[This review originally published June 7th, 2021]
The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane once wrote, “the most volatile compound known to man is that of decorum and despair.” This proves ever-true in Kevin Can F—k Himself, AMC’s strange, emotionally-resonate hybrid series. In it, we follow the travails of Allison (Annie Murphy), a long-suffering wife whose husband’s world is a low-brow sitcom. When Kevin (Eric Petersen) is on screen, their lives are illuminated by stage lights and augmented by a laugh track—almost always at Allison’s expense. The fictional audience guffaws over Kevin’s infantile interests and behaviors, as Allison tries to find anything positive about the marriage she has felt trapped in for 10 years. Humiliated, ignored, and gaslighted throughout, Allison tries to keep up a good face while inwardly falling apart. Then as soon as Kevin leaves the room, the studio goes with him; Allison is left alone in the quiet of a drab house, feeling the full weight of her crippling frustration as the laughter fades away.
Created by Valerie Armstrong (Lodge 49) and showrun by Craig DiGregorio (Shrill), the series splits its time between a traditional three-camera sitcom and a single-camera drama. Like the recent Disney+ series WandaVision, it uses familiar TV tropes to illuminate a darker truth lurking under the glossy surface. Allison does have daydreams about a better life, but unlike Wanda she’s not using that to blot out her reality. Instead, she embraces the truth and comes up with a plan to rid herself of Kevin for good.
The series’ title is ostensibly a callback to sitcoms like Kevin Can Wait, playing off of the familiar TV setup of an annoying man-child married to an impossibly patient and beautiful wife. In that particular example, the Kevin James sitcom came under fire for killing off its wife character (played by Erin Hayes), only briefly mentioning it at the start of Season 2 via a piece of junk mail, and then forgetting all about her. The quiet rage kindled by this kind of disrespect is palpable in Kevin Can F—k Himself, where each sitcom moment is more grating than the last.
The show is almost too good at hitting exactly the right patter of bad network comedies, using its Worcester, Massachusetts setting as an excuse for some terribly on-point regional humor (including the worship of Tom Brady and the Patriots in general). Kevin’s friendship with sweet-but-dumb neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer) and father Pete (Brian Howe) trades on “classically” sexist and xenophobic humor, meant to dehumanize anyone who isn’t them into an “other.” For example, when Kevin throws his “Anniversa-rager” (a backyard beer fest full of sophomoric antics that is a stand-in for his wedding anniversary), he does so while also making fun of Allison for wanting to sit down to “a boring dinner together,” which is in turn belittled by Neil and Pete. Later, when Kevin believes the neighbors have stolen his prized Bill Belichik hoodie, the men all blame the “foreigners” across the street, which is met by raucous studio laughter.
Meanwhile, Neil’s sharp, sardonic sister Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) tries to play things off as one of the guys. She doesn’t necessarily agree with the men, but she mocks Allison in her own ways (calling her “Barbie,” laughing at her attempts to wear lipstick or dress up for an event) as a means of self preservation. It only increases the house’s exceptionally toxic atmosphere, and Patty slowly comes to understand why—after she drops a bombshell about Kevin’s mismanaging of the couple’s finances that causes Allison to completely snap and make a decision to kill her husband (and get away with it).
In some ways, Kevin Can F—k Himself could be a new season of Why Women Kill. It’s not clear at first why Allison might want to take such drastic measures—why did they get married in the first place? Has it been like this for 10 years? Why not get a divorce? But over the course of the first four episodes (out of eight) provided for review, it starts to come together. Kevin may project a childlike innocence that’s annoying, but really he’s extremely controlling. Anything Allison wants for herself, he takes away. He humiliates her and gets applause. He gives an “aw, shucks!” response to forgetting her multiple reminders about where she’s going, and then claims to care that she’s ok when he calls her without ceasing for hours—but it’s more that he didn’t know where the Crisco was and she wasn’t picking up the phone (“Don’t call me ‘mom’” is one of the show’s earliest jokes). He bans pets in the house, gets a dog for his own harebrained scheme, then abandons it somewhere as soon as Allison bonds with it. What the show does so fantastically is that, by playing into Kevin’s innocent schtick through its obnoxious sitcom storylines, it purposefully gaslights audiences by sticking us in a world that believes his abusive behavior is funny and acceptable, even as Allison—and everyone watching—knows it isn’t. By episode 4, I wanted to kill Kevin.
Allison is no master criminal, though, and her plans to off Kevin are filled with bad decisions, impulsive actions, and roadblocks. There are also significant consequences that begin to pile up, especially after she becomes closer with Patty. (Patty is the secret MVP of the series, whose whole look and attitude are—as noted by Paste’s own Amy Amatangelo—a dead-ringer for Rosie O’Donnell). There’s also an interesting if thin subplot about Allison reuniting with an old flame, Sam (Raymond Lee), who recently moved back to town with his wife, which serves mostly to bolster Allison’s realization that there was and is a better life out there for her.
There are moments when the show’s scripts feel a little thin, or the sitcom moments belabored (especially when Allison is not sharing a scene with Kevin—Kevin is a POS and I hated seeing more of him in any context. Petersen plays the part too well!) But it does, so far, perfectly convey the horror of Allison’s suffocating, bleak life without lifting her up as a saint. Murphy is best known for her outstanding portrayal of the flippant Alexis on Schitt’s Creek, and she channels a little of that naivety (and resourcefulness) into Allison. But what Allison lacks is confidence, in almost every scenario, because she’s used to never being heard or taken seriously. Had this played out strictly as a drama, it would likely been too dour, but the inspired use of a sitcom to juxtapose its darker beats both artificially lifts the mood and makes those moments of truth so raw in comparison.
Kevin Can F—k Himself is ambitious and experimental, and it’s far more than satire. It’s also the kind of show that doesn’t feel like it could run forever, or even possibly past this season. There’s a growing “Too Many Cooks” meta-chaos that is building in each episode, and eventually Allison will have to find a way out, whatever that looks like. Here’s hoping the show takes a cue from its leading lady and makes some bold moves on its road to freedom.
Kevin Can F—k Himself premieres Sunday, June 20th on AMC with back to back episodes. The show will also be available early on AMC+ starting June 13, and will continue to debut a week ahead of the AMC airings throughout the season.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.