Opinion

The revenge of the sitcom wife

'Kevin Can F*** Himself' is here to ruin your favorite bumbling TV patriarchs

Back in 2017, the CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait did something that, even by broadcast television standards, was a little weird: It killed off Kevin's wife. It wasn't the wife's death, though, that was so odd — sitcom wives have been killed off before, over everything from an actress' salary disputes to their racist tweets — but the particular reason this time stood out. According to the show's star, Kevin James, the writers bumped off his in-show wife, Donna, after only one season because they were "literally just running out of ideas." 

The second season premiere spent less than a minute addressing Donna's absence (worse, the writers worked in a punchline about it). But as Vanity Fair relayed at the time, Kevin Can Wait was still intended to be "a lighthearted sitcom at its core," and the showrunners didn't want to bring down the audiences' mood by lingering on the wife, whose usefulness to the plot had expired.

Of course, TV isn't real. No wives were harmed in the making of Kevin Can Wait. It's pointless to get upset about a fictional character. Better to just keep laughing along … right?

AMC's brilliant new dark comedy has a different idea. It's called Kevin Can F**k Himself.

Think of it as the revenge of the sitcom wife. While AMC's Kevin Can F**k Himself technically has no direct connection to CBS' Kevin Can Wait — its surprisingly explicit title is a reference to its own original sitcom husband, Kevin McRoberts — the series functions as a middle-finger to every show before it that has used a bumbling male protagonist's long-suffering partner as a sexist nag, punchline, or worse, disposable plot device. 

This is tricky to pull off, though, without turning into exactly the kind of scold that sitcoms have been mocking since time immemorial. But 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. Created by Valerie Armstrong (the showrunner of the cult hit Lodge 49) and produced by Rashida Jones, Kevin Can F**k Himself stars Eric Petersen as the requisite dopey husband, while Schitt's Creek's Annie Murphy plays his accommodating wife, Allison. The first two episodes are available on AMC+ this Sunday, and will air back-to-back on AMC the following Sunday; the remaining six episodes will continue to debut on AMC+ one week ahead of AMC.

But regardless of if you're streaming the show or catching it live, when Kevin Can F**k Himself opens — complete with funky bumper music and an establishing shot of a pretty blue middle-class house in Worcester, Massachusetts — you might think you've stumbled on exactly the sort of sitcom the show is critiquing. Shot under bright studio lighting, complete with a canned laugh track and fixed multi-cams, the episode begins in the McRoberts' living room, where Kevin cracks one-liners playing beer pong with his goofy neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer), while his father (Brian Howe) and Neil's sister Patty (Mary Hollis) look on. When Allison belatedly enters the scene, she's carrying a laundry basket and playing the part of the family stick-in-the-mud, unsuccessfully trying to convince Kevin to call off their 10-year "anniversa-rager."

When Allison finally leaves the room, defeated, a switch flips. Out of sight of Kevin, the bright studio lighting is replaced by the murky green palette of a serious TV drama; the multi-cam editing gives way to a single camera; even the laugh track vanishes. Allison's cheery veneer also drops; she looks tired. Her husband's oblivious ribbing now seems willfully uncaring, even bordering on spiteful. You find yourself wondering why you thought he was so funny.

Over the four episodes made available to the press, Kevin Can F**k Himself continues to play this game with its viewers. When Allison is around her husband, the show is shot in the lighthearted mode of favorites like The King of Queens or Modern Family; it's funny, even familiar (the pilot episode uses the same Dinner with the Boss plot that's been recycled by everything from Bewitched to the less successful sitcom pastiche from this year, WandaVision). But when Allison is away from Kevin, she's privately falling apart, going as far as to fantasize about how to kill her husband. It's obvious that in "real life," no one would ever be able to stand being a sitcom wife. But if that's so, then what, exactly, have we been laughing at all along?

Kevin Can F**k Himself poses this question, too. At one point Patty, the neighbor reluctantly befriending Allison, attempts to defend Kevin — and maybe the sitcom husband as a whole. "I never said he was a great guy, but that's the kind of juvenile crap he does," she says, adding defensively "it seemed harmless." 

But "right when I felt like I was worth something, he ruined it," Allison points out. "And you just watched him and laughed."

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