Updated: Sep 17, 2021
I'm five episodes into Kevin Can F Himself, the show about a housewife, Allison (Annie Murphy) who begins to grow increasingly upset about her life with her husband Kevin, (Eric Peterson) who doesn't appreciate her in a number ways and is completely oblivious to it. After coming up with a plan to move out of their Worcester neighborhood as a path toward upward mobility; in Allison's mind, "A fresh staart", Allison learns from her neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), Kevin's friend and female bro, that Kevin has spent all of their life's savings and there's no way they can afford to move. Pushed to a breaking point, and exhausted with her life, Allison decides that her way out is to kill Kevin. What got me interested in the show was a combination of my love of Murphy's acting in Schitt's Creek as Alexis Rose, what looked like an interesting deconstruction of and a dismantling of the multi camera sitcoms and how they are a part of the way media and art perpetuate middle class values, particularly, patriarchy, sexism, and gender roles, and because of the potential look at the inner personal life of what seemed like a multi dimensional female character. In the show, the story is shot and made to look like a sitcom (think King of Queens or Everybody Loves Raymond) but once after Allison leaves the room, and, after being belittled, and turned into the tightly wound, "mom" to the care free and likable Kevin by his making fun of her and allowing his friends to do the same, the show goes to a single camera drama and for the first time we see what happens beyond the wife's disappearance; and for the first time we see what she's dealing with. She's miserable.
As the show progresses and after Allison learns of Kevin losing their savings and not having told her, the show follows Allison as she suffers a breakdown, and decides to kill Kevin, and begins to see what her life has become and how Kevin has made it like living in a prison. All the while, whenever Allison does things alone, like see her old flame, Sam (Raymond Lee) at a diner he just opened, or buy make-up, or work the register at a liquor store, the show goes into single camera drama, and when she returns home and to Kevin, the show goes back to multi camera sitcom, back to the place where everything is supposed to be perfect. Watching Allison go in and out of these worlds, and see her start to realize the problems of her relationship at times feels like living with a person as they learn about the patriarchy. The sitcom aspect and its conventions, for example, how everything Kevin does works out and everything he says is funny, and ends up always trumping any objections Allison has to his behavior, shows how hard it is to dismantle a system and its ways. Like the patriarchy, and like this particular sitcom genre, Kevin is built to know exactly what he needs, and knows how to get it better than the person trapped by him. In this way, show creator Valerie Armstrong does good, but not effective work at showing what this system is, how it operates, and how hard it is for women to get out of a life like this. I say not effective for a few reasons. I expected Kevin to do more critique. Seeing the trailer before the show came out, and reading that Armstrong was inspired to write the show because she one day got so tired of the men in sitcoms, particularly King of Queens and Kevin Can Wait (both starring Kevin James and featuring Leah Remini) made me think that a wide ranging and deeper critique of that sitcom world and what women in these kinds of marriages or romantic relationships go through would happen. But within five episodes, outside of using the sitcom to show this existence of the patriarchy, and using Allison and Kevin's house as a physical and symbolic representation of spaces where the family unit and American middle class values that by nature of them both being western institutions, marginalize women, the show has barely scratched the surface of dealing with what women go through.
While the concept of going between TV show styles has been interesting, sad, and arresting in times when Allison is getting fed up with Kevin's treatment of her, Armstrong relies too heavily on the viewer's knowledge and experience with multi cam sitcoms to make her point. Not everyone who watches the classic sitcoms sees the problems within the relationship dynamics or other things, like catch all phrasing, language, the show's running time, lack of racial representation that continue capitalist and consumerist ways of being and interacting. Also, not everyone sees the treatment of the women, wives, and mothers in these shows as a problem. Because of this, Armstrong's reliance on our assumed understandings of sitcom conventions among other traditional elements of sitcoms, reduces Armstrong's presented critique to a reactionary one, and makes her and her character come off as just angry women with a plan that anyone can shame, knowing though, they'd might kill their jerk husband too. Armstrong's assumptions are present in the single camera parts of the show as well, when she has Allison, who is supposed to be a Worcester girl, surrounded by a community that through Armstrong's presentation, is small, unintelligent, and stuck in its ways, and where no woman Allison encounters would go against the men they're with.
In the show, Allison has been working at the local liquor store with her Aunt D (Jamie Denbo) for the last 10 years, yet most of the conversations we see them have are about the things her aunt puts up with, or does to appease her own Kevin-esc husband and jerk male customers, or the wisdom she gives to Allison, which is to just do what makes men happy. While there are people like this who may work in a liquor store, and have outdated clothes and hair like her Aunt D, there are also women who have the same mentality working in high paying jobs, wearing designer clothes. Many people think this way not just low income and/or small town people. The Aunt D character is so thinly and conveniently drawn that she seems more caricature than person, which feels offensive to people of Worcester. Armstrong purposely sets the story in Worcester to push how hard it is for Allison to have support and understanding without really showing why it's harder. When I watch it I don't even dislike these people-- I feel sorry for them and for the people who they're supposed to represent for the fact that they're people too.
