Domestic comedy and gritty drama form a strange marriage of convenience in Kevin Can F**k Himself, the new AMC series starring Annie Murphy of Schitt’s Creek.
A two-fer, some of the show’s scenes are shot in the traditional manner of ’90s sitcoms — punishingly well-lit, multi-camera, a doofy husband making doofy jokes at his unrealistically hot wife’s expense, punctuated with an unfashionable laugh track. But other scenes look more like Breaking Bad, with the gray-brown palette that connotes realism, a soundscape that builds suspense without ever releasing tension, and even a made-for-prestige-television drug subplot.
The show’s two genres create a juxtaposition that invites us to question what humor is — why we laugh and at whom. The drama segments get the last laugh when Kevin’s immature, selfish, misogynistic behavior is laid bare without the narcotizing live-audience laughter.
Murphy plays Allison, the hot wife to Eric Peterson’s titular man-child husband Kevin. Kevin, a character so unlikable he barely works as a character, is the embodiment of the “my wife wears the pants” meme. “What Allison wants, Allison gets,” Kevin says in the pilot. He can concede this territory because it’s not true, and he gets to look self-effacing while really holding all the power. The rest of the show can be summarized as a sequence of Allison’s wants going unfulfilled while Kevin’s agenda prevails almost by happenstance.
While Peterson’s performance is really too accurate to call satire, Murphy’s subversion of the sitcom wife trope takes the show beyond send-up or parody, often indicting the audience for chuckling along with its canned laughter. We find out about several of Kevin’s past antics throughout the season, including getting Allison fired from the first job she really loved. “You just watched him and laughed,” Allison says to her neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden). “Can you just think about that for more than one second? He didn’t like something that was my own, and so he took it away from me.” Patty’s response: “It seemed… harmless.”
The show hits familiar sitcom plot notes — an escalating feud with the neighbors, a get-rich-quick scheme involving an escape room that of course backfires. It all seems harmless under the bright studio lights of the show’s comedy segments. It’s hard to see Kevin for anything worse than annoying and oafish, at least until the lights dim.
It is the dissonance of the show’s two modes that propels you through all eight episodes of the season. I couldn’t settle on a good theory for how the premise would resolve. Would its formal manipulations ultimately be revealed as the magical realism of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist or the psychological defense mechanism of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Would the cracks start to show like in? Would Allison eventually walk off set à la The Truman Show? Or would she succumb fully to the sitcom life, perhaps using her superior wits and familiarity with the genre to eventually subvert it? Is the laugh track a metaphor, or what?
Parsing which characters live in which genre and when turns out to be a fruitless effort. Kevin doesn’t know anything about Allison’s drab world of prestige drama, but Allison is fluent in both genres. Several other characters appear in both, most commonly Patty, who begins the series as “one of the guys” in Kevin’s world before growing closer to Allison and colluding on Kevin’s murder. But Allison’s old flame and current side piece Sam also code-switches, as does Detective Tammy, who is investigating a slew of drug crimes while awakening the sexuality of Patty, who is in fact behind the aforementioned drug crimes.
Kevin, his wise-cracking father Pete, and his buffoonish neighbor Neil, on the other hand, seem to live full-time in the world of set-ups and punch lines. Is it only women and people of color who must straddle the line and recalibrate the performance of their very existence to survive? (How does one “be” a woman? Patty and Allison choose two very different approaches.) Is it a villains vs. victims thing? Does the show even have a taxonomy of characters by genre?
The show’s sitcom conceit reminds me of the “careful what you wish for” critique of utopia depicted in films like Pleasantville. So maybe the laugh track is not a metaphor but a pair of rose-colored glasses; perhaps the studio lighting is the Claritin clear sheen that comes with white maleness. Maybe this is just how the other half lives: In their own private multi-cam comedies.
“You say that like it’s destiny,” Sam says to Allison when she frets about how Kevin always wins.
“It is,” she replies. “This whole world is designed for guys like Kevin. And Pete, and Neil… This whole game is rigged. Fixed.”
Fixed, the title of the final episode of season 1.
The episode title is only the first of several fake-outs offered by the finale to viewers like me who were searching for an a-ha moment ending. At first it seems like Kevin’s trauma following episode 7’s shooting will change him into a sensitive, empathetic man, obviating the need for Allison’s murder scheme and melding the comedy/drama sequences into some sort of dour awards show-bait dramedy series.
But that doesn’t happen. And then it seems Allison might run away with Sam instead of killing Kevin, answering the question of “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” with “Good idea.” That doesn’t happen either. Later, the gender solidarity angle that’s been simmering between Allison and Patty is called into question when Patty accuses Allison of manipulating her and jeopardizing her romance with Detective Tammy — Allison begins to look like more of an anti-hero, like maybe hers is the spurious point of view. But that doesn’t quite pan out either.
In the season’s final scene, after Allison and Patty argue and decide to return to their flimsy sitcom dynamic instead of being real friends (“I’ll get you a beer, you’ll say ‘Oh, it’s not cold enough,'” Allison quips), Allison storms into the kitchen. The lighting changes, and suddenly she’s in her own private comedy. This is it, I thought, this is Allison giving in to the Kevin show. The rules of the universe have changed, and now Allison lives in comedy world even when she’s by herself.
But then! Idiot neighbor Neil tumbles from the pantry, waking the laugh track. He’s heard everything Patty and Allison were talking about, all of their crimes and schemes. And he’s going to tell Kevin.
In the last moments of the season one finale, Patty returns to the kitchen, rescuing Allison from Neil’s chokehold by bashing a bottle against his head. Comedy turns to drama as he falls, bleeding. “You’re not gonna tell Kevin anything,” Patty says, and the two women hold bloody hands. The gender solidarity angle is back, just in time to roll credits.
Even before I watched the pilot episode, my interest lay in its finale. How would a show like this conclude? Where were they going with this? The show’s dual modes of storytelling circled each other all season without ever finding a harmony, like an unstable, dissonant chord progression.
And, heading into the finale after episode seven’s “who shot J.R.” cliffhanger, the season concludes with a deceptive cadence. Kevin Can F**k Himself, a show with such a high-concept premise it borders on gimmicky, seems perfect for limited-run treatment. But its finale, rather than offering answers around the problem of patriarchy, instead sets up a second season. In a show that thrives on subverting expectations, that might have been the most predictable — and disappointing — outcome.