The American sitcom has been built on the shoulders of childish husbands and accommodating wives. Some series use those husbands to make points about gender dynamics, changing social mores, and heteronormativity (the classic “All in the Family,” the risqué “Married … with Children”), while others insist upon the idea—and expect us to do so, too—that straight white men can be immature, forgetful, and chauvinistic. How supportive, thoughtful, or considerate were Ray on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Doug on “The King of Queens,” or Tim on “Home Improvement”? And if they weren’t, why did Debra, Carrie, and Jill stay?
“Kevin Can F*** Himself,” which premieres on AMC+ and AMC on June 13 and June 20, respectively, prods at the tension at the heart of the sitcom between how men are allowed to behave and how women are expected to behave. Creator Valerie Armstrong splits each hour-long episode between the multi-cam format traditionally used in sitcom TV and the single-cam style more common for dramas, and in the middle stands Allison McRoberts (Annie Murphy). The 35-year-old Allison lives in a slowly crumbling home in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her mostly useless husband Kevin (Eric Petersen). She serves him every meal, cleans up after him, entertains his indulgent father and moronic friends, and never gets a moment to herself—and the laugh track that accompanies every scene during which Kevin ignores her or his sycophantic gang mocks her adds insult to injury.
When “Kevin Can F*** Himself” is in sitcom mode, the lighting is garish, the home in which most episodic action takes place is clearly a built set, the laugh track is omnipresent, and the hijinks and jokes about the characters’ Massachusetts-ness evoke that “Saturday Night Live” Dunkin’ Donuts sketch. (Worship of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, numerous “Good Will Hunting” jokes, complaints about Deflategate and soccer, etc.) But when the focus shifts solely to Allison, everything about the faux cheer of the sitcom presentation changes. The lighting dims down. The home’s dinginess is obviousness. The laugh track is replaced with absolute silence, or a persistent, low-level whine of feedback. Allison’s hair is lank and her outfits outdated, and every so often she sees a cockroach scuttle across the floor of her home. Nothing is good here, and Allison sees no way out.
Critiquing the American sitcom isn’t exactly a new idea. “WandaVision” did so just earlier this year, nodding at “I Love Lucy,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Bewitched,” and “Full House” as Elizabeth Olsen’s titular Wanda worked through her trauma by returning to the TV shows she grew up watching as a child. Animated series like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” also started as somewhat self-aware spins on the format, injecting bursts of violence and meta winks to shake things up. But what “Kevin Can F*** Himself” does is use the sitcom’s inherent conservatism as a contrast for its own pitch-black tone, letting Allison’s loneliness and resentment bleed into the sitcom portion of each episode, and then crafting Allison’s choices in the drama portion as a response to her burgeoning self-awareness. Allison breaks a beer mug in anger while listening to Kevin’s endless whining, and we see that scene from both perspectives. Through the sitcom lens, her bloody palm is the inspiration for a Kevin joke about her period; through the drama lens, we see how unaffected the deeply numb Allison is by the wound. Allison’s one-of-the-guys neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) informs her of a betrayal of Kevin’s, and the news is devastating in the drama space; in the sitcom, Kevin blows off his indiscretion by telling Allison to make him dinner.
Each episode hops over the genre divide over and over again, and when it works, the jarring tonal discordance is “Gone Girl” levels of darkly humorous. Murphy’s precise performance allows the character to move fluidly between these spaces, and she does well both as a put-upon wife grinning through the indignity and as a frustrated women increasingly desperate for revenge. Murphy and Inboden have solid chemistry, and the series’ fourth episode, “Live Free or Die,” does well by pairing them off on a road trip and letting their oppositional energies spark off each other. Speaking of “Gone Girl” again, each of these characters is a spin on the “Cool Girl” trope, and the series’ most thoughtful move is to position them antagonistically. Why has Patty gone along with every selfish thing Kevin has done? Why does Allison’s desire for “better things” so anger Patty? How have they disliked each other for 10 years without having a single genuine conversation?
But “Kevin Can F*** Himself” also 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. 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.
Four episodes screened for review. “Kevin Can F*** Himself” premieres on AMC+ on June 13, with each episode airing a week later on AMC.