Kevin Can F*** Himself is built around one really great idea.
The show is divided into two: it’s at once a brightly lit multi-camera sitcom, filmed in front of a live studio audience, and also a desaturated prestige drama, following an archetypical sitcom wife after she walks offstage and the laugh track fades away. Kevin Can F*** Himself flits between the two modes, revealing the goofy husband Kevin is a monster and his loving wife Allison is desperate to escape. The best way to do this, Allison decides, is to kill him.
If nothing else, that central conceit is well stylised, and impressively executed: there’s a strict visual grammar here, splicing together two instantly recognisable and evocatively directed television forms. Two very heightened realities are created and contrasted against one another (the cartoonish sitcom is, in its own way, as exaggerated as the dour prestige crime drama is) but neither suffers for it. Indeed, the juxtaposition serves each half well, with one reinforcing the identity and texture of another; there’s some genuinely impressive production at work in Kevin Can F*** Himself, with set design that can be at once broad and subtle in equal measure. Moving from the sitcom living room to the glossy drama living room, it doesn’t feel like channel hopping between shows – there’s a sense of consistency there, one identity perceived from adjacent angles.
The standout, of course, is Annie Murphy. As Alison she’s one of the few characters (and actors) to appear in both halves of Kevin Can F*** Himself – it’s plainly the most demanding role in the show, and the series wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does without her. Indeed, probably the main (or perhaps only) reason to watch the show is to appreciate the work Murphy does here: how carefully modulated the performance is, the precision that belies the levity, the self-awareness that tempers both the humour and the melodrama. It’s Murphy that sutures together the disparate elements of the show, taking a two-dimensional archetype and creating (something approaching) a three-dimensional character – there’s a case to be made, perhaps, that Kevin Can F*** Himself represents the biggest gulf in quality between a lead performance and the show around it all year.
For as well executed as the production is, though, it’s hard not to feel that this is all just a way to spruce up a very basic – and, as the series unfolds, increasingly dull – crime drama.
Kevin Can Fuck Himself is most obviously modelled on – and named after – Kevin Can Wait, a short-lived CBS sitcom starring Kevin James. The series is now best remembered for casually killing off its female lead between seasons, replacing her with a new character played by James’ former King of Queens co-star. Whatever the production decisions behind the change, it’s indicative of how often these characters are an afterthought in their own programmes, treated as essentially interchangeable from one iteration of the format to the next.
Oddly, though, there’s relatively little interest in interrogating the sitcom paradigms Kevin Can F*** Himself references. There are gestures towards it, certainly – an offhanded mention of Kevin getting the mailman deported in a classic sitcom prank belies a certain casual violence – but it’s not the focus of the show. Kevin Can Fuck Himself looks like a sitcom, yes, but it’s not about sitcoms. There’s an appreciable disconnect there, which leaves the programme feeling somewhat adrift in both halves of its story. The condemnation lacks direction, devoid of any particular point to advance alongside it – Kevin’s base observation is sound, yes, but it never looks any further than that.
Comparisons to WandaVision are unexpectedly instructive, actually. There are more than a few similarities between the shows, which for all their differences are doing very similar work – certainly, they’re commenting on the same cultural objects, albeit from adjacent angles. What makes WandaVision distinct from Kevin Can F*** Himself though is that its sitcom homage (or parody, if you prefer) actually has a point: it traced the lineage of a particular form of entertainment and positioned the Marvel Cinematic Universe not just as its heir but its replacement. The Dick Van Dyke Show turning, step-by-step, into the latest Avengers sequel was a tacit reassertion of Marvel’s dominance after over a year’s absence – WandaVision was saying something, WandaVision was making an argument (however agreeable or not it may have been) about culture and about television that Kevin Can F*** Himself really isn’t.
Absent any underlying point, the series flounders. Its character drama is unfocused, never quite managing to walk the delicate path it sets out for itself as it implies an abusive marriage without committing to depicting it (not in the simplistic, surface-level sense – the interplay between the sitcom and the drama is enough to force a shift in perspective, to see toxicity to these tropes without drawing attention to it overtly – but in terms of the characters and their wider relationships to one another). In turn there’s a sense that the series is spinning its wheels, trying to meet a certain runtime and episode count first and foremost – Kevin Can F** Himself has a great premise and a great central conceit, one that made for a strong opening relationship, but that momentum starts to stall as it becomes clear the series has few further ideas.
There are times when the omissions are glaring: Kevin and Allison don’t have children, despite how often these sitcom archetypes do, and when the idea is eventually raised it’s as a plot device first with little sense of how huge that could’ve been if it was a bigger part of the series. It’s also notable that, for a series so enamoured with crime dramas, Kevin here is a cable repairman rather than a police officer, as James was in Kevin Can Wait – even as applying this conceit to a policing sitcom offers obvious opportunities to genuinely say something about the intersection between culture and television. Indeed, a cleverer version of Kevin Can F*** Himself would’ve built a critique of the prestige crime drama into its premise as well, exposing the limits of that genre as well – but ultimately it’s just too short-sighted.
That much was obvious early on, though. As Kevin Can F*** Himself went to great lengths to establish a strict visual grammar, introducing and carefully emphasising how exactly it would work, it also built a sense of anticipation – anticipation for the moment those rules were broken, the moment that Kevin leaves the sitcom to follow Allison into the drama.
Rather than exploiting that, though, rather than making that moment as powerful as it could’ve been, it happened towards the end of the otherwise impressive first episode, in a very casual, offhanded way, undercutting the conceit of the show almost immediately. There’s no sense at all that the team behind Kevin Can F*** Himself realised what they could’ve had – in the end, it’s hard not to feel like this was just a good idea gone to waste.