‘Kevin Can F** k Himself,’ ‘WandaVision,’ and the Rise of the Ultra-Meta Sitcom

·7 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Kevins of the world, watch your backs. On Sunday, AMC will debut its genre-bending, deeply meta series Kevin Can F**k Himself, in which Schitt’s Creek star Annie Murphy plays an exhausted woman named Allison whose boorish, inconsiderate husband has driven her to the edge. The series derives its title from Kevin Can Wait—which abruptly killed off leading lady Erinn Hayes after one season to reunite Kevin Smith with his King of Queens flame Leah Remini instead. And things only get more meta from there.

Television has long been a medium obsessed with itself, rife with fourth-wall breaks and self-referential humor. Sitcoms, one of the most rigid and recognizable forms, have long provided fertile ground for such explorations—from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to Roseanne, Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and countless others.

But recently, a shift has begun to occur: Beyond stretching, subverting, and winking at the constraints inherent to the sitcom form, several meta series of the past few years appear to be digging into something more personal. Series like BoJack Horseman, WandaVision, and now Kevin Can F**k Himself play not only with the form’s traditional structures, but also knowingly use their viewers’ relationship to sitcoms—their nostalgic yearning for that impossible simplicity—to emotionally underscore characters’ frustrated estrangement from reality.

In Kevin Can F**k Himself, Annie Murphy’s Allison finds herself trapped between two genres. Her domestic life is a warped sitcom in which she clearly does not belong—brightly lit, punctuated by an intrusive laugh track, and entirely built around her bumbling, endlessly obnoxious husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). But her inner life, which takes over the moment she breaks away from the chauvinistic jocks who haunt her living room, is a dimly lit and claustrophobic drama. Her fantasies? They’re somewhere between I Love Lucy and a childless Leave It to Beaver.

The show uses sitcoms to represent the dissonance between Allison’s ideal life and her underwhelming reality: She wants to live in Leave It to Beaver but is stuck in King of Queens. Instead of a responsible husband, she’s got one who can’t seem to understand why she wants to save up to buy a nicer house, and who mocks her for wanting to take care of the Pottery Barn table she bought at Goodwill. Instead of supportive friendships with other women, she’s got one neighbor named Patty (a fantastic Mary Hollis Inboden) who callously laughs at her unhappiness. And instead of feeling as though her life has direction and purpose, she feels trapped, settling instead for trotting down memory lane with a much more appealing ex-boyfriend, Sam (Raymond Lee).

Even the set of Kevin Can F**k Himself feels intentionally meta; the living room immediately recalls the Bunkers’ from All in the Family. Kevin might not share Archie Bunker’s bigotry, but he does mimic his harsh treatment of his tender-hearted wife, Edith, whom Archie often referred to as a “dingbat.” But whereas Jean Stapleton always carried Edith with a quiet wisdom and dignity—which creator Norman Lear often emphasized through quiet one-liners that undercut Archie’s sputtering rants—show-runner Craig DiGregorio offers no such romanticization of Allison and Kevin’s dynamic. Instead, Allison enumerates every way Kevin has degraded her self-worth.

<div class="inline-image__credit">AMC</div>
AMC

It’s fascinating to consider how the show’s genre play compares to other shows that have dissected the sitcom. Most obviously, there’s this year’s WandaVision—which took the opposite approach.

Whereas Kevin uses modern critiques of bad sitcoms to underscore Allison’s existential angst, WandaVision focuses on the genre’s cathartic value. Elizabeth Olsen’s shattered supervillain-turned-hero-turned-unwitting-villain-again Wanda has used sitcoms as a refuge from reality throughout her life. When faced with the loss of yet another loved one (in this case, Vision) she takes over a small town in New Jersey, converting it into a living sitcom set and reviving Vision within that illusion to shield herself from tragedy.

Throughout its run, WandaVision seems to urge viewers to engage with their own nostalgic affection for sitcoms. True to Marvel form, the series makes an Easter egg hunt out of its various references and callbacks to old series and tropes, from Bewitched to Brady Bunch to Parks and Recreation. It could feel self-serving at times, given that Marvel’s corporate overlord, Disney, also happens to own many of the sitcoms that inspired WandaVision. Convenient!

<div class="inline-image__credit">Disney+</div>
Disney+

But the finale subverts that idea, as Wanda ruminates on that now oft-quoted line from Vision: “What is grief, but love persevering?” The absence of grief, she realizes, is not a safe haven but a prison—a shallow simulacrum of real life devoid of meaning. She destroys the world she built, and with it the fake life she’d constructed.

Oddly enough, that final note feels similar to another recent series that made critiquing the sitcom and Hollywood at large its bread and butter: Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman.

BoJack, which ran for six seasons on Netflix before its wonderfully open-ended series finale, had more time to develop its storytelling—so naturally its expression of our simultaneous fascination with and alienation from sitcoms’ uncanny sheen is more sophisticated than either Kevin Can F**k Himself (still in its freshman season) or WandaVision, a limited series. Still, it struck all the same notes and then some.

For BoJack, sitcoms are both an origin story and a perpetual source of conflict. The former star of Full House spoof Horsin’ Around, the equine Hollywood wash-up constantly struggles to reconcile his desire for the sitcom-like optimism of his early career with the turmoil of his disillusioned reality. He remembers his time on the show, when he was still a young, fluffy-maned newbie, as almost separate from the rest of his life—which, since childhood, has been filled with painful, cyclical trauma. That might be why one of his go-to self-destructive behaviors is binge-drinking and watching old episodes—or worse, calling his equally self-destructive former co-star Sarah Lynn to see if she’s willing to go on another bender.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Netflix</div>
Netflix

BoJack turns his memory of starring on Horsin’ Around into a sitcom all its own, an imagined time when everything in his life was simple and happy. Fixated on a hyper-idealized version of events, he constantly struggles to attain a kind of happiness and peace that doesn’t exist—and abuses himself and others when his life doesn’t measure up to the dream.

Although BoJack doesn’t literally reside inside a sitcom in the way his Kevin Can F**k Himself and WandaVision counterparts do, the series also plays with sitcom structure. BoJack’s trauma-induced depression predisposes him to cycles of self hatred, delusion, and destruction—and just as sitcoms maintain their stasis by insistently resolving any and all issues within 30 minutes, these cycles function as relentless resets of their own. They reliably dump BoJack back into the intolerable state in which he started.

“Am I just doomed to be the person that I am?” BoJack asks in one of the show’s most haunting moments. “It’s not too late for me, is it?... I need you to tell me it’s not too late.”

Eventually, BoJack realizes that his only path out of this warped loop is to accept himself and his reality, embrace his autonomy, and take ownership of himself—something far easier said than done for someone with so much trauma, as a certain Marvel hero who made a similar choice could certainly attest. From the first half of the season made available to critics for review, Kevin Can F**k Himself appears to be headed in a similar direction.

For all three of these characters, the sitcom is a confining force—an expression of the way we can all trap ourselves by fixating on what we wish our lives could be, formatted after one of the genres that sells those fantasies best.

What remains to be seen now is the path Allison will take to escape.

Kevin Can F**k Himself premieres Sunday on AMC+, and June 20 at 9 PM on AMC.

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