Series like Schitt’s Creek are even more rare than they seem, but not because of the comedy, characters, writing, or anything else that might immediately pop into your mind, but because getting an ensemble together who can all maintain the same level of insight is all but impossible. Eugene Levy, for example, isn’t a comedic genius with decades of iconic roles because he’s funny, but because, like all comedic geniuses, he knows the exact potential in any scene or exchange. That Annie Murphy (and so many others on the show) could consistently, scene after scene, season after season, walk alongside Levy and Catherine O’Hara as part of a true ensemble – as opposed to say, something that seemed like it should be “The Eugene Levy Show” – is not only a rarity in execution, it’s a level of difficulty that isn’t even truly attempted with any regularity.
The problem for Annie Murphy with Kevin Can F**k Himself is that the show is not only not an ensemble sitcom, but it’s also an anti-sitcom, though it is also something you’ve never seen before. Worse, in terms of viewer acquisition and retention, it’s tricky to say that the show actually starts in any real sense before you’re two hours in.
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The series is built on sitcom tropes pasted together from so much of what you’ve already seen that it’s hard to nail down which elements are from which decade. It’s a bit like watching the Pixar DVD bonus feature that runs you through the idea that all their movies have the exact same outline (as do most movies).
Allison (Murphy) is celebrating her 10th Anniversary with husband Kevin (Eric Petersen), and the effort showcases the true trials of their marriage. Kevin is a somewhat wacky man-child, Allison pays the bills, champions the use of coasters, and doesn’t particularly want Beer Pong heavily featured at their Anniversary “Rager.” Their neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer) is an inept, clueless, gangly hanger-on to a degree that does nothing more than highlight Kevin’s Gleason-esque, buffoonish nature. Neil, together with his sister and roommate Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), serves as Kevin’s right-hand man/screwy plan facilitator.
It’s easy, comfort comedy trafficking in the day-to-day mishaps of the working class, whether that’s keeping your boss out of the drunken debauchery in the backyard, or the escalating war of vandalism between neighbors. With the right varnish, and some level of likability to balance Kevin’s hyperbolic disregard for his wife, this would be just another brown-wrapper package from the sitcom factory. But, that isn’t the show we actually have, that’s just the show Allison is trapped in.
Kevin Can F**k Himself is really, at least theoretically, a deconstruction and destruction of the show we’re watching when the lights are on. It isn’t just that we find ourselves in a different effort when Allison is alone, and the shiny, happy lights get turned down, it’s that we find ourselves in several different efforts, all of which seemingly battle for control of Allison’s psyche. It’s dark, and largely revolves around Allison making uncharacteristic choices and fantasizing about killing Kevin. But beyond that, other characters and events no longer play by the rules of a “happy lights and laugh tracks” world. As script notes and thematic design bleed into events, Allison asks Patty if she’s content to wander forever in her nonsensical, sitcom existence and Patty’s, “Yes,” is like a slap in the face to the audience. Daydreams about murder, and double lives are comical punches, but active acceptance of your juvenile stereotype is a tough game to swallow.
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Once Allison starts down a road of pushing the boundaries of her existence, she finds herself in a world-crumbling whirlwind reminiscent of The Truman Show, and she’s ill-prepared to deal with the realities of new and changing characters who don’t seem to be operating within the bounds of a “Kevin and his Shenanigans” sitcom. When the show finally feels that it has established itself enough to begin its headlong run into… who knows what, Allison turns in desperation to an old friend, because that’s what the script is supposed to tell her to do, so that she has a sounding board, only to have him tell her that it doesn’t seem like she wants someone to talk to at all, but instead just wants someone to nod at her and tell her she’s right… but that’s why the script told her to show up. Then things get weird.
For good or ill, the show’s most tangible characteristic is that there is no way to know what’s going. Anything familiar isn’t actually what you’re watching, and anything you’re watching might be anything at all. Allison frequently daydreams, which comes by way of the common trappings of fuzzy delivery and surreal reactions, but before long it wouldn’t be surprising if everything was a dream… or nothing was.
You can see the appeal for Annie Murphy, who will at some point perhaps manage every challenge an actress can face, while traveling through a character who is both killing and creating herself in real-time. When she’s alone, or at least “outside the sitcom,” there is rarely anything funny happening, but you can see her experience on Schitt’s Creek all the same. It isn’t the comedy, it’s the awareness. The ability to find whatever is available in a situation and deliver it all. From the most subtle glances, to offering herself up to a cosmetics store, to an otherwise torturous scene in the back of a van, she screams of having further developed her abilities with Levy and O’Hara.
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The show is rough though, and hard to sell. “Unbound,” sounds brilliant, but it makes some things a guessing game, and when there is no sense of tone to connect with, because your theory is to keep changing it, you risk devolving into a confused mess. Virtually everything in play is hyperbolic in a spin on a genre that is at best “overemphasizing” in the first place, and the results aren’t, I hope, quite as intended.
The lights go on for scenes that feel increasingly “cartoon” instead of “sitcom” and as our wild exclamation points keep hitting Kevin’s character, he gravitates away from “buffoon” and toward something that hints at an odder persona, and worst of all, an accidental one. Allison’s check-ins with her sitcom life become less and less interesting, and more and more surreal, as though for certain spans of The Truman Show you might simply watch The Truman Show.
It may end up a show that is too content with its oddness, or that too many are willing to accept the challenge of not watching a show that doesn’t seem to want to appeal to anyone, but it’s a brilliant way to go wrong, if it does. It may be the opposite of… just about everything, but it’s an engrossing mystery of its own, and if you have the right sense of humor, it’s occasionally hilarious.