The ambitious “Kevin Can F**k Himself” is rooted in a genre of sitcom built around a shlubby guy and his pretty wife. The husband is the sports-loving man-child with a beer belly, and the audience cackles tirelessly every time he makes a bad joke. She’s the long-suffering shrew, the buzzkill, and the butt of his jokes. He’s the big kid, she’s the babysitter who tolerates his high jinks, her arms crossed over her chest. The long list of these domestic comedies includes “Kevin Can Wait,” “According to Jim,” and, of course, as progenitors, “The Honeymooners” and its animated counterpart, “The Flintstones.”
“Kevin Can F**k Himself” is a no-holds-barred response to those series — and a dark reflection of the sexism so deeply embedded in them. After watching the challenging show, which premieres Sunday on AMC+ and next Sunday on AMC, you may never again be able to stomach those blindingly bright, laughter-plagued, drearily stereotypical sitcoms. With just a change in context on “Kevin,” the lowbrow mass entertainments that often rise to the top of the Nielsen ratings turn into abrasive, hateful American cultural artifacts whose cruelties are many — not just sexism, but xenophobia, narcissism, and psychological abuse. Somewhat like the brilliant Lisa Kudrow series “The Comeback,” “Kevin Can F**k Himself” — created by Valerie Armstrong — is a brutally subversive take.
The semi-experimental format requires a bit of getting used to, as it toggles back and forth between two radically different styles; but ultimately it works in a jagged, and therefore appropriate, way. When we meet Allison (Annie Murphy) and Kevin (Eric Petersen), they’re a “King of Queens”-esque TV couple — although Kevin is more accurately “The Mista of Woosta.” They exist in a multi-cam sitcom set in Worcester, where Kevin’s infantile best friend, Neil (Alex Bonifer), Kevin’s father, Pete (Brian Howe), and Neil’s one-of-the-boys sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), are always on hand to obsess over the Patriots and Bill Belichick (whose hoodie plays a role in one episode) when they’re not insulting Allison en masse. The local accents are made into easy comedy, as they are on so many sitcoms, with Kevin continually frustrated when his AI assistant doesn’t respond to the name “Alexer.”
But whenever Allison leaves the room, often to go to her job as cashier at a liquor store, we follow her into a much different single-camera universe, a more dramatic one where we clearly get to see her depression and her growing rage toward Kevin and his pals. Her Worcester is gloomy — naturally lit, quieter, and filled with downbeat people. On the bright multi-cam side of life, nothing really ever happens; repetition is part of the sitcom aesthetic, so that characters just keep making the same mistakes. On Allison’s bleaker side of life, her disgust is driving her to make a major and permanent change — not divorce, but worse — especially after she learns that Kevin has blown their savings. Her fury takes her into some dangerous company from the other side of the tracks, as she develops her ultimate plan. Kevin’s cynical friend Patty, who has never been a fan of Allison in the multi-cam show, begins to warm to her in the single-camera show, and “Kevin” finds a healing subplot in their growing bond as they collude.
The multi-cam scenes are excruciating — Petersen is remarkably effective at being a hyperactive joke-spewer who can do wacky physical comedy — and they may well be a deal-breaker for some viewers. The dialogue is idiotic and offensive, despite the audience glee trying to press us into laughing along. When Allison cuts her hand and bleeds, for instance, Kevin says, “It doesn’t mean you get to be moody. You already used that excuse once this month.” The jokes are only a tad heightened — if at all — from what we generally see on, say, CBS Thursdays, but, juxtaposed with Allison’s misery, they feel especially cold-hearted, like salt in her wounds. Once you understand the point of the multi-cam stuff in “Kevin,” you’re still left watching it, which can be trying. It helps, though, that Allison, who is easy to sympathize with, is also stuck with it.
Murphy, so endearing on “Schitt’s Creek” as Alexis, is critical to the success of the show. She makes you root for Allison as she begins to shake off a lifetime of passivity and humiliation. Inboden, too, is a big plus; she shows Patty’s slow-dawning understanding that she is complicit in the demoralization of Allison without lapsing into sentimentality or remorse. She begins to recognize her role in the toxic masculinity, and just how unfunny it truly is.
KEVIN CAN F**K HIMSELF
Starring: Annie Murphy, Eric Petersen, Brian Howe, Mary Hollis Inboden, Alex Bonifer, Raymond Lee
On: Premieres on AMC+ Sunday, premieres on AMC June 20