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AMC's Kevin Can F**k Himself is brutally subversive in the way it takes down domestic sitcoms

  • "The ambitious Kevin Can F**k Himself is rooted in a genre of sitcom built around a shlubby guy and his pretty wife," says Matthew Giilbert of the AMC series starring Annie Murphy that premieres on AMC+ on Sunday and AMC a week later. "The husband is the sports-loving man-child with a beer belly, and the audience cackles tirelessly every time he makes a bad joke. She’s the long-suffering shrew, the buzzkill, and the butt of his jokes. He’s the big kid, she’s the babysitter who tolerates his high jinks, her arms crossed over her chest. The long list of these domestic comedies includes Kevin Can Wait, According to Jim, and, of course, as progenitors, The Honeymooners and its animated counterpart, The Flintstones. Kevin Can F**k Himself is a no-holds-barred response to those series — and a dark reflection of the sexism so deeply embedded in them. After watching the challenging show, which premieres Sunday on AMC+ and next Sunday on AMC, you may never again be able to stomach those blindingly bright, laughter-plagued, drearily stereotypical sitcoms. With just a change in context on Kevin, the lowbrow mass entertainments that often rise to the top of the Nielsen ratings turn into abrasive, hateful American cultural artifacts whose cruelties are many — not just sexism, but xenophobia, narcissism, and psychological abuse. Somewhat like the brilliant Lisa Kudrow series The Comeback, Kevin Can F**k Himself — created by Valerie Armstrong — is a brutally subversive take. The semi-experimental format requires a bit of getting used to, as it toggles back and forth between two radically different styles; but ultimately it works in a jagged, and therefore appropriate, way."


