Valerie Armstrong’s sitcom is a dark, feminist twist on the sort of TV fare that’s oversaturated the airwaves.
The formula isn’t a new one: the hot, hyper-competent wife who gave up her master’s track to marry the boorish, underachieving man-child. Just add three cameras and some annoying in-laws/neighbors, and you could be watching King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, or (God forbid) According to Jim. Some shows have put a unique spin on the formula, the most successful being Gloria Calderon Kellett’s One Day at a Time reboot. But overall, when you see a three-camera sitcom, you usually know what you’re getting. It’s like gas station coffee or dinner at Applebee’s. It’s just there.
Valerie Armstrong’s dark comedy for AMC, Kevin Can F**k Himself, takes the formula even farther. It paints the players to such extremes that when the title character (Eric Peterson) isn’t on screen, protagonist Allison (played masterfully by Annie Murphy, who did not come to f**k around) practically collapses with exhaustion and quivering rage. The brightly lit, three-camera set becomes just a house, washed out and dingy. The easygoing smile of Kevin’s long-suffering wife becomes a snarl of mute frustration. This tonal swerve could break a show in less capable hands, but Murphy is at the top of her game here, portraying Allison with a slightly unhinged vulnerability as she reconciles the realities of being trapped in such a banal existence.
Allison and Kevin are solidly among the working poor, with Kevin working as a cable installer, though we only ever see him sitting on the couch or crafting childish pranks with his best friend and neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer as a Dan Cortese-type bonehead). It’s a salt-of-the-earth type of living you see so often on primetime sitcoms, something that allows for a steady paycheck but ensures Kevin and Allison never get too comfortable. Working-class families are the best kind of sitcom fodder, but the realities of being among the working poor aren’t so fun or laugh-worthy. Allison, financially tied to a man she hates, can’t just pick up and leave. With no family, friends, or money of her own after Kevin secretly blows their entire life savings Allison becomes so desperate to escape her reality that she can only see one way out: Kevin has to go.
While Allison’s plotting to rid herself of her truly awful husband serves as the main arc, the most rewarding plot line is her developing a friendship with neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden). The two women have no time for one another at first (perhaps because, in most of these male-centric canned laugh comedies, women are written to have more friction than friendship). Allison, who seems to drown in frustration at every turn, grasps for a life preserver, which just happens to be Patty.
The more Patty gets to know Allison, the more she’s able to see Kevin for the menace he truly is. The third and fourth episodes provided for review shift some of the focus from Allison’s unhappy life to Patty’s unhappy life, and those episodes take Kevin Can F**k Himself from potentially gimmicky to a truly feminist black comedy. It isn’t Kevin who breaks down Allison’s walls to see just how bad things have gotten, nor is it married ex-flame Sam (Raymond Lee). It’s Patty, who’s initially cruel to her, that cares enough to reach out and ask, “Are you okay?”
This tonal swerve could break a show in less capable hands, but Murphy is at the top of her game here, portraying Allison with a slightly unhinged vulnerability
The device of being two shows in one truly works to show Kevin as the ultimate buffoon for whom the bar was set so low they had to bury it. Kevin Can F**k Himself is only a sitcom when Kevin is present, a device used increasingly sparingly the more Allison attempts to distance herself from her oppressively unhappy life. The longer she sits out on the porch eating hamburgers and avoiding her husband, the more room the viewer gets to breathe. Because seeing what Kevin has done to this woman, through his neediness, manipulation and general buffoonery does not make the canned laughter any easier to hear.
The more we learn about Kevin, the more sinister it becomes. That slow, agonizing feeling of watching your dreams being crushed will have even the most upright viewers rooting for Allison and her quest for freedom, and if we get to see Kevin suffer in the process? That’s just gravy.
Kevin Can F**k Himself premieres this Sunday, June 20, on AMC.