Domestic sitcom and gritty drama make for a strange marriage of convenience in Kevin Can F**k Himself, the AMC series starring Annie Murphy of that's beguiled and baffled viewers this summer. The final episode of season 1 is streaming now on AMC Plus (airing Aug. 1 on AMC) but this inventive split-com stumbles at the last.
The show is a bold and bizarre two-fer. Some scenes are shot in the familiar manner of '90s sitcoms: Punishingly well-lit, multicamera, a doofy husband making doofy jokes at his unrealistically hot wife's expense -- and being rewarded with a riotous laugh track. But then it transitions into something else entirely as other scenes are shot more like a Breaking Bad-style modern drama, with a gray-brown palette that connotes realism, a soundscape building suspense without ever releasing tension and even a made-for-prestige-television drug subplot.
The show's juxtaposed genres invite us to question what humor is -- why we laugh and at whom. The traditional sitcom sections may reverberate with that now-unfashionable laugh track, but the drama segments get the last laugh when Kevin's immature, selfish, misogynistic behavior is laid bare without the narcotizing canned laughter.
SPOILERS AHEAD: I'm going to discuss the show and its finale in detail, so please hold off on reading if you don't want to be spoiled.
Murphy plays Allison, the hot wife to Eric Peterson's titular man-child Kevin, who's so unlikable he barely works as a character. This stock sitcom husband is the embodiment of the "my wife wears the pants" meme. "What Allison wants, Allison gets," Kevin says in the pilot. He can claim to concede this territory because it's not true, and he gets to look self-effacing while holding all the power in the relationship. The rest of the show boils down to a sequence of Allison's wants going unfulfilled while Kevin's agenda prevails almost by happenstance.
While Peterson's performance is too accurate to call satire, Murphy's subversion of the sitcom wife trope takes the show beyond send-up or parody, often indicting the audience for chuckling along with its canned laughter. We find out about several of Kevin's past antics throughout the season, including getting Allison fired from the first job she really loved. "You just watched him and laughed," Allison says to her neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden). "Can you just think about that for more than one second? He didn't like something that was my own, and so he took it away from me." Patty's response: "It seemed... harmless."
The show hits familiar sitcom hijinks, including an escalating feud with the neighbors and a get-rich-quick scheme involving an escape room. It all seems harmless under the bright studio lights of the show's comedy segments. It's hard to see Kevin as anything worse than annoying and oafish, at least until the lights dim.
But the dissonance of the show's two modes propels you through the eight episodes of the season. I couldn't settle on a good theory for how the premise would resolve. Would its formal manipulations ultimately be revealed as magical realism like Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, or the psychological defense mechanism of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Would the cracks start to show, like in? Would Allison eventually walk off set à la The Truman Show? Or would she succumb fully to the sitcom life, perhaps using her superior wits and familiarity with the genre to eventually subvert it? Is the laugh track a metaphor, or what?
Parsing which characters live in which genre and when turns out to be a fruitless effort. Kevin doesn't know anything about Allison's drab world of prestige drama, but Allison is fluent in both genres. Several other characters appear in both, most commonly Patty, who begins the series as "one of the guys" in Kevin's world before growing closer to Allison and colluding on a deadly crime. But Allison's old flame and current side piece Sam also code-switches, as does Detective Tammy, who is investigating a slew of drug crimes while awakening Patty's sexuality.
Kevin, his wise-cracking father Pete and his buffoonish neighbor Neil, on the other hand, seem to live full-time in the world of set-ups and punch lines. Is it only women and people of color who must straddle the line and recalibrate the performance of their very existence to survive? (How does one "be" a woman? Patty and Allison choose two different approaches.) Is it a villains vs. victims thing? Does the show even have a taxonomy of characters by genre?
The show's sitcom conceit reminds me of the "careful what you wish for" critique of utopia depicted in films like Pleasantville. So maybe the laugh track is not a metaphor but a pair of rose-colored glasses; perhaps the studio lighting is the Claritin clear sheen that comes with white maleness. Maybe this is just how the other half lives: In their own private multicam comedies.
"You say that like it's destiny," Sam suggests when Allison frets about how Kevin always wins. "It is," Allison replies. "This whole world is designed for guys like Kevin. And Pete and Neil... This whole game is rigged. Fixed."
Fixed -- that's the title of season 1's final episode.
The title is only the first of many fake-outs the finale offers to viewers like me searching for a big a-ha moment. At first it seems like Kevin's trauma following episode 7's shooting will change him into a sensitive, empathetic man, obviating the need for Allison's murder scheme and reconciling the comedy/drama sequences into some sort of dour awards show-bait dramedy series.
But that doesn't happen. Then it seems Allison might run away with Sam instead of killing Kevin -- which would answer the question of "Why doesn't she just leave him?" with "Good idea." That doesn't happen either. Later, the gender solidarity angle simmering between Allison and Patty is called into question when Patty accuses Allison of manipulating her and jeopardizing her romance with Detective Tammy -- Allison begins to look like more of an anti-hero, like maybe hers is the spurious point of view. But that doesn't quite pan out either.
In the season's final scene, after Allison and Patty argue and decide to return to their flimsy sitcom dynamic instead of being real friends ("I'll get you a beer, you'll say 'Oh, it's not cold enough,'" Allison quips), Allison storms into the kitchen. The lighting changes, and suddenly she's in her own private comedy. This is it, I thought, this is Allison giving in to the Kevin show. The rules of the universe have changed, and now Allison lives in comedy world even when she's by herself.
But then! Idiot neighbor Neil tumbles from the pantry, waking the laugh track. He's heard everything Patty and Allison were talking about, all of their crimes and schemes. And he's going to tell Kevin.
In the last moments of the season one finale, Patty returns to the kitchen, rescuing Allison from Neil's chokehold by bashing a bottle against his head. Comedy turns to drama as he falls, bleeding. "You're not gonna tell Kevin anything," Patty says, and the two women hold bloody hands. Gender solidarity is back, just in time to roll credits.
Even when I watched the pilot episode back in June, I was thinking ahead to the finale. How could a show like this conclude narratively, emotionally or even logically? Where were the creators going with this? The show's dual modes of storytelling circled each other all season without ever finding a harmony, like an unstable, dissonant chord progression.
Heading into the finale after episode seven's "who shot J.R." cliffhanger, the season concludes with a deceptive cadence. Kevin Can F**k Himself, a show with such a high-concept premise it borders on gimmicky, seems perfect for limited-run treatment (like WandaVision, for example). But the finale, rather than offering answers to its exploration of gender, patriarchy and entrenched cultural narratives, busies itself setting up a second season. In a show that thrives on subverting expectations, that might have been the most predictable -- and disappointing -- outcome.