Kevin can F**k Himself is probably going to terminally fuck up the way you view traditional sitcoms. Is that a bad thing? I mean, I don’t think so, but if sitcoms are part of your comfort watch canon, then it could be uncomfortable. This series asks the long overdue question of what goes on in the life of a sitcom wife when she’s not cheerfully setting up her husband’s jokes, being razzed for being a spoil-sport, carrying around half-filled laundry baskets, or serving up cold beers to her husband and his ever-present gang of friends. The answer, it turns out, is dark and funny and complicated and absolutely has the sitcom brand of toxic masculinity in its teeth. There are a lot of moving parts in the first season of Kevin Can F**k Himself, and more than once I thought it was all going to spin out of control, but if you stick with it you’ll see that all those parts have a purpose, which come together pretty gloriously.
The series opens with a classic sitcom set up. Kevin (Eric Petersen), who works as a cable guy, his father Pete (Brian Howe), and his best friend Neil (Alex Bonifer) are all in the living room practicing beer pong for Kevin and his wife Allison’s (Annie Murphy) tenth annual Wedding Anniversary Rager. Neil’s sister Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), the sarcastic, smart aleck of the group, watches them from the couch, occasionally interjecting a wisecrack about something like how she changed Neil’s diapers, even though he was three years older. Neil is not the brightest bulb in the marquee, but he is the most loyal dog in the pack. The furniture in the living room is mismatched and the house is probably run-down—this is working-class Worcester, MA—but it’s hard to tell under the bright lights of the sitcom set, which make everything look shinier and cover a multitude of flaws. The same is true of Kevin, whose elastic face, shortened body and oversized, brightly-colored shorts and t-shirts give him the look and feel of an overgrown, irrepressible child who’s just trying to make life as fun as possible.
Allison enters the scene just as Neil hits a ball awry, which bops her in the head. Everyone, including the studio audience, laughs at her expense, and then Neil apologizes by calling her “Mom”, which gets another laugh. When Allison shares that she’s been thinking about the Anniversary Rager the group groans in unison. (Another laugh.) She suggests they have a grown-up anniversary celebration, but Kevin quickly points out that she’s “lady 35 and he’s boy 35,” which means that he’s in his prime while she’s, he says with a knowing look, before pausing for a beat too long. Anyway, Kevin insists, Allison always has the best time planning these parties, and she wouldn’t want to miss out on all that fun, right? And by the way, could she get them more beer?
I’ve decided there’s no way for me to recount this without it sounding malicious and mean, but you should know that at the moment this just plays out like any other sitcom. And the thing is, like most sitcom men, Kevin isn’t entirely unappealing. He’s boisterous and blustering and just charismatic enough that you can understand his magnetism. Really, he has to be somewhat likable in order for what comes next to work.
Alone, Allison walks through the swinging door into the kitchen, and everything shifts. The light is dim. The house looks dingy. Dark circles show under her eyes and her hair has lost its sheen. Her breathing is ragged and she looks confused and frustrated. There’s a high-pitched ringing sound inside her head. (Those of us with actual tinnitus could do without this effect. Thanks for asking. And credit to a fellow head ringer for pointing this out.) She sets down the mug with so much force that it shatters on the counter, slicing the palm of her hand. “I’m fine,” she calls out, but no one in the other room has noticed anyway.
It’s a breathtaking switch the first time you see it. Or it was for me. The way the façade of happiness and energy fell away. It was as if all the false bravado and forced fun had been sucked out and we’re left with flat reality. But, I think for this show to work, you first have to accept that the sitcom and the noncom—as I call it—are two perspectives of reality. (And, yes, I know the noncom is really a single-camera drama, but I prefer my term.) From Kevin’s sitcom perspective, bad shit always happens off-screen, there are no consequences for his actions (ever), everyone is there to serve his whims, and nothing ever changes. For the record, Kevin never appears in the noncom. He doesn’t have to ever go there mentally. In the noncom, away from the numbing glare of Kevin’s all-encompassing ego, Allison wrestles with her pent-up anger, struggles with Kevin’s destructive and manipulative comments and actions, faces her shame about the ragged edges of her house and life, and mourns the loss of herself in the morass of Kevin’s assholery. At first, the switch to the noncom is exciting, but it also feels almost too dark and too gritty after the sunny warmth of the sitcom. Even though I preferred Allison to Kevin from the start, I felt myself craving that sitcom jolt of energy. Yet, as the series progresses, the scenes set in the sitcom begin to feel more oppressive and overbearing. Those lights are always so bright, the voices so forced, the conversations so stilted.
