At some point, you’ve probably made fun of one of those cheesy sitcoms about an oafish man with a beautiful, impossibly patient wife. That’s because those kinds of sitcoms have been around for our entire lives, going back practically to the start of television itself. Some of these shows have been great (The Honeymooners), some have been fine (Still Standing), and some have been According to Jim. They are, like cop shows, one of TV’s most renewable resources, enduring perhaps because viewers see more of themselves than they’d like to admit in one half of those couples or the other.
You probably have not, however, given much consideration to what the lives of those long-suffering wives are like when their idiot spouses are not around. Do they have thrilling adventures that make it easier to endure the man-children they chose to marry? Do they just drink all day to brace for the moment when the star of the show comes home? Are they oblivious or resigned to the hell to which they’ve consigned themselves?
These are the questions at the core of AMC’s strange and sometimes fascinating new experiment Kevin Can F**k Himself. The title brings to mind another one of those love-and-marriage sitcoms, the short-lived 2016 Kevin James vehicle Kevin Can Wait, which had so little interest in the wife character that she was killed off between seasons, then replaced by Leah Remini, who had played James’ wife on his previous show in that vein, King of Queens. Parts of this new Kevin are presented as a bright, loud, multicamera sitcom, following the antics of Worcester, Massachusetts, lout Kevin McRoberts (Eric Petersen) and his buddy Neil (Alex Bonifer), while Kevin’s wife Allison (Annie Murphy), and Neil’s sister Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) mostly hang back and roll their eyes. But whenever Allison is apart from Kevin, the laugh track falls away, and the lighting shifts to that of a quiet character drama about a woman reckoning with how miserable she is with this loser. (Episodes as a whole are the length of an hour-long basic-cable drama.) Might she be better off trying to flip the Kevin Can Wait script(*) and knocking off her husband so she can finally enjoy life without him?
(*) Murphy’s having a moment thanks to Schitt’s Creek, but it’s also fun to imagine if they’d cast Erinn Hayes, a.k.a. the dead Kevin Can Wait wife, who in other projects has shown the comic chops and range to carry both ends of this role. If you’re going to seek justice for the women on these shows, might as well go all the way, right?
Created by Lodge 49 writer Valerie Armstrong, this Kevin is clever but limited. Allison’s sitcom life is awful yet plausibly like something CBS would have aired in 2004, and there are lots of sharp little touches as we transition from sitcom world to drama world. Kevin and Allison are constantly fighting over the condition of a Pottery Barn table that she bought at Goodwill, for instance, and when she objects to him putting his coffee mug on it without a coaster, the mug is clearly empty; when he exits the room and we shift to drama mode, there seems to be liquid in it, in a way meant to confirm that this is real and the sitcom stuff is not.
There’s an insightful drama-world scene in the fourth episode where Allison and Patty recall the time Allison got a paralegal job, which to her felt like a ticket out of her blue-collar lifestyle, but to Kevin felt like his wife slipping away from him. Kevin apparently made a mess of the whole situation, in a manner which sounds criminal when Allison describes it, even as Patty admits, “It seemed… harmless.” When you are a character on a bad sitcom — even if you don’t know that’s what you are — you get used to waving away all kinds of extreme behavior as routine shenanigans. Step back enough to recognize that, and your existence becomes unbearable in a hurry.
Murphy is great in both modes — she has the rhythms of multicam banter down pat, and she’s sympathetic and extremely watchable whenever the show switches to Allison’s POV(*) — in a way that justifies this as her first big role after Alexis Rose. But Kevin feels more like a great calling card for Murphy’s next few jobs than it does a story worth telling at series length. Allison’s “real” life and her scheme to get back at Kevin quickly sink into antihero drama clichés — drug deals, tense encounters with police, elaborate lies that just make everything worse — that at times are almost as creaky as the sitcom pastiche. And a little of Kevin’s world goes a very long way, because he is starring in what is a stupid-to-the-point-of-caricature sitcom, presumably so we’ll feel even more pity for his poor wife. The sitcom scenes in the fourth episode — a subplot about Kevin trying to cash in on the escape room fad with the help of his father Pete (Brian Howe) and Neil — barely feature Allison at all, which raises the question of why we’re seeing them, much less at such great, agonizing length(**).
(*) As the only other regular to appear frequently in the sitcom and drama scenes, Inboden also displays impressive versatility, though her Worcester accent somehow has her sounding uncannily like Long Island native Rosie O’Donnell in certain moments.
(**) Also muddying the waters: Drama-world Allison has an active fantasy life — sometimes imagining a better life with Kevin, sometimes just imagining him dead at her hands — that can at times inadvertently make the sitcom feel like the realer half of things.
Parodying multicam sitcoms is almost impossible, as you inevitably just wind up making a bad sitcom. The self-awareness is smart, and the series as a whole will change the way you look at the next Kevin Can Wait-esque tomfoolery. But it’s an experiment with diminishing returns. After a couple of episodes, you won’t want to be trapped in the sitcom world any more than Allison does.
Kevin Can F**k Himself premieres June 20th on AMC. I’ve seen the first four episodes.