AMC has been struggling for a nonzombie hit for nearly a decade, and its latest swing for the fences, “Kevin Can F— Himself,” is a combination of a little bit of everything from its dramas that were hits before that era. It’s got a decent dose of “Mad Men” in dismantling the middle-class American dream along with a surprising amount of desperate drug dealing in small-town suburbia à la “Breaking Bad.”
But what everyone will end up talking about is the show’s alternating use of the visual identifiers of sitcom and dramatic television. “KCFH” utilizes the sitcom trope of the brightly lit, multi-cam, laugh-track-laden set in one moment and the cinéma vérité style of prestige dramas the next to highlight the differing perspectives of the characters and the horrors of an emotionally abusive marriage.
The setup of the sitcom parts of the show are instantaneously familiar: Each episode of “KCFH” opens with the static image of a cheerfully painted two-story single-family house on a corner lot before cutting to an interior shot. There, Kevin (Eric Petersen) is holding court and performing any number of ridiculous, immature antics assisted or applauded by his cranky father, Pete (Brian Howe); his best friend, Neil (Alex Bonifer); and Neil’s older sister, the tomboy-attired Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden).
Whatever the group is doing is then interrupted by Allison (Annie Murphy), the classically attractive wife, who pauses their fun with her desire for a little more stereotypical domesticity. Her push for Kevin to put away childish things (and maybe act a little more grown up) is quickly kiboshed by Kevin and his little Greek chorus as the audience whoops its approval.
What the show actually deconstructs is the assumption that women like Allison actively choose these lives.
But then Allison walks out the door of the room, and the shot changes: The set goes silent; the lighting becomes more realistically shadowed, showing that the colors of the house are darker than you thought; the wood is shabby; the carpets, threadbare; the furniture old and mismatched. The house, in fact, is dirty, with Allison left alone to clean up after Kevin and his entourage, as they obliviously move from space to space. And, of course, unlike in a sitcom, there is only one camera in these parts of the show — and, unlike the several that eventually always turn to Kevin, it is focused narrowly on Allison, who is desperately and deeply unhappy, living out her days as the helpmate to a vacuous narcissist who constantly promises that “Whatever Allison wants, Allison gets,” while his actions prove the opposite will always be true.
When “KCFH” was initially announced back in 2018, multiple outlets immediately connected it to the then-recently canceled sitcom “Kevin Can Wait,” starring Kevin James. Like James’ previous show, “The King of Queens,” “Kevin Can Wait” was an embodiment of a mid-aughts trend of sitcoms in which a schlubby husband had a too-hot wife, an overblessed life and a plethora of attention for his many hilarious musings. Many assumed AMC’s new series would be a straight comedic sendup of the genre, an impression that only deepened when the series announced it was casting Murphy, best known for her loudly comedic turn in “Schitt’s Creek.”
However, the show — which finally debuts on streaming service AMC+ on Sunday, followed by a two-hour, double-episode premiere one week later on AMC’s linear channel — is far darker than people assumed. What the show actually deconstructs is the assumption that women like Allison actively choose these lives.
Allison has big dreams: She wants to travel and see Paris; she wants to get a great job and get out of this town. Hell, at the point at which we meet her, she’d just settle for a nicer house. But the reality of the Rust Belt town in which she lives is dreary: The apartments are universally dilapidated, the main street is dingy, the jobs are mundane and dull. One can easily see why 10 years prior, Allison — who still doesn’t even have the confidence to drive fast — decided to crawl into the safety of a marriage and a fantasy sitcom life and is only slowly waking up to the fact that it’s sucking away her life, one hour at a time.
Kevin isn’t just an overgrown man-child: He’s a domestic abuser who spent 10 years first grooming and then isolating Allison.
“KCFH” is the third series in the last year to use sitcom tropes as an allegory for a life you can’t escape: “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” used it to represent the eldritch terror known as “The Endless,” and in “WandaVision,” the titular Wanda created her own sitcom settings to try to create a happy ending for herself, trapping everyone else within.
Here, though, the sitcom tropes are also masking an abusive relationship. Kevin isn’t just an overgrown man-child: He’s a domestic abuser who spent 10 years first grooming and then isolating Allison to the point that she has no friends outside of the ones in his Greek chorus. He’s already taken all her money, and he’s deliberately wrecked any chance she had at independence. He even gets rid of her dog.
Allison’s growing desire to kill her husband — which is highlighted in trailers — initially sounds like a wild overreaction to a boorish husband she ought to just leave that leads to darkly comedic antics. (And to the show’s credit — at least in the first few episodes — it mostly does.) But it’s also a veiled acknowledgement that a partner like Kevin cannot just easily be divorced because he doesn’t want her to go, and may not let her.
It’s hard to know if “KCFH” will be AMC’s first nonzombie show to hit big since “Breaking Bad” ended. Allison isn’t exactly the easiest character to like, and alternating between two visually disparate styles is a major risk (just ask the people behind 1994’s “Natural Born Killers”). And, as the show goes on, the ironic “sitcom” sequences do get harder to sit through.
But it’s also doing groundbreaking work in telling stories about the reality of some women’s lives that otherwise rarely get more than an after-school special or a movie-of-the-week treatment on Lifetime — and doing it in a creative way that speaks to this moment. With any luck, “KCFM” will become the rallying cry of the summer TV season — or maybe what writer Lyz Lenz dubbed the “Hot Divorcée Summer.”