Kevins Deserve Improbably Attractive TV Wives
People who complain about sitcom husbands just hate men, and America, and you.
“Shortly after the 2016 presidential election,” writes theater critic Alexis Soloski in the august New York Times, “Valerie Armstrong experienced what she described as ‘a feminist fit of rage.’ So she put that rage into a comedy pilot, a pussy hat in script form.”
It took every ounce of my considerable strength to continue past that shoot-me of an opener, but I soldiered on, and I’m glad I did. In this and one other piece for the Times published this past week, Soloski is singing the praises of Kevin Can F**k Himself, a new show from AMC that aims to lampoon classic multicamera sitcoms and their sunny, if often satirical depiction of suburban family life.
In many ways, Kevin Can F**k Himself is infuriatingly well done. Set in Worcester, Massachusetts—a midsize city on the western edge of civilization—the show is filmed onsite and captures the feel and appearance of the region to an unsettlingly perfect T. There are accent gaffes and over-doings in places but nothing Laura-Linney-in-Mystic-River bad, and for the most part the execution deserves begrudging praise. Right down to the wallpaper and the furniture—every piece of which could have been pulled from my mother’s or grandmother’s house—Kevin Can F**k Himself brings a near-perfect picture of true New England to the small and smaller screens.
Overall, though, AMC’s new para-sitcom is the predictably vicious and surprisingly insidious work of a dangerous gaggle of malignant Hollywood sociopaths—blind and broken souls whose quest to enlighten the unfortunate masses may eventually succeed in bringing us all down to their level.
I must confess here that I am no impartial observer; I love sitcoms, especially the particular subgenre that the makers of Kevin Can F**k Himself (and their cheerleaders in the media) decry as the last bastion of the much-feared patriarchy’s pop-cultural dominance. I grew up at the tail end of the sitcom Golden Age, watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens on the world’s last three-dimensional monitor. (Sometime before my teen years it was replaced by a flatscreen—a gift from my aunt who worked in a TV repair shop—which is still at my parents’ place to this very day.) A perennial favorite in our house was The Middle, starring right-wing mackerel-snapper Patricia Heaton—a hero figure in my mother’s eyes second only to Mrs. Sarah Palin—as the matriarch of an American family very much like ours. My personal preference was for Malcolm in the Middle, in parallel to which I could cast myself as the genius middle child, though I suspect everyone else would balk at the comparisons—the gentle, goofy, surprisingly intelligent dad; the terrifying, temperamental, surprisingly tender mom; the delinquent older and the oddball younger brother.
Particulars for which I will be treated coldly at Thanksgiving aside, there is an important, broader truth here about why we love these shows: Unlike much of the pablum and propaganda churned out by the Hollywood elites, the best of the old sitcoms actually reflect the kinds of lives we live and the world in which we live them. Before the everyman staples of the ’90s and the aughts gave way to the likes of Modern Family—which actually depicts only a very small subset of ultra-wealthy, ultra-liberal modern families scattered in a few blue enclaves around the country—the vast majority of Americans could turn on the TV and see some reflection of themselves there on the screen. (Lest that phrasing be twisted into some id-pol posturing about progress and representation, let it be observed that some of the best sitcoms of the old days—from Sanford and Son all the way up to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—are about black American families.)
But something is amiss here, at least in the eyes of Soloski (Ph.D. in English and comparative literature). The wives in these families are just too beautiful, and the husbands are fat and icky. The most obvious example, which furnishes the header photo for Soloski’s more obnoxious sitcom screed, is The King of Queens, starring real-life tradCath gigachad Kevin James as delivery driver Doug Heffernan, alongside onetime Scientologist Leah Remini as Doug’s wife Carrie, a legal secretary. Never mind that Kevin James was a superstar wrestler and varsity college football player, who looks the part even with an extra layer of insulation; never mind that Carrie is a quick-tempered, dictatorial scold, whose obnoxious live-in father Doug patiently endures. Soloski has decided that Remini is prettier than her costar, and that from that arbitrary premise we should draw all kinds of arbitrary conclusions. As the exercise descends into absurdity—blue-haired, yellow-skinned, croaky-voiced Marge Simpson, we are told unverifiably, is the knockout counterpoint to dumb, fat, slovenly Homer—the reader can’t help but wonder whether somebody here just hates men as a general rule.
This is, after all, a feminist endeavor. And not just any kind of feminist endeavor. This isn’t a straightforward complaint about the objectification of women in entertainment media—not about, per se, the onscreen fantasy of an unimpressive guy scoring a girl out of his league. Just consider all the low-hanging fruit Soloski ignores in her list of “the more egregious examples.” That a non-millionaire Jerry Seinfeld ever could have landed Julia Louis-Dreyfus circa 1990—objectively the most beautiful human being ever to appear on TV—is absolutely ludicrous. Ditto every woman George Costanza nabs throughout the show’s nine-season run. Likewise at least half of the pairings on Friends and How I Met Your Mother, two aggressively, offensively Manhattanite shows.
But these outrageous mismatches escape the critic’s notice altogether. Why? Could it be because the ephemeral flings of hip, deracinated urbanites could never be so objectionable as the stable, suburban, entirely normal marriages that do draw condemnation from the theater critic of the New York Times? Could it be that the outrage here isn’t really about a mere physical double standard at all?
This isn’t the kind of feminism that hates men; this is the kind of feminism that hates husbands—that scorns Doug Heffernan and Ray Romano but raises no objection to Joey Tribbiani and Barney Stinson (so long as they always ask permission first). To be more precise: The feminism of Kevin Can F**k Himself and its apologists is the type of feminism whose chief enemy, whose true patriarchal oppressor, is the family and the normal life it upholds. It seeks to convince women that their lives are worth hating, that the focus should be on the negative, that if you’re not happy with your life it’s perfectly understandable to decide to murder your husband. (This last is literally the premise of Kevin Can F**k Himself.)
The Golden Age sitcoms, meanwhile, are actually remarkably pro-family works of art. Many of the problems of normal family life are treated rather directly, but always as problems to be worked through and rarely (if ever) as cause for murder. In these shows, the American family is treated as an object of suffering only en route to its understanding as an object of love. It is treated constantly as the butt of one joke, but always in the end understood as something good and desirable, something we should be striving towards in spite of financial worries and horrible in-laws and all the other classic problems with which our mirrored selves are faced for half an hour every Monday night.
The sitcom marital dynamic in particular is chivalric at its best. In the words of Kevin Can F**k Himself‘s leading lady Allison (portrayed by Annie Murphy, a recent alumna of the worst show in the history of television, Schitt’s Creek), when describing her misery to a librarian under the guise of a romance novel, “It’s aspirational.” Sitcoms show wives as husbands should see them. Each of them, at least within the walls of her own house, is the most beautiful woman in the world. Each of them possesses the kind of no-nonsense, feminine knack for domestic order that has underpinned the family dynamic at least since the ancient Greeks. Each of them is the lady of the house, the mistress of her domain with a husband who loves her above all else—above even himself—and would do anything for her because he knows he owes it to her. And this is as it should be.
The problem, of course, is when women start believing this stuff. The kind of popular myth that reminds men constantly of the duties incumbent on them—in an admittedly indirect and clever way that has apparently gone over the head of Alexis Soloski, Ph.D.—can, if not handled carefully, just as soon turn women into insufferable narcissists. It convinces very normal women—the Carrie Heffernans of the world—that they actually are too good for normal men like Doug. It turns them, that is, into the kinds of people who see Kevin James—the enviable archetype of the hefty-but-handsome suburban dad—as a repugnant schlub, but see Marge Simpson as the paragon of human beauty.
For illustration of the point, just consider the sitcom marital dynamic at its worst: Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin of How I Met Your Mother. (Different last names—what more do you need to know?) Marshall is a sweet guy, a Columbia Law School grad whose professional dream has always been to save the world as an environmental lawyer. His adoration of Lily—who, at the start of the series, is just his longtime, live-in girlfriend—is unhealthy, all-consuming. Lily, meanwhile, loves nothing more than herself. A kindergarten teacher by trade, she is convinced that she can be a great artist (despite not having any talent) so she abandons Marshall (by then her fiancé) to run away to San Francisco and ply her (non-existent) art. When Lily returns a failure, Marshall takes her back, the engagement is resumed, and they go on to raise a family together.
All throughout the series, a constant joke is that Lily is out of Marshall’s league, with Marshall always groveling, Lily’s ego dominating, and nothing like equality or mutual self-sacrifice ever being approached by a mile in their relationship, all because Alyson Hannigan (of “This one time, at band camp…” fame) is moderately more attractive than Jason Segel. But of course these two don’t make Soloski’s list of “the more egregious examples,” because despite being a case-in-point of what she claims to be addressing, the Marshall-Lily dynamic is actually directly antithetical to the kