Kevin Can F*** Himself is a great idea in need of a great show to go with it

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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.

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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.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Quiz turns event television back into event television

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Originally, Quiz began life in the theatre, performed first in Chichester before moving to the West End; met with widespread critical acclaim, and nominated for two Olivier awards, writer James Graham’s 2017 play was itself inspired by a book. Bad Show: The Quiz, the Cough, the Millionaire Major, published two years prior, suggested that Charles and Diana Ingram might have been innocent of the charges levelled against them. This ambiguity was central to Graham’s play: a production deeply invested in its live performance, it invited audience participation (not unlike Millionaire?’s famous lifeline), asking those watching to vote one way or the other on the Ingrams’ innocence.

Before this theatrical run and the book that inspired it, however, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was almost subject of a film written by Russell T Davies. That, obviously, never came to fruition – in 2003, when his involvement in the Millionaire? film was announced, Davies was on the cusp of another project, one that would become his main focus for the next six years. Still, it’s an interesting counterfactual to consider; Davies seems the perfect writer for a comedy-of-errors about a crime committed on an iconic television show, but a one-off film almost seems to miss the point, both of telling this story and hiring Davies to do it.

Even earlier, of course, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? cheating scandal was subject of a documentary. ITV never actually aired Charles Ingram’s episode of the quiz show; instead, Millionaire: A Major Fraud (a pun), a documentary presented by Martin Bashir, is where the footage of Ingram’s contested victory was first broadcast. Major Fraud attracted 17 million viewers, and a 56% audience share, setting a new record for the channel: it was event television. The last time Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? proper had received similar ratings was three years prior.

In that sense, then, James Graham’s television adaptation of Quiz isn’t, in fact, a stageplay being promoted to the small screen – rather, it’s a story that was told and retold through different mediums returning to where it began. It’s interesting that Graham wasn’t, at first, entirely convinced that Quiz should be adapted for television, believing the strength of the stageplay came from the structural opportunities afforded it by a live performance. Nonetheless, Quiz doesn’t just mark the return of this story to television – it demonstrates that television is this story’s natural home.

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Quiz is best when it’s a process story – less a whodunnit, more a howdunnit, building its drama out of the smaller details. The “how” isn’t just about the heist, though; rather, Quiz is about how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? came to be such a successful game show in the first place. Its opening episode, which essentially amounts to an hour of contextualising exposition, should by all rights be flat and dull; instead, its account of “Cash Mountain” awkwardly developing into an internationally syndicated television juggernaut proved dynamic and engaging. (In that sense, it recalls James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, a film which was at its best when depicting individual notes in a wider process. Scenes of Millionaire? slotting together piece by piece and Dominic Cummings gradually refining his campaign strategy are recognisably by the same writer, the two works4 sharing certain structural quirks beyond the more superficial observation that both hinge on a polarising yes or no question.) The drama as a whole is buoyed by stylish direction from Stephen Frears, however, and canny casting even in smaller roles (Mark Bonnar and Aisling Bea especially) helps Quiz feel like a confident piece of television: a necessity, really, given it invokes what’s arguably one of the most successful television shows ever.

What’s most striking about Quiz, though, is quite how tense it often is. Certainly, it’s far more tense than you’d expect of a game show where you already know the answers – of course Ingram gets the questions right, that’s essentially the whole premise. That anxiety and apprehension is preserved in no small part because of how faithfully Quiz recreates Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, from the iconic set to the moody lighting to the familiar music to the sheer drama of it all – and to the host. Much has been said about Michael Sheen’s frankly uncanny performance as Chris Tarrant; it’s perhaps a cliché to compare an actor’s impression to archive footage, but Sheen’s performance almost invites such comparison – not because Quiz uses any archive footage, of course, but for the moments where it genuinely seems as though they have. Taken together, it’s no wonder Quiz is so tense.

It’s an almost uniquely televised form of tension, crucially – the suspense of “let’s find out, after the break”, a cliffhanger never replicated on stage or in film. (Quiz shows a remarkable level of restraint in not copying this conceit itself – cutting straight to adverts after Michael Sheen delivered the infamous catchphrase must’ve been hard to resist, but it’s a smart choice not to, in keeping with Quiz’s dedication to looking beyond that original broadcast.) Thus Quiz benefits from being restored to television, not just recreating the nightly drama of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but also serving as reminder of why the cheating scandal proved so captivating in the first place. It’s not just because of the Ingrams’ eccentricities, or the charming, intuitive simplicity of cheating in a quiz, or even the million pounds at stake. It’s because television made it close, made it nearby. Quiz opens referencing the adage that the Vietnam war was the first televised war, tacitly framing this infamous heist in the same terms: when the Ingrams tried to steal a million pounds, they might as well have done it in the corner of your front room.

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Quiz exonerates the Ingrams, in the end. Of course it does; casting Sian Clifford, always quietly the best part of Fleabag, and Matthew Macfadyen, who as Tom Wambsgams is the most sympathetic character on Succession even as he’s arguably the worst of them, wasn’t ever going to do anything but endear the Ingrams to the audience. Their performances go a long way towards anchoring the drama, in fact; the show keeps both characters at something of a remove for most its runtime, not quite rendering them ciphers but certainly distant. It’s necessary, of course – the first two episodes of Quiz in effect take up the prosecution, and that demands a certain ambiguity be sustained. Still, though, it ran the risk of leaving things inert; Clifford and Macfadyen’s restrained charm does a lot to round out the characters before the third episode recontextualises events.

For all that James Graham has quite studiously avoided coming down on one side or the other, Quiz undeniably stacks the deck in favour of the accused; the series finishes, after all, with their defence, in effect leaving them the final word. (It’s perhaps not a surprise that many of the audience took to Twitter afterwards, now Ingram truthers themselves; during its interactive West End run, most theatregoers voted the Ingrams innocent by the end too.) Their defence was one predicated on the material nature of television – the same phenomenon that saw the case of the Coughing Major become so famous in the first place. The Ingrams insisted that it was a matter of television editing that made them look (and only look) so guilty – victims, in effect, of a storytelling technique.

The first episode of Quiz quotes Picasso, asserting that “we all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. It’s more than a touch grandiose, but it speaks to Graham’s intentions; Quiz is a drama about a truth, not necessarily one about the truth. (There’s a sleight of hand going on there too, given the quote stops short; in full, it reads “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth – at least the truth that is given us to understand,” pointing again to the layers of artifice and construct in each retelling of the tale.) In some respects, it’s a more entertaining truth – and the real-life Ingrams would probably call it a better truth. That’s why Quiz breaks, ever so briefly, from its otherwise realist bent with a musical sequence – and why, when it does, it does so through the television. Much as it once convicted the Ingrams, it’s now (almost) letting them free. Television offers a more heightened reality: as a quiz show, as a trial, as a drama. Quiz was never about the heist, or about the Ingrams. Not really.

And it’s why the final note is Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant again, showbiz rictus grin leering out of the screen, posing one last question – this time without a lifeline. “So, go on then,” he demands, “tell us. What’s the answer?”

The answer – as ever, as always, and what Quiz was really about – is television.

Related:

Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

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