AMC's Kevin Can F**k Himself premieres June 13th, 2021.
In 2016, Kevin James, the former star of The King of Queens, returned to the network sitcom formula with the CBS show Kevin Can Wait. The series centered on James as Kevin Gable, a newly retired Nassau County police officer living on Long Island, New York, who is looking forward to a quiet future. His plans for peace are disrupted by problems involving his children and the need for him to supplement his paltry pension with low-paying odd jobs. Erinn Hayes was cast as Kevin's wife Donna, a school nurse who never seemed to have much to do beyond be the sitcom wife. Early reviews of the series noted its predictable nature and over-reliance on network comedy tropes. One bright spot came in the form of a guest appearance by Leah Remini, James's former co-star in The King of Queens. When it came time for the creators to retool the show for season two to make way for a full-time Remini return, they made a very drastic change.
In the season premiere, we discovered that Donna was dead. Her death wasn't explained, and the episode dedicated about a minute of screen-time to her passing. The news that Erinn Hayes had been fired from her own show had set of sparks of outrage from the public and the unceremonious manner with which she was gotten rid of and replaced on-screen only made things worse. Kevin Can Wait saw its ratings nosedive and it was eventually cancelled after two seasons.
What Kevin Can Wait did wasn’t exactly a TV first, but the callous way with which it disposed of its already poorly treated female lead felt like a tipping point of sorts for the genre. Six months after the show was cancelled, AMC announced that it was developing a series with the artfully unsubtle title of Kevin Can F**k Himself. The Kevin here is a familiar figure: a schlubby working-class white guy with an obnoxious streak who somehow manages to command an intense level of devotion from those around him. His sitcom wife is Allison, played by Schitt's Creek star Annie Murphy. She cooks him dinner, puts up with the jokes from his hangers-on, and practically crawls around on her knees for his pleasure. The audience laughs, she smiles politely, and then she leaves the room. The cheers stop. The lighting changes. Suddenly, this is the real world, and we see the immense emotional pressure and mental trauma that Allison lives with every day. Being the sitcom wife is thankless at best and soul-sucking at worst, and Allison can't take it anymore, not now that her thoughts are turning to murder.
For anyone who has ever watched a sitcom, Kevin Can F**k Himself feels like it’s been a long time coming. Despite the many changes and positive progression of TV comedy as an artform, it’s surprising how often the genre clings to the tritest examples of formula. The sitcom wife might be the most egregious trope if only because it’s painfully overused, endlessly sexist, and lazy as all hell.
The sitcom wife comes in a small variety of rigid types. There’s the dutiful housewife, always impeccably dressed and single-mindedly devoted to domestic bliss (think June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.) They could be the wet blanket wife, the big ol’ stick in the mud who’s always trying to throw water on the schlubby dude’s wacky schemes. Often, they’re essentially a sexy lamp, not much beyond a gorgeous woman for the mediocre guy to brag about seducing or getting pregnant (she’s almost always played by an actress far younger than her male co-star – for the record, Erinn Hayes is eleven years younger than Kevin James.) There are the wives who seem to hate their husbands yet stick around forever, often to be berated with cruel one-liners from their spouse and/or his family. Remember how many jokes in The Honeymooners revolve around the protagonist threatening to beat his wife? Often, the woman doesn't even need to be a wife. They can be just as poorly treated as the girlfriend or token woman of the series. Consider poor Penny from The Big Bang Theory, who starts out as the objectified sole girl of the series (when she's not being insulted for her perceived lack of intelligence) before marrying Leonard, a man who treats her terribly and brags about having "worn her down" into getting together with him.
Things have improved over the years as comedy has become more sophisticated and challenging thanks to the likes of Insecure, Atlanta, and G.L.O.W. Women write, create, and star in their own comedies and have no use for the tired cycle of the sitcom wife. Yet that trope has endured. It’s still depressingly common for TV series and films to have one woman in an ensemble of men and for her to fulfil the role of the nag, the shrew, the serious one who doesn’t get to be funny or weird or have a life of her own. The entertainment industry operates by the logic of “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it”, but it’s hard to imagine a time when the sitcom wife ever really worked beyond its purposefully stagnant gender roles.
There are, obviously exceptions to the rule and there have been for decades, from I Love Lucy to Arrested Development, but there’s a reason Kevin Can F**k Himself is telling the story that it is. It forces us to think about the indignant lineage of the sitcom wife and allow her to have a life beyond the limitations of the three walls of the traditional network comedy. It also makes us reconsider why we laughed at those jokes in the first place. Was it really all that funny to see an array of women do the housework while her husband cracked open another beer and took pride in his lack of domestic skills? What good is the final act kiss-and-make-up if the man never changes? And how would you survive in these circumstances? How long before the guffawing laughter at your expense sent you into a spiral like Allison?
In the fourth episode of Kevin Can F**k Himself, there's a moment where Allison lets out a decade's worth of anger and misery, listing to her friend Patty the many ways that her selfish husband Kevin ruined her life, deliberately or accidentally, just to ensure that nothing about his ever changed. “Right when I felt like I was worth something, he ruined it,” Allison says, “and you just watched him and laughed.” Her friend tries to justify her culpability by saying that Kevin seemed harmless, his antics typical of men like him, but the audience can tell that even she doesn't believe that lie anymore. When confronted by the harsh reality of the trapped life of the sitcom wife, nobody can possibly say it's fair or right.
Imagine if every other sitcom wife got their moment of reckoning like Allison.
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