When we first meet her, Allison mollifies herself with dreams of using their modest life savings to buy a newer house—one with granite countertops and without the giant roaches that she stomps to death with all her repressed rage—where she and Kevin can finally have the life that people have always said will make her feel complete. It’s not that she craves material goods so much as the respect, inner calm, and security that she thinks will come with them.
But Kevin— who spends more than their wedding, but less than their car on just one piece of sports memorabilia—hasn’t exactly been growing their nest egg. And why would he? To him, life is just fine the way it is. Patty, who is usually staunchly on the side of shrugging her way through life, stuffing down her emotions, and laughing at Kevin’s jokes, is the one who eventually tells Allison the truth: That he has spent every last dime of their money. And this is Allison’s breaking point. Or, really, her turning point. She stops dreaming of an immaculate house where she can pour a frosty beer for a smiling, besuited, grown-up Kevin, and starts to dream instead of killing him.
This is no metaphor, friends, Allison really wants to kill Kevin dead. Is it a shocking choice or a testament to how utterly trapped she feels by her life and by life with this man? The eventual spilling of details about Kevin and the deeds he’s committed against Allison and others couched as jokes or pranks or the products of “feuds” are utterly ghastly when stripped of audience laughter and studio lights. And it’s really true of any flavor of toxic masculinity when you take away the cushion of societal niceties like “boys will be boys.” At one point Allison explains that he doesn’t “have to share anything. He doesn’t have to share me. He gets me all to himself, ’cause I never went back to school, and he says that’s ’cause I never finish things. But do I never finish things, or does he take them from me?”
Really, though, the deeper we go into this show, it’s not so much about Kevin, which would, of course, drive him to distraction. But, as the title says, Kevin can fuck himself. This is a series about Allison and Patty finally seeing each other and moving toward saving each other. In the beginning, Patty wants to simply exist in the sitcom life. She tells Allison that “I wake up, I go to the salon, I come home, I watch a game with the guys. In between, there are a few Dunkie’s coffees and a pack of menthols.” She looks down on Allison, calling her “Barbie,” deriding her for never swearing and always apologizing, and at one point snorting and saying, “Of course you’re one of those girls who’s always cold.” She fervently wants to accept that her life will never change. That in ten or twenty years she’ll still be drinking beers in Kevin’s living room, poking fun at her brother, and feeling nothing inside. But things in Patty’s life suddenly get very messy. And then Allison starts chipping away at her well-built walls. Maybe just maybe what looked like two women at opposite ends of the spectrum is really two women using vastly different coping mechanisms to deal with the same bullshit.
Honestly, there’s a lot I love about this series, which makes it difficult to talk about without writing a 10,000 word treatise. The show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong also worked as a writer on Lodge 49, and I feel like there’s some overlap in the way that there are so many seemingly disparate threads that eventually all weave together. An ex-boyfriend of Allison’s from high school reappears on the scene with a diner named Bev’s. There’s Allison’s job at the liquor store (which are called package stores in Massachusetts) with her aunt, who insists, without strong evidence, they got two of the “good ones” for husbands. There’s a drug investigation that will hound Allison and Patty, but they also believe it could possibly be their salvation. There’s a very dark running joke about Allison and an upscale makeup store, which encapsulates so much about class, small towns, beauty marketing, and self-image. There’s Allison’s pent up rage expressed through her accidental punching of men in the face and her initial reflexive and exaggerated apologizing for it. But, more than anything else, it is Allison and Patty grousing, talking, learning, and arguing together that I can’t get enough of. Watching those two women slowly open up to each other, slowly become friends with each other, and slowly realize that each of them has always been enough as they are is dizzyingly gratifying to watch.