UPDATED: Any enjoyment viewers find in “Kevin Can Wait” is going to be contingent on their affinity for its lead and executive producer, Kevin James. The new CBS sitcom does have some non-James appeals — Erinn Hayes, who stars opposite James as his wife, is delightful — but the show is stamped with its star’s trademarks, from the stylings of his punchlines to the aesthetics of the living room couch.
Love it or hate it, James’ brand is recognizable, reliable, and — clearly — bankable. He’s been playing the schlub with a heart of (mostly) gold since 1996, when he first started appearing on “Everybody Loves Raymond”; in 1998, he got his own show, “The King of Queens” — which, like its parent show, ran for nine seasons. That role catapulted him to mainstream recognition. Doug Heffernan was blue-collar, slightly selfish, and prone to overeating; a family man set in his ways who could usually be cajoled around to compromise by the end of a half-hour episode. His style of humor was as much about physical comedy and self-mockery as it is about mildly taking the piss out of his family. And most importantly, Doug embodied the last remnants of a fading version of masculinity, where it went without saying that husbands and wives had certain distinct roles.
Indeed, James’ sweet spot as a comic personality is playing a slightly updated Ralph Kramden: “The King Of Queens” was an homage to the ’50s sitcom “The Honeymooners,” with its traditional gender roles and working-class storylines. So it’s fitting that after spending the last few years starring in features, James returns to this type, the sitcom format, and CBS, with “Kevin Can Wait.”
This time out, he’s playing a retired cop about to embark on golden years of go-carting, paintballing, and drinking beer with his buddies. But in the pilot, his daughter Kendra (Taylor Spreitler) declares she’s dropping out of school and getting married to her unemployed hipster boyfriend, Chale (Ryan Cartwright), a wannabe app developer. As the series goes forward, the idea is for Kevin to discover that retirement doesn’t mean he can merely be selfish for his remaining years; now that he’s not working all the time, he has to catch up on his family.
Based on the pilot, “Kevin Can Wait” is a serviceably funny show that works best if the audience already accepts Kevin’s worldview. It’s not trying to do or be a lot; in an era where television programming frequently attempts to push boundaries, “Kevin Can Wait” is squarely conventional, comfortably mediocre. With kids in the mix and a future son-in-law on the scene, “Kevin Can Wait” is like “The Honeymooners” collided with a few subplots of “Father of the Bride.” The primary conflict of the pilot is that Chale isn’t a man like Kevin, because his future son-in-law speaks in a British accent, wears skinny jeans, and is — in the words of his daughter — “sensitive.” Underneath Kevin’s wisecracking is flustered panic at the continued evolution of young people and their newfangled technology, and it’s assumed the audience will see it from his point of view; it’s presented as given that Chale would offend our sensibilities.
And perhaps he does. There are undoubtedly some audiences that will thrill to this sensibility of what feels right or wrong in the world, even as others find it frustrating. Intriguingly, though, “Kevin Can Wait” packages self-critique in with its self-righteousness — a frisson of fear underpinning the pilot’s punchlines. Because in Chale, Kevin is meeting not just another version of masculinity, but a representative from the generation poised to replace him; a man who aims to provide for his daughter as Kevin has provided for her. Doug in “The King of Queens” was the titular ruler of his domain; Kevin, in all his waiting, is staring down his own inevitable obsolescence.
Correction, Sept. 9, 11:06 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that “The King of Queens” was a spinoff of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” That is not the case. Although Kevin James did guest star in “Everybody Loves Raymond” — and Ray Romano frequently played his “Everybody Loves Raymond” character in guest spots on “The King of Queens” — “The King of Queens” was an original pilot picked up by CBS.