Allison is a person too, and this is something else that Armstrong doesn't give the viewer enough of. Throughout the show we learn in scenes with Patty or Sam that Allison has made mistakes in her past which have contributed to her being in her situation with Kevin. She never finished school, she never followed through on her plans to go back, or try different trades, and she's bad with money. We even at times see her recollecting on a fantasy she had of being the perfect housewife. Indeed, these are things that keep women in these relationships, but there is so much more as to why women feel it is so hard to leave relationships like the one Allison is in. The why matters when you're trying, it seems, to educate viewers on what women deal with.
I personally have known women in these relationships and I've come to understand more about the struggle for freedom and a healthy life for these women. While men and ideas that men feel they must live by and uphold are a problem, what women are going through and have gone through make it harder for women to get out. There's past relationships, past experiences, possibly past trauma, things women have been taught throughout their lives in terms of how to do deal with men, actually being in love, not having gotten over past hurt, people's opinions of the woman if she leaves, and other things play a big part in why women stay. The show has yet to tell us if Allison has experienced these or other things that would show us why it isn't as simple as, "just leave him". There are no flashbacks of her earlier experiences, there are no parents that she talks to or doesn't talk to, there is no showing her talking about being in love with Kevin. The fact that we don't know who Allison is as a person makes it more challenging to want to go with her on her journey. The most obvious example of this is when we get moments of Allison getting so upset with Kevin, that we hear the ringing that she hears, we see her break things and even fantasize that she stabs Kevin, she makes a plan to kill Kevin, and she gets to the point where she looks like she might lose it. But then that type of reaction doesn't happen from just this one relationship. It's a reaction and a level of anger that seems to have been there before Kevin. Allison is a person not just the wife of Kevin--she goes through things with other people, not just with him. It's yet to be shown how and why she reacts this way. Rather, Armstrong instead would like the audience to just accept that Kevin is doing this to her. Allison getting that angry, is to relay to the audience that this is what men do to women; it also says that these are things that women have to put up with. But the lack of depth, interiority, and the fact that there is no exploration of the cause of her idleness in this situation, does a disservice to the realities of women in abusive relationships, and makes Allison's struggle surface level. Murphy does an amazing job at giving us more about who Allison is with her performance. She brings nuance to Allison with idiosyncrasies that you instantly believe make up Allison even after seeing it one time, and has a comedic timing that makes Allison more human, which makes her come alive, and feel more multi dimensional and less of a desperate housewife. But there is still not enough about Allison for the audience to know and therefore fully get behind.
With this show, Armstrong has the opportunity to say, without much more work, so much more about what women really go through in life--and about the things that can ultimately free them from these relationships more so than just leaving the man, or playing payback.
Armstrong also has the opportunity to say more about what the people of color in her show go through too since she has put three characters of color in one or both worlds. Instead she makes one a part of the problem and so far denies another character of the knowledge of the existence of Kevin's tyrannical reign, further rendering him to a type and not a human, and reduces another, Det. Tammy (Candice Cook) to a type. Patty, like Allison, can experience both the sitcom and single camera world. It is assumed that because she is a woman, Patty lives in two worlds, yet Sam who is a man and an Asian American man, and the only Asian American in a town of all white people, doesn't experience the two worlds. It is like he is kept away to be a prize for Allison, but that renders him one dimensional and takes away the possibility that he may be uncomfortable or may not want to just be laid back. Kevin's boss Terry (Harlin C. Kearsley) who is a man and a Black man who goes to their home, is seen in multi cam sitcom style and single camera, and is the only person of color at an all white party--would he not feel uncomfortable? Maybe not. But in a scene when he reveals that he is a bro like Kevin, he makes a black cultural gesture to show he is cool which a black man alone at an all white party would not make unless he was trying to ease white people's fear of him. The extreme discomfort could and in this case does turn into performance--like Allison and Patty perform while in the house. Also, men perform as well for men, female romantic partners, and for other audiences so why is it that Sam and Terry don't experience two worlds, and shown dealing hard things like Allison and Patty, other than how they are in Allison's world? This is a problem when a show focuses solely on pain and getting even and not the reality--there's no seeing people as people, not even the main character is allowed to see herself as a human being.
For a show where its existence and mission is the critique of a patriarchal system and voicing the need for the liberation of a woman, to not fully understand the woman's struggle makes the critique and the liberation one that is not bound to have a long lasting effect. Armstrong appears to be too caught up in her own inventive ideas to take the time to show us who these human beings really are, and offer real ways for her characters to deal with their unfortunate situations or even have a life to even experience an unfortunate situation like in the case of Terry, Sam, and Det. Tammy. So while, Kevin Can F Himself is entertaining, and groundbreaking for subverting elements of the sitcom genre, it does not do nearly enough to transform the laughter and the pain into understanding and progress.