For the first few minutes, Kevin Can F**k Himself (Amazon Prime) is a ghastly new sitcom set in a living room in Worcester, Massachusetts. All the characters are stocks. Kevin McRoberts (Eric Petersen) is a wise-cracking but witless man-baby dressed in shorts and a baseball cap. It’s impossible to understand how he has ended up with his decent, gorgeous, hardworking wife, Allison (Annie Murphy). As the scene opens, Kevin is playing beer pong with his neighbour, the idiotic long-haired Neil (Alex Bonifer), while Neil’s sister Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) looks on and makes withering comments. Kevin and Allison are planning their anniversary. Allison wants it to be a “grown-up” occasion, maybe a dinner together, while Kevin craves his usual rager. The gags are lame, the canned laughter is grating, the whole thing borderline unwatchable.
Allison exits with a basket of laundry. The camera switches to a single shot of her face, alone next door. The lights dim. She takes the empty beer glass she’s carrying and in her pent-up fury she smashes it on the washing machine. The laughter stops. All of a sudden we are in a completely different programme, a dark drama that shows the unseen side of these sitcoms about terrible men and their long-suffering partners. Allison dreams of escaping her dead-end job at the liquor store and building a better life. But how can she, with a deadbeat like Kevin at home? Over the course of the episode, the action switches between these two universes: always-sunny sitcomland and forgotten suburban America. The result is a kind of noirish Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in which we see both the main play and the play behind the play. If that sounds ambitious, it’s welcome. As a format, sitcoms have been begging out for a bit of brain juice.
Murphy has said in interviews that she was on the verge of quitting acting when she was cast in Eugene & Dan Levy’s comedy Schitt’s Creek, which ran for six series before its conclusion last year. On such moments of fortune are enormous careers made. Her quitting would have been a loss. She was the brightest breakout star in an ensemble with several to choose from, imbuing her spoilt-brat daughter Alexis with pathos and sweetness as well as pinpoint comic timing. When Schitt’s Creek finished, Murphy must have had scripts piled up in huge drifts at her door. You can see why she took this on: she gets not one but two shows in which to show her range. The other actors are fine, but she necessarily has to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
In its haha-but-not-really tone and nihilistic gloom, the series Kevin Can F**k Himself most closely resembles is BoJack Horseman, the Netflix cartoon satire about a washed-up actor (who happens to be a horse). Where that takes direct aim at Hollywood, this show approaches it more obliquely, exposing the fraudulence of so many TV visions of domestic life. The execution doesn’t always match up to the ambition, but in its best moments Kevin Can F**k Himself walks a brilliantly uneasy line between comedy and drama. We’ll excuse almost anything for a laugh.