This show opens, like countless others you might’ve seen before, on a brightly lit living room set as a loud group of friends playfully argues amongst itself to uproarious laughter. Kevin (Eric Petersen) is the sloppy husband who loves sports and getting into trouble; his wife Allison (Annie Murphy) is a hot stick in the mud who shrugs off his harebrained schemes with a tight smile. His dumb best friend Neil (Alex Bonifer) eggs him on while his dad Pete (Brian Howe) gives him grief; wash, rinse, repeat.
The jokes aren’t necessarily funny so much as they are expected. The Allison character might typically have some sharper comebacks for her dolt of a spouse, but there’s otherwise an easy familiarity in the well-worn rhythms of their exhausting banter, the canned laugh reliably punctuating every other line whether it deserves the reaction or not. And as far as multi-cam sitcoms go, the cadence of “Kevin Can F**k Himself” — presumably named after Kevin James’ 2016 sitcom “Kevin Can Wait,” which unceremoniously killed off Erinn Hayes’ wife character to make way for a new one — is perfectly, uncomfortably spot on.
The second Allison leaves the room, however, the show makes a hard cut to a much grimmer reality. As she takes a deep breath and looks around the dingy kitchen her oblivious husband never helps her clean, the bright lights and laugh track of a sitcom studio are suddenly nowhere to be found. As the title indicates, Valerie Armstrong’s show isn’t laughing along with Kevin, or the countless slovenly sitcom husbands he represents, at all. Instead, “Kevin Can F**k Himself” follows the long-suffering wife offscreen into her actual life to find something more grounded, depressing and perversely compelling.
Swerving between such disparate styles and stories is a big risk. No matter how good the writing, the show might fall apart without a strong cast and directing team that understands exactly the tones they need to hit in any given scene. So it’s a credit to those tasked with bringing Armstrong’s vision to life that the first half of the season screened for critics nails it more often than not — especially once Allison starts finding ways, however small or significant, to push back against her restrictive narrative.
Fresh off her success as an ex-heiress with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” Murphy embraces a much different kind of challenge on this series with Allison, a woman who buried her own heart underneath her husband’s pile of needs and grievances so long ago she can barely remember why she gave it to him in the first place. Ten years into this dead-end marriage, Allison is desperate for anyone to give her a shred of understanding or consideration, whether from Kevin, her far more mature ex Sam (Raymond Lee), or her deadpan neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), the only woman Allison interacts with outside of her boring job at a local corner store (or “packie,” since the show takes place in Massachusetts). Murphy can’t completely tamp down her natural effervescence, but nonetheless sells Allison’s overwhelming misery as lurking just beneath the surface.
Two other performances keep “Kevin Can F**k Himself” afloat, though they couldn’t be more different from each other. One end of the spectrum there’s Petersen, who at least in the first four episodes rarely has to step foot outside the sitcom world in which Kevin lives. He therefore has to play Kevin as a straight-up slapstick buffoon, but also make clear just how much his obliviousness to Allison’s needs can curdle into cruelty. On the other end there’s Inboden, who joins Murphy in straddling the line between the sitcom fantasy and the real world and turns in the show’s sharpest performance overall as Patty, whose cynicism is rooted in pervasive hopelessness that anything could ever change.
Though the show is ostensibly about Allison reclaiming her life — or having a nervous breakdown, depending on how you look at it — it’s also about the audience’s complicity in finding men like Kevin funny. In the fourth episode, after going to extreme lengths to change her fortunes, Allison unleashes a furious run of grievances to Patty, listing all the ways in which her selfish husband ruined her life just to keep his the same. “Right when I felt like I was worth something, he ruined it,” Allison says, “and you just watched him and laughed.”
Patty, stunned, tries to say that Kevin’s antics “seemed harmless,” but it’s clear that even she doesn’t believe it when faced with Allison’s visceral pain. When someone is relegated to the role of spineless punching bag for years and years, it’s not wonder that they might crumple. What “Kevin Can F**k Himself” imagines, then, is a world in which that character finally decides she’s had enough.
The first half of the season shifts Allison’s mission for independence into a purposefully shocking direction; without seeing the second, it’s hard to say exactly how successful it might be. But if nothing else, it should be interesting to see exactly how far she’ll go to keep Kevin’s carelessness from ruining her life again, even (especially?) if it blows up in everyone’s faces.
“Kevin Can F**k Himself” premieres Sunday, June 13 on AMC+ and Sunday, June 20 at 9 p.m. on AMC.