A brilliant concept meets sharp execution in AMC’s “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” premiering on AMC+ on June 13 and airing on the regular network a week later. Less of the homage to the sitcom seen in “WandaVision” and more of radical deconstruction, this new dramedy offers a fantastic platform to Annie Murphy after her Emmy-winning work on “Schitt’s Creek.” Murphy playfully riffs on the role of the put-upon wife in the sitcom, feeling most alike CBS characters like the ones played by Leah Remini on “The King of Queens” or Patricia Heaton on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” On those shows and so many of their imitators, the wife character often had to put up with stereotypical stupid husbands who ignored them only to have their mistakes washed away with a laugh track. Valerie Armstrong’s smart show imagines one of those wives breaking free of the sitcom structure in a show that’s half-sitcom and half something much darker. In the first four episodes, some of the momenta sent to press drag after a fantastic first episode, but this is never a boring show, and it’s often incredibly clever.
“Kevin Can F**k Himself”—the title an obvious riff on the CBS Kevin James sitcom “Kevin Can Wait,” which literally killed off one wife character to replace her with another actress—opens with a traditional sitcom set-up. The lights are bright, the set looks familiar, the multi-camera set-up only has a few angles, the laugh track is turned up. We meet the gregarious Kevin (Eric Petersen), who loves Boston sports teams more than he loves his put-upon wife Allison (Murphy). He’s planning a “Ragerversary,” turning his wedding anniversary into an excuse to party with his friends. His dumb neighbor and best friend Neil (Alex Bonifer) and dad Pete (Brian Howe) enable Kevin’s oblivious selfishness. The sitcom feels familiar and, this is important, not unrealistic. The writers of “Kevin” smartly avoid going too broad with their parody, making the sitcom half of their show feel like something that could legitimately be on TV right now—in fact, it would probably be a hit. It’s almost comforting in its familiarity.
And then Allison goes to the kitchen. The lighting becomes more realistic. The angles change. The fake studio audience is gone. And she breaks a glass in her hand. Peterson’s Kevin is rarely seen outside of the bright lights of the sitcom half, giving the heart of the show over to Allison. It’s like a show about a couple in which the husband is starring in a CBS sitcom, and the wife is starring in an AMC drama. As she realizes in the premiere how much her husband is holding back her dreams again, she starts to lash out. She starts just imagining a better life by looking at house listings but keeps moving deeper and deeper into rebellion with each episode, including some incredibly drastic decisions. She reconnects with an old friend who has returned to town—although the writers here are smart enough not to make this into a standard story of a better man replacing a bad man—and eventually connects in her own way with her neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), who has secrets of her own.
Murphy channels that bubbly personality of “Schitt’s” into something darker here with fantastic results. She deftly captures a woman who has run out of patience without leaning into the many obvious crutches that could have come with this character. She’s instantly engaging, embracing the challenges of the part and making unexpected decisions at every turn. Characters on sitcoms are so two-dimensional that Murphy knows that for this to work, she needs to imbue Allison with depth and back story immediately for audiences to believe her break out of the traditional form, and she does exactly that while also leaning into sitcom tropes at the same time. It’s not a coincidence that Allison, even in the non-sitcom half of the show, is a bit clumsy and naïve, often getting powder from Dunkin on her face or even accidentally hitting people. One could take some of her scenes in the real half of the show, add bright lights and a laugh track, and fit them in the other half. It helps merge the two by not making the dramatic half too dark, which would have been jarring.
Murphy is great, but Petersen and Inboden match her over the course of the first four episodes. Petersen is doing pure sitcom here, but the fact is that he’s doing it well. He’s completely believable as the lead of a network sitcom in 2021 and leans into the physical humor particularly well, especially in a ridiculous escape room plot in episode four. Every episode finds a standalone sitcom premise—like the boss coming over to a party—to close out while the dramatic half of the show continues from hour to hour. Petersen also perfectly captures that gaslighting aspect of the sitcom husband that shrugs his way into the stereotype that his bad behavior is somehow charming and that his wife enjoys cleaning up his mess without making his character come off as too evil.
Inboden feels like a thin cynical neighbor character at first, but the show eventually allows her an arc of her own that makes her a perfect partner to Allison. It’s almost as if she also saw the chance to break her sitcom life a few years ago and decided there was no point. But, unfortunately, she’s like so many cynical people who accept their mundanity. Well, she does until that annoying girl next door breaks her out of it.
“Kevin Can F**k Himself” becomes a commentary not just on how much sitcoms enable dumb gender stereotypes but how they almost embrace stasis. People on sitcoms don’t change. They don’t learn. Everything is wrapped up in 22 minutes, and then it starts the next week again. “Kevin Can F**k Himself” uses that fact to present a character study about a woman who has had enough of her numbing routine. Even if one doesn’t live with a person as boorish as Kevin, it’s easy to relate. [B+]