The backstory on AMC's new comedy series Kevin Can F**k Himself is the stuff of legend. It begins in 2016, when former Drew Carey Show creator Bruce Helford teamed with former King Of Queens star Kevin James on the CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait. James played the titular Kevin, a retired police officer, father to three and husband to Donna (Erinn Hayes). After Kevin Can Wait's first season, its producers announced that Hayes would be exiting the show with the death of her character, and that James's former King Of Queens co-star Leah Remini — who had previously been introduced as Kevin's former partner when he was still on the job — would effectively replace her, although not as Kevin's love interest. While CBS President Kelly Kahl had promised Donna's offscreen death would be portrayed "with dignity and respect," reasonable people may not agree that the show pulled it off (or even tried to); James later said that Donna was written out because producers couldn't think of any storylines for her, although ratings dropped upon her exit and the show failed to get a third season. Not long after its cancellation, Will McCormack and Rashida Jones, who travel in the same alt-comedy circles as Hayes, began developing a series that, starting with its title, seems explicitly positioned to respond to the Kevin Can Wait saga. Two and a half years later, Kevin Can F**k Himself is finally here.
The show takes place in Worcester, MA, where Allison (Annie Murphy) is not-so-happily married to the eponymous Kevin (Eric Petersen), a cable installer who's constantly getting into idiotic scrapes with his father Terry (Brian Howe), best friend Neil (Alex Bonifer), and Neil's wisecracking roommate/sister, Patty (Marry Hollis Inboden); scenes with Kevin are shot in the style of a multi-cam sitcom, while scenes that follow Allison when Kevin leaves the room look like a single-cam drama (and a dark one at that, complete with gloomy cinematography that evokes a grim Scandi crime drama). Allison dreams of using their life savings to buy a nice house in a new development, and frequently lets herself lapse into fantasies of how much more elegant and serene their lives will be when she's pouring Kevin's beers in a kitchen with granite countertops. But a disturbing revelation from Patty in the series premiere forces Allison to accept that the future she imagines for herself cannot include Kevin, and starts plotting to take him out of the picture, permanently.
Kevin Can F**k Himself could not exist if viewers were not familiar with the trope of, as Will & Grace's Jack and Karen once put it, the "fat guy, skinny wife" sitcom. (Karen: "Ugly guy, skinny wife? America is not ready for that.") But a seeming disparity in the sitcom spouses' relative hotness is not really what drives the comedic conflict in these shows, and it hasn't since it was inaugurated in The Honeymooners; "dumb guy, naggy wife" is a more accurate description that encompasses Still Standing; Yes, Dear; Rules Of Engagement; Modern Family; According To Jim; Man With A Plan, and countless others. The theory MUST be that viewers see themselves in the "dumb guy, naggy wife" dynamic, since it also underlies countless TV commercials for laundry detergent and paper towels.
But part of the reason Kevin Can F**k Himself is instantly compelling as a premise is that we often don't really get what the dumb guy and naggy wife ever saw in each other. On Modern Family, Claire Dunphy seems irritated by her husband Phil every second she's awake: does she know they could get divorced? Or from the opposite side, might Phil not prefer marriage to someone who appreciated his humor and didn't act like his foibles were all personal attacks on her? The King Of Queens started out as the story of a pair of cute newlyweds, although as the series wore on and producers learned how good Remini is at playing rage, her Carrie got a lot meaner, but at least it threw in a flashback episode every season to show us what originally attracted Carrie to Doug, or what foundational fuckup caused her to never trust his judgment on important decisions going forward. Kevin Can F**k Himself goes so hard making its Kevin an unbearable jackass to get the audience on board with Allison's violent designs against him that it risks the viewer's empathy looping back around to blame her for marrying him in the first place. He's so insufferable that you don't really believe the decision to kill him could have possibly been ten years in the making.
When it works, though, Kevin Can F**k Himself ventriloquizes the "dumb guy, naggy wife" sitcom with eerie verisimilitude, transporting us to the mid-'90s in a very unsettling way. All of Kevin's storylines are familiar in their banality: he ignores what Allison would prefer to do to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary; he and Neil fall out over the preparation of an important batch of chili; he declares war on the neighbors when he thinks they've stolen his game-worn Bill Belichick hoodie off the porch. Allison's dialogue and reactions to Kevin's nonsense have to work both in-scene, as though she were performing in just another junky three-camera sitcom, but also in the context of what the viewer knows about her "offscreen" consciousness. It can't have been easy to craft wisecracks for Allison that ring true on both levels — or, more generally, to write a sitcom with somewhat antique sensibilities and a grim dramedy simultaneously — but this show's writing staff (led by its creator, Lodge 49 alumna Valerie Armstrong) has the range.
As laser-precise as the writing is, the show would not work at all were it not for Murphy, on whose performance as Allison it rests almost entirely. (We do, of course, also need Petersen to be credibly loathsome as Kevin, and he delivers too, although his lane is much broader.) Post-Schitt's Creek, Murphy probably got lots of offers for roles that were A Little Bit Alexis, but she's in an entirely different mode here — defeated, hopeless, bereft of self-confidence, and dowdily dressed, a Gap wrap dress representing the extreme end of her glam. The pilot closes with Allison and Patty, who we can tell have always been friends-in-law at best, coming to a new understanding due to the disclosure from Patty that changes their relationship; after that, the show takes the two of them in interesting new directions, and Murphy and Inboden's frenemy chemistry is strong.
Based on the episodes provided to critics to screen — the first four of the season's eight episodes — I'm not entirely convinced Kevin Can F**k Himself wouldn't have worked better as a movie than a series. It's impossible not to compare it to WandaVision, this year's other meditation on the inner lives of sitcom characters; for all its inventiveness, Kevin isn't doing nearly as complex a deconstruction of the form as WandaVision did up until its extremely dull and expected series finale. It will be interesting to see where Kevin goes from here; if it's more of the same, I'm not sure its high-concept concept will be enough to keep viewers coming back.
Kevin Can F**k Himself premieres on AMC Sunday June 20 at 9:00 PM ET. The channel's paid subscription service AMC+ is releasing the first two episodes a week earlier, on June 13.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.
TOPICS: Kevin Can F**k Himself, AMC, AMC+, Schitt's Creek, Alex Bonifer, Annie Murphy, Bruce Helford, Eric Petersen, Erinn Hayes, Kevin James, Leah Remini, Mary Hollis Inboden, Rashida Jones, Valerie Armstrong, Will McCormack