You don’t have to watch a minute of Kevin James’ new Netflix series, “The Crew,” to know exactly what the show is like. From showrunner Jeff Lowell (“The Ranch”), the workplace comedy stars James as Kevin, the bumbling crew chief of a middling Nascar racing team, whose job becomes a lot more complicated after the team’s owner retires and puts his millennial daughter Catherine (Jillian Mueller) in charge.
Like most of James’ characters, Kevin is a self-deprecating man-child who loves old-school values, cheap beer, and protecting the status quo, which makes having to listen to his progressive new boss a challenge. A Stanford grad who found success in Silicon Valley, Catherine has little in common with her new employees, but brings to the table several strategic, forward-thinking ideas for how the team could break out of their rut and become real contenders in racing. However, none of the crew have any interest in listening to Catherine, and the majority of the season is spent with Kevin leading the charge to undermine Catherine at every turn, with Kevin preferring to enable mediocrity rather than strive for the highest levels of success (a sentiment that could also speak to James’ seeming approach to his career).
A consistent through line in James’ television work is the consideration of a man struggling to understand that the world he grew up in, including his perception of masculinity and gender roles, is becoming obsolete. But while the world has evolved in the 14 years since “The King of Queens” went off the air, it seems James’ perspective on these issues has not. In addition to Catherine, “The Crew” introduces a young up-and-coming female racer, Jessie (Paris Berelec), as a rival for the team’s current driver Jake (Freddie Stroma). While Jake is a scatter-brained dope whose compulsion to hit on every woman in sight (including his new boss) is presented as a laughable quirk and not harassment, Jessie is focused, responsible, and up to any task put in front of her. Yet after one of Jessie’s races, Kevin dismisses the fans lined up to meet her as nothing more than “old guys wanting to hit on her,” which is only one of many ways women’s successes are consistently diminished and mocked in the show.
The overarching theme of “The Crew” is men bristling against how unfair it is to be forced to listen to or share space with young women. And by the time Kevin begins to reckon with his own biases, it’s nothing more than a hollow gesture that somehow still frames him as the show’s moral hero. While watching “The Crew,” it’s hard not to imagine how much more interesting the comedy could have been had it been told from Catherine’s perspective and explored the experiences of a woman navigating this old-school boys’ club and discovering her untapped passion for the sport. Maybe then the show could have helped Nascar expand its fanbase and appeal to a younger generation. Instead, the show assumes viewers will firmly identify with Kevin, whose fight against obviously needed improvements makes him a difficult character to root for despite James’ innate charisma and comedic timing.
If there is one bright spot in “The Crew,” it’s Sarah Stiles, who plays the team’s office manager Beth and the clear will-they-won’t-they love interest for Kevin. As Beth, Stiles is bubbling with energy and charm, and watching her make the most of “The Crew’s” lackluster scripts leaves one excited to see what she might do if given better material. Rounding out the cast are Gary Anthony Williams and Dan Ahdoot, who get in a few good one-liners as crew members Chuck and Amir, respectively, but whose characters remain largely underdeveloped and reside firmly on the show’s periphery.
One thing that does get the star treatment in “The Crew” is product placement. While there are times the promos make sense contextually, such as when Jake shouts out all his sponsors in an interview, others are so egregious they would be laughable if you weren’t shuddering over how much money was presumably being made by the deals. The series premiere even features a Dunkin’ Donuts placement so heavy-handed it makes Ben Affleck’s love for the brand look low-key.
Not that long ago, “The Crew” would have felt like a conventional sitcom. But now, it feels like a relic from an era we are lucky to have left behind. Though the half-hour comedy has evolved far beyond the blueprint “The Crew” is following, there will always be a market for traditional multi-camera sitcoms that prefer broad humor above biting commentary or grounded pathos. But there is no reason that these series need to sacrifice quality or lean on lazy, misogynistic jokes to find success.
“The Crew” premiered Feb. 15 on Netflix.