As we wade further into the 21st century, traditional sitcoms seem more and more obsolete. So why won’t they just die? Sure, in our stream-happy world, it’s easier to ignore them than ever, but a sea of man-child protagonists still thrive in syndication and on major networks, with canned laughter following their every move.
The ambitious new AMC series Kevin Can F*** Himself doesn’t just want to see the traditional sitcom format die; it wants to be the one to bash its brains in. The series by Valerie Armstrong follows Allison McRoberts (Schitt’s Creek’s excellent Annie Murphy), a put-upon housewife whose life is split between the endless sitcom antics of her husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen), and the brewing crisis-turned-awakening that begins when she learns he’s kept a major secret from her.
This is where Kevin Can F*** Himself’s most divisive element comes in; the series is quite literally half a sitcom. Anytime Kevin is on screen, it’s a multi-cam situational comedy, complete with studio-bright lighting, goofy sidekicks, and an overwhelming laugh track. When Allison isn’t with Kevin, her world is darker and more dynamic, filmed like, well, an AMC drama. It’s a daring, disorienting structure, one that asks viewers to come along for a ride unlike anything they’ve seen before. It’s certainly a ride worth punching a ticket for, as the four episodes available for review are caustic and thrilling, laced with enough mystery and plot momentum to keep viewers on the edge of their seats–and on edge in general.
Kevin Can F*** Himself can be read as a meta hate letter to the gender dynamics of American sitcoms (its title seems to allude to the Kevin James-led series Kevin Can Wait, which infamously killed off the protagonist’s wife after one season). Still, its rhetorical ambitions reach far beyond that. Allison is trapped in a dead-end, small-town world, one ravaged by opioids, alcoholism, xenophobia, and run-of-the-mill misogyny. One might guess that Allison imagines her husband as a sitcom hero because he and those around him engage unthinkingly in the kind of blind, one-dimensional optimism that ignores anything beyond the scope of their living room. The sitcom-ification of real life, a case of life imitating bad art, is a common phenomenon; if you’ve ever heard a family member put more effort into “the old ball and chain” jokes than they have into working on their actual marriage, you’ve witnessed it, too. Kevin Can F*** Himself doesn’t just seek to uncover the rot within one of America’s fundamental TV genres but also within the hearts of the people who watch, internalize, and even inspire them.
Interestingly, the show doesn’t mold Allison into an entirely sympathetic protagonist either. She’s relentlessly driven, often by fantasies, and while many of those around her try to find the best version of themselves within the given circumstances, she feels trapped to the point of extreme action. Her eventual partner in crime is Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), a neighbor who played the role of the sarcastic stock character for a decade before finally coming into sharper focus. Inboden is the series’ secret weapon, channeling a young Rosie O’Donnell while scowling through a curtain of black hair, a cigarette perpetually in hand. Patty is the ideal link between the show’s sitcom world and its drama world, as her dark humor and unflappable persona seem uniquely at home in both.
The series’ split structure may grow wearisome to some, but both halves are pointed and intriguing, full of clues to the series’ ultimate ideology. We see Allison constantly undermined during the sitcom plots, cast simultaneously as a stick in the mud and the only real, capable adult in the room. The series’ stark contrasts provide insight, and soon sitcom tropes start to seem like red flags–as when Kevin says he never let Allison get a pet because he doesn’t want anything competing with his cuteness. Meanwhile, characters in the dark drama half of the series aren’t immune to the American sitcom state of mind. Allison’s coworker at the local liquor store constantly impresses upon her that her husband’s needs are the most important thing, only this time around, there’s no punchline.
Kevin Can F*** Himself is working on a higher level than most of its contemporaries from the start, playing around with layered ideologies, unusual narrative structure, and constantly shifting formal elements with all the ease and enjoyment of a kid in a sandbox. It’s the type of high-concept drama that more often than not results in a misunderstood, short-lived cult classic. Still, with compelling performances and an uncompromising point-of-view, it deserves to break through with audiences in a big way. Call it payback for twelve seasons of Two and A Half Men.