Annie Murphy stars as a desperately unhappy sitcom wife in AMC's Kevin Can F**K Himself, but EW's critics aren't loving this marriage of multi-cam comedy and dark drama.

By Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich
June 07, 2021 at 12:15 PM EDT
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This hour-long series (premiering June 13 on AMC+, and June 20 on AMC) imagines how a sitcom wife sees the world when the laugh track fades. Critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich aren't loving this marriage of multi-cam comedy and grim drama.

KRISTEN: It's a TV trope as old as time: Schlubby guy, hot wife. From The Honeymooners to The King of Queens to all the Yes, Dears in between, countless television sitcoms have stood firm upon this flimsy foundation. Sometimes it's funny (see: Everybody Loves Raymond), and sometimes it's According to Jim — but the premise is always ripe for parody.

That's the idea, at least, behind Kevin Can F**K Himself, AMC's new 8-episode dramedy from Valerie Armstrong and Craig DiGregorio.

Initially, Kevin looks like any other multi-cam sitcom — it even starts with an establishing shot of a modest house in Worcester, Mass., home to Allison (Annie Murphy) and Kevin McRoberts (Eric Petersen). In case you're wondering if Kevin is a doofus, when we meet him, he's practicing his beer-pong with dimwitted best friend/neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer). Allison, ever the responsible buzzkill, watches in dismay. The living room looks like every TV living room, complete with a dingy floral sofa and a staircase to nowhere in the background. The lights are bright, the laugh track is loud, the Boston accents are… questionable.

The moment Allison leaves the room, however, everything shifts. Suddenly, she's in a shabby, dimly-lit kitchen shot in single-camera grimvision. The boisterous laughter is gone, replaced by a low, mechanical whine that seems to bore straight into Allison's agonized brain. Her life is a lonely prison of existential despair — and Kevin wants to show us why.

Kevin Can F Himself
Annie Murphy and Eric Petersen in 'Kevin Can F**K Himself'
| Credit: Jojo Whilden/AMC

The "wife" role is too often an afterthought in cookie-cutter sitcoms, which makes the idea of exploring her turbulent inner life even more intriguing. (The title pokes fun at Kevin Can Wait, the CBS comedy that killed off Kevin James' TV wife play by Erinn Hayes so he could reunite with Queens costar Leah Remini.) Four episodes in, though, it's not clear what KCFH is trying to say — about Allison, about underwritten female characters, about television. The jarring juxtaposition between Kevin's high-decibel hijinks and Allison's life of quiet desperation is meant to drive home the urgency of her plight, but so far, this isn't a show about her journey to self-realization. Instead, the story hinges on Allison's ill-conceived plot for revenge against her doofus husband. The writers do an excellent job making the "sitcom" scenes authentically hacky and unfunny; unfortunately, that means about 30 percent of each episode is… hacky and unfunny.

Darren, am I just not getting it?

DARREN: I love your phrase "single-camera grimvision," Kristen, because it nails a central problem. Kevin wants to investigate the dark drama hiding behind a laugh track. This is such a dangerously not-new concept that Disney already made a superhero show out of it — and just like WandaVisionKevin's premiere turns on a proverbial Boss coming to proverbial Dinner. But behind the cliches of the family comedy, Kevin stumbles into the cliches of a whole different subgenre of Breaking Bad wannabes, sending Allison on a quirky-murder quest through the local drug underworld.

On the multi-cam side, Kevin is a monster of Massachusetts who pays big money for a hoodie worn by Bill Belichick. There are Tom Brady lookalikes and (sigh) a Deflategate joke. Look, I'm a human being, so I also hate the Patriots. Still, a lot of the Worcester gags just feel elitist, like prestige TV's Manhattan-baiting fist is punching down at any Boston-adjacent proles crass enough to love Buffalo Wild Wings.

In fairness, this may be an expression of Allison's own striving. She tried to drop her accent in high school, and now she yearns for a better life in suburban Amherst Gates. Her dream life looks like The Donna Reed Show, and I just don't believe any thirty-something American grew up aspiring to that version of TV bliss.

Is it weird for you, Kristen, that Allison doesn't really resemble any of the women from the shows you mentioned? I think of Remini or Raymond's Patricia Heaton as spiky counterbalances to their onscreen husbands. I know, there's a reason those shows were not called The Queen of Queens or Everybody Loves Debra. But I worry Kevin's fuzzy sense of sitcom dynamics reflects a larger vagueness in its depiction of Allison's internal struggle.

KRISTEN: You've pin-pointed something else that really puzzles me about Kevin, Darren. As any fan of The King of Queens, Raymond, etc. will tell you, the wives on those shows were nags — but they nagged from a position of power. Carrie Heffernan and Debra Barone spent most of their time rolling their eyes at their husband's jackassery and reminding them — via well-crafted zingers — how truly moronic they really were. Here, Allison is consistently dismissed and disdained; her husband even mocks her when she attempts to make a joke. It's as though Kevin's writers fundamentally misunderstood the dynamics of the sitcoms they're trying to skewer.

Halfway through the season, we still have no idea how Allison's life devolved into domestic misery. We're told she used to be a vibrant, fun-loving young woman, and the show wants us to take it as a given that Kevin sapped the life-force out of his wife over their decade of marriage. But the writers have drawn him as such a bozo, it's hard to believe the guy can feed himself, let alone systematically destroy a woman's self-worth through psychological manipulation and gaslighting.

Perhaps there's more Kev character development coming in episodes five through eight. (God help me, am I actually hoping for a flashback sequence?) Right now, it seems like Allison is woefully unhappy because… she's a woman. Even her neighbor/frenemy Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), who's taken far more control of her destiny than Allison, is deeply depressed. So, women who surround themselves with the wrong men are doomed? That can't be the message Kevin is going for. Of course, the adversarial relationship between Patty and Allison is evolving — are you optimistic about where it could go?

DARREN: Inboden's over-it deadpan offers equal-opportunity cynicism. "I'm always impressed with how you can make nothing to do with you all about you," Patty tells Allison — a rebuke to the show's own conception of the "sitcom wife" as a secondary character. Their burgeoning friendship makes me optimistic.

I'm less invested in Sam (Raymond Lee), Allison's old high school crush, who opens a new charcuterie-board café down the street. His presence leaves Allison wondering where she went wrong — and offers the chance for shady extramarital flirtation. But, like, how can I put this: Murphy and Lee both look great. They could be in any indie-ish romcom about two cute thirty-somethings, complete with a sensitive trip to Sam's Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

I've already defended Patriots fans, Kristen, and now my devil's advocacy forces me to say something nice about Chuck LorreTwo and a Half Men's bro-lord just finished eight seasons of Mom, a female-dominated comedy that explored AA and other heavy topics with a light touch. Kevin's rigid binary structure looks weirdly conservative by comparison. Laugh tracks can only be ridiculous and dudely; important themes like addiction or economic striving can only be presented with cockroach-on-the-floor grayscale dourness. Like you, I grew tired of the split conceit quickly. Halfway through the season, I'm still seeking any feeling that the main characters aren't just misshapen archetypes. Will the show offer deeper insight into the central marriage later? Maybe Kevin can wait, but I'm not sure I can. 

Grade: C+

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