The CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait may be named for star, cocreator, and executive producer Kevin James. But three years after its 2018 cancellation, it may be best remembered for the fate of Erinn Hayes, the actress who initially played James’s wife. In the break between seasons, Hayes tweeted that she’d been “let go” from the show, where she’d dutifully inhabited her given role: the patient, visibly younger spouse of James’s retired Long Island cop. (Sources said the producers had opted to go in a “different creative direction,” according to Variety.) Then, Kevin Can Wait added insult to injury. For the show’s second and final season, Hayes’s character was abruptly killed off. After a flash forward, Hayes was effectively replaced by Leah Remini—who played James’s last sitcom wife, on The King of Queens. The switch was unusually callous and over the top, but it crystallized a universal truth: As an archetype, the sitcom wife is so thin and inessential that she can be literally swapped out on a whim.
The AMC drama Kevin Can F*** Himself reverses this scenario in more ways than one. (The show premiered last weekend on streaming service AMC+ and begins its run on the cable channel this Sunday.) As the trollish title suggests, the show takes direct aim at James and his most recent vehicle. But under creator Valerie Armstrong (Masters of Sex, Lodge 49), Kevin Can F*** Himself is also a much broader critique. Starring Annie Murphy, best known as the spoiled socialite Alexis Rose on Schitt’s Creek, as the beleaguered Allison McRoberts, Kevin Can F*** Himself wants to blow up the very idea of the understanding, accommodating, capital-W Wife. Behind every charming schlub is a woman who’s had enough of his shit.
To do this, Kevin Can F*** Himself relies on an exceedingly clever device. When Allison is around the titular Kevin (Eric Petersen), her world is flat, brightly lit, and set to a laugh track. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and Kevin’s is a lighthearted comedy about a man from central Massachusetts who loves the Patriots and his neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer). To the extent Allison even registers to Kevin, it’s as either a prudish buzzkill or a passive accomplice to his harebrained schemes. There’s no room for other points of view when your entire life takes place on a soundstage, 22 minutes at a time.
But when Allison is on her own, everything shifts. The room goes quiet; the light dims; the cinematography shifts from multi-camera, the signature look of the old-school sitcom, to single camera, a setup that’s traditionally more highbrow. (Think The Big Bang Theory versus Breaking Bad.) When we see the McRoberts’s shared life from Allison’s perspective, it’s not a pretty sight. Allison works at a liquor store; Kevin is a cable guy, a nod to another reliable source of lowest-common-denominator comedy. Allison has dreams like home ownership or a more stable career; Kevin does not. And when Kevin crosses the line from ignoring Allison’s desires to actively thwarting them, something in Allison snaps, prompting a decision that becomes the premise of the show. Like John Tucker before him, Kevin must die.
Kevin Can F*** Himself’s stylistic split is so compelling that the show initially powers through on concept alone. (Critics were shown four episodes of an eventual eight.) The parallel plots are an ingenious metaphor for both the failings of popular media and the schism in many real-life marriages. It may seem like elitist snobbery for a cable show to skewer a genre its own audience is unlikely to watch. But condescension requires looking down, and as the all-too-recent Kevin Can Wait debacle goes to show, the stale sitcom is nowhere near losing its prime place in culture. Kevin Can F*** Himself is unlikely to put an end to the epidemic of half-assed female characters. It’s a worthy goal nonetheless.
A solid theory gets borne out by execution. The pure sitcom parts of Kevin Can F*** Himself are almost a self-contained show within a show, with high jinks like neighbor feuds and get-rich-quick schemes played impressively straight. The series may belong to Murphy, who’s been doing plenty of press to promote her next move after the final season of Schitt’s swept the pandemic Emmys, but Petersen is admirably committed as an oblivious oaf. The show also has its fun with transitions from one mode to the next. Sometimes, the tone shifts when Allison leaves the room, as if she’s literally walking offstage and into “real” life. Sometimes, it’s Kevin who departs, taking the jokes with him as Allison stays behind.
But as Kevin Can F*** Himself enters its middle stretch, the show starts to stall out. The best scene in the pilot occurs when Allison comes to terms with her true feelings toward her husband—animosity, not just ambivalence. In a dream sequence of sorts, Allison offers him a beer, dressed to the nines in her Betty Draper best. But before…