are crossed for more progress in the future.
‘Kevin Can F**k Himself’ premieres on Sunday, June 20 at 9:00 p.m. EST on AMC, but AMC viewers can stream the debut on June 13.