    • Kevin Can F**k Himself is a better idea than an actual series: "We all know the stereotype of the long-suffering sitcom wife, right? She’s way too hot for her proudly immature husband, and she quietly stays in the background while he hogs the spotlight?" says Dave Nemetz. "Well, AMC’s new dramedy Kevin Can F**k Himself ... aims to blow up that stereotype, promising a meta satire that demolishes those creaky old TV clichés. (The title even refers to a particularly infamous example of the genre: the Kevin James-Erinn Hayes CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait.) But after watching the first four episodes, I’m thinking maybe this was a better idea than an actual series, because the result is a grim, unpleasant mishmash that doesn’t really work on either end. The satire is suffocating… and we end up feeling suffocated, too." Nemetz adds that "it’s a set-up rich with potential, to be sure, and the sitcom scenes are accurate… but that just means they’re awful. Kevin is a grotesque, lazy-eyed lout (he’s a New England Patriots fan, just to make him even more insufferable), and we never get a good explanation as to why Allison would be married to him in the first place, or why she wouldn’t just leave him. And there’s too much of him: For some reason, Kevin insists on working a full-length sitcom plot into each episode, with all the cheesy punchlines you’d expect. It’s well-executed, down to the overly bright lighting and broad performances, but once we get the idea, why do we have to keep seeing it? This is Allison’s hell. Why do we have to live in it, too?"
    • Kevin Can F**k Himself threads a careful needle by asking its audience to suffer, at least temporarily, before inching toward a payoff: "The setup, at first, is purposefully jarring," says Kimberly Ricci. "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."
    • Kevin Can F**k Himself pulls off a tricky mix of genres: "As the title indicates, Valerie Armstrong’s show isn’t laughing along with Kevin, or the countless slovenly sitcom husbands he represents, at all. Instead, Kevin Can F**k Himself follows the long-suffering wife offscreen into her actual life to find something more grounded, depressing and perversely compelling," says Caroline Framke. "Swerving between such disparate styles and stories is a big risk. No matter how good the writing, the show might fall apart without a strong cast and directing team that understands exactly the tones they need to hit in any given scene. So it’s a credit to those tasked with bringing Armstrong’s vision to life that the first half of the season screened for critics nails it more often than not — especially once Allison starts finding ways, however small or significant, to push back against her restrictive narrative."
    • Kevin Can F*** Himself's sitcom gimmick ends up hurting the show: The show "hampers itself by being too good at certain things, and in doing so, seems to limit the forward progression of where this show could go," says Roxana Hadidi. "It makes sense to focus on the terrible sitcom mimicry as a way to show how trapped Allison feels in this marriage and in this town. 'Live Free or Die,' though, keeps returning to Kevin’s awful escape room scheme while Allison and Patty are out of town—serving no narrative purpose aside from reminding us how irredeemably unpleasant and frankly stupid Kevin, his father Pete (Brian Howe), and his best friend Neil (Alex Bonifer) are. And that in and of itself is another issue: How long can the show maintain Kevin’s absolute incorrigibility? In a nod toward the stories women tell about surviving domestic and emotional abuse, Allison sneers at someone who asks why she doesn’t just leave Kevin; that’s easier said than done. Kevin Can F*** Himself threatens to write itself into a corner, though, by making Kevin so loathsome and the sitcom antics surrounding him so irksome. The bifurcated approach is the initial hook for Kevin Can F*** Himself, but at a certain point, the show’s experimentation might end up as a distraction rather than a creative expression. In its best moments, Kevin Can F*** Himself brings to mind Dead Like Me, another show that allowed its female characters anger, dissatisfaction, and bitterness about the hand they were dealt by unfulfilling male partners. Murphy and Inboden are more than talented enough to capture the caustic effects of negligence and loneliness. Kevin Can F*** Himself would be better off if it eventually focused on their lives and the overlaps between them instead of focusing primarily on the sitcom gimmick."
    • The show is almost too good at hitting exactly the right patter of bad network comedies: "In some ways, Kevin Can F**k Himself could be a new season of Why Women Kill," says Allison Keene. "It’s not clear at first why Allison might want to take such drastic measures—why did they get married in the first place? Has it been like this for 10 years? Why not get a divorce? But over the course of the first four episodes (out of eight) provided for review, it starts to come together. Kevin may project a childlike innocence that’s annoying, but really he’s extremely controlling. Anything Allison wants for herself, he takes away. He humiliates her and gets applause...There are moments when the show’s scripts feel a little thin, or the sitcom moments belabored (especially when Allison is not sharing a scene with Kevin—Kevin is a POS and I hated seeing more of him in any context. Petersen plays the part too well!) But it does, so far, perfectly convey the horror of Allison’s suffocating, bleak life without lifting her up as a saint."
    • Annie Murphy is excellent as two versions of Allison who read as the same person who’s become comfortable wearing a mask to hide her disillusionment
    • Kevin Can F**k Himself goes about its mission with such skill that you might not even realize that it's wrecking your favorite sitcoms in the process
    • Kevin Can F*** Himself proves that Annie Murphy is so much more than just Schitt's Creek's Alexis Rose
    • Annie Murphy began her preparation for the subversive role by watching early-2000s sitcoms to steep herself in the world the creators were skewering: “It was jaw-dropping to see what was being gotten away with and what was being covered up with laugh tracks,” Murphy says of those seemingly benign family series. “It really challenges people to take a step back and do analysis as to what they’re laughing at, because there is so much racism, homophobia, sexism, and bigotry that we’re just being told to chuckle about.” Murphy also trained with a dialect coach to learn how to speak in a Boston accent — which proved to be a challenge when working with her co-star Mary Hollis Inboden, who plays Patty, Allison’s brusque, tough-talking next-door neighbor. “Mary is from Arkansas, and I was horrified to realize that I am one of those really annoying people that adopts an accent,” Murphy says with a laugh. “So there were times on set where we’d be giggling and shooting the shit and they’d call action, (and) I would start talking with this honky-tonk droll. I had to really check myself.”
    • Kevin Can F*** Himself wanted to re-create the network sitcom without belittling the multicam format: That's why the sitcom portions of the show are written straight. “In our show, we never have a joke that couldn’t be on any CBS sitcom,” says creator Valerie Armstrong. “Somebody would say, ‘That’s too mean’ or ‘That’s too dark,’” she adds. “You would be shocked at what has been laughed at on network sitcoms for years — we don’t reinvent the wheel here.”
    • Why Kevin Can F*** Himself took a hybrid approach: “In its DNA is, how do you make the sitcom wife a real woman?” says Armstrong. “Figuring out how aware she was about how miserable she was was very, very important in creating the pilot. For that woman to be there, she can’t know she’s miserable; she has to be convinced that this is where she’s supposed to be (and) that her happiness will ultimately lie in her marriage because that’s what she’s been told she’s good for. So, in the pilot it’s, ‘Kevin’s funny, Kevin’s a great guy, you just need to know how to work him’ and then getting to this place of understanding he’s not just destructive by accident. It might be masked, it might not be completely intentional all the time, but he manipulates her and has been for a while. And so, honestly as the show goes on I don’t think he gets worse, I think you start to realize his behavior."

    TOPICS: Kevin Can F**k Himself, AMC, Annie Murphy, Valerie Armstrong