Netflix's New Kevin James Sitcom The Crew Isn't Half Bad

Your mileage may vary, but James and co-star Freddie Stroma shine in this new workplace comedy.
  • Freddie Stroma and Kevin James in The Crew. (Photo: Eric Liebowitz / Netflix)
    Freddie Stroma and Kevin James in The Crew. (Photo: Eric Liebowitz / Netflix)

    Much as we may want to believe there are no red states or blue states, only the United States of America... the Netflix algorithm has other ideas. If you were a devoted fan of Orange Is The New Black, it probably recommended that you watch GLOW, and there's a whole universe of Netflix original sitcoms you may never know existed. Like, for instance, did you watch The Ranch? Ashton Kutcher, Sam Elliott, agriculture? If so, then your recommendations are probably about to push you hard in the direction of The Crew. And if you didn't, you might never know The Crew existed.

    Here's why The Crew is probably either really your jam or really not: it's a multicam sitcom, with a laugh track, starring Kevin James, set in the world of NASCAR. James plays Kevin Gibson, a former driver who's now the crew chief for a team struggling to support its beleaguered driver, adorable dummy Jake Martin (Freddie Stroma — yes, the same Freddie Stroma you may know from Harry Potter, UnReal and Bridgerton, and no, he's not playing a Formula One driver who's jumped across the pond). Things get shaken up when team owner Bobby (Bruce McGill) makes a surprise announcement at his birthday party: he's retiring and turning management over to his daughter. Catherine (Jillian Mueller), a Stanford grad who never misses an opportunity to remind everyone about it, has never been especially close to her father, and her ideas for how to improve operations tend to be at odds with the culture of the workplace, and of the sport in general; furthermore, unlike Bobby, Catherine has no particular loyalty to anyone on the team, including Jake, and makes everyone anxious with her focus on maximizing efficiency. Fish-out-of-water situations ensue!

    I will freely stipulate that The Crew probably would not have shown up among my curated recommendations. I've never watched any NASCAR content; I've never watched Kevin James's Netflix special; and the only multi-cam Netflix sitcom I watched — until they cancelled it — was the very queer One Day At A Time. But when I saw that The Crew's supporting cast included alt-comedy fixtures Gary Anthony Williams (I'm Sorry), Dan Ahdoot (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$), and Mather Zickel (Newsreaders), I thought, "Could it maybe, secretly, be sneakily good? Do all these hilarious people know something I don't?!" The answer is of course they do: they know when their mortgage payments are due. That's not to say that the show is unwatchable, it's just not of a piece with some of the other work they've done that, I would imagine, lines up more closely with their comic sensibilities.

    Instead of pinning my hopes on The Crew's cast, I should have considered the mind behind it: the series creator is Jeff Lowell, most recently a co-EP on The Ranch, and before that a consulting producer on Two And A Half Men. Episodes proceed much as you would expect them to, given the pedigree of the man running the show: Catherine must learn and re-learn what she doesn't know about NASCAR, and accept that managing actual people is more complex than her B-school books may have made it seem. When she gets a win, it tends to be due to the power conferred upon her by her dynastic position. To be fair, when Kevin tries to get around what he feels are Catherine's dictatorial edicts by signing on with another team, he's told his prospects are limited by his lack of an engineering degree; he's a legacy in the sport, but technology has advanced so far that his skills are less competitive than they used to be. But Catherine racks up far more Ls than Kevin does, on matters large (underestimating Jake) and small (filling the break room with healthy snacks).

    The Crew is definitely corny and retrograde in all the ways its trailer would lead you to expect. And yet... both James and Stroma are quite good. I'm not going to try to convince you that this character whose name is also Kevin represents a huge stretch for James. But take it from someone who's watched the entire series of The King Of Queens probably more than 20 times (TV Land airs eight nightly episodes right when I'm getting in bed, okay?): this is a man who knows how to perform in a multi-cam setting, and while you might not expect it given how broad the titles he's headlined have been, he's particularly good at underplaying. The biggest surprise of the series, however, is Stroma. The only time I've seen him playing a character who wasn't English — or at least coded English, as on Game Of Thrones — it was in Bridgerton, where he had a brief arc as an affable Prussian prince. I was not confident that he'd be convincing as an American NASCAR driver, but there's Jake in the show's opening scene, seeming to nod along to a grave pre-race pep talk from Kevin but actually grooving to the AirPods under his balaclava. "Did you get the new Cardi B?" he grins, caught and unapologetic. "It's pretty sick." Every workplace sitcom can use a lovable idiot in its supporting cast, and Stroma's Jake is deployed perfectly — just enough to cut through the other characters' acid; not so much that his antics grow tiresome. The third episode, in which Jake has to star in a TV commercial for the team's new sponsor, a revolting mushroom-based steak substitute, is an excellent showcase for Stroma's timing and physical comedy.

    I get that no one is clamoring for another Kevin James vehicle; this is a man whose previous sitcom's choice to kill off his TV wife has spawned a whole other sitcom to avenge her. And yet the decision to cast Freddie Stroma in this role is so unexpected, so strange, and so right that it deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated. Will this show be a four-quadrant hit that blows up all your socials? Probably not. But what if Jake Martin becomes Stroma's Andy Dwyer and vaults him into Chris Pratt levels of fame, perhaps even toppling Pratt himself? Stroma deserves it. Honestly, we all deserve it. Check Stroma out in The Crew and maybe we can make it happen.

    The complete first season of The Crew drops on Netflix February 15th.

    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: The Crew, Netflix, Bruce McGill, Freddie Stroma, Gary Anthony Williams, Jeff Lowell, Jillian Mueller, Kevin James