A year ago, the now-cancelled Kevin James sitcom Kevin Can Wait infamously wrote off Erinn Hayes, who played Kevin’s wife Donna, by killing her off screen and treating it as a joke. To be honest, I never watched that show — it sounded awful, to be honest — but it shows how the “sitcom wife” is rarely treated well. The sitcom wife is generally there to say “I don’t think your terrible idea is something you should do, even though it will set up the episode and lead to hilarious hijinks.” But now, Rashida Jones is producing Kevin Can Fuck Himself, a deconstruction of this trope.
Sitcom wives — and TV wives in general — have always gotten short shrift. Many Breaking Bad fans hated Walter White’s wife Skyler for being a “killjoy” — even though, in this case, the “joy” she’s killing is, you know, running a drug cartel. But even when the stakes aren’t nearly that high, TV wives (and especially on sitcoms) are positioned as the voice of reason. While ostensibly a feminist trope (“See! Women are way smarter than men! A woman wouldn’t try to set up a side-business reselling grease!”), it sidelines the character. She shows up at the beginning to say “This isn’t a good idea,” maybe in the middle of the story to say “Well, things are going well, but I’m still not sure…” and, finally, at the end to say, “I told you so, but I love you, even though you put you and your family in danger and will, inevitably, again next week.”
Kevin Can Fuck Himself (sadly a working title that will probably be changed, even though, seriously keep the title it’s amazing) promises a deconstruction of the trope. The show was announced last Friday to be in development for AMC, created by Valerie Armstrong and produced by Rashida Jones. According to TV Line, Kevin Can Fuck Himself “explores the secret life of a woman we all grew up watching: the sitcom wife. A beauty paired with a less attractive, dismissive, caveman-like husband who gets to be a jerk because she’s a nag and he’s ‘funny.’”
The article says Kevin Can Fuck Himself will alternate “between single-camera realism and multi-camera zaniness.” The premise reminds me of the utterly brilliant article “Bringing Back Father!” by Harvey Kurtzman from MAD #17. (Yeah, you knew I had to bring it back to MAD sooner or later.) The story is a parody of the comic strip Bringing Up Father, an early strip about a philandering patriarch who sneaks out and is punished by his wife, generally with the visual trope of her throwing dishes at him or otherwise beating him up.
Admittedly — it’s slapstick humor, even if it’s of the dated sort. (Nowadays, we’d just wonder why, if Maggie and Jiggs hate each other so much, why don’t they just get a divorce. See also: The Lockhorns.) But, as with all slapstick there’s a darkness there — again, not a value judgement, just a statement of fact. “Bringing Back Father!” brilliantly illustrated that darkness by enlisting two artists to illustrate it, Will Elder and Bernie Krigstein.
The story had an innovative style that alternated pages. On one page was Elder’s work, which perfectly parodied George McManus’ art in the original. But when you turned the page, you were greeted with Krigstein’s more realistic, darker art.
In Elder’s, we see the cartoony slapstick of Maggie throwing the china cabinet at Jiggs. But in Krigstein’s, we see the blood from where the broken dishes cut his skin. We see Jiggs’ black eyes. We see the reality behind the slapstick.
“Bringing Back Father!” is one of Harvey Kurtzman’s masterpieces.
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And though I don’t expect Kevin Can Fuck Himself to be nearly this dark, I love the idea of using this method of contrasting the brightly-lit three-camera sitcom with a more documentary-style single-camera shoot. We need a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend style deconstruction of these tropes. Where that show focuses on the damaging (and lazy) tropes of the romantic comedy, Kevin Can Fuck Himself looks to focus on the damaging (and lazy) tropes of the family sitcom. And it’s long overdue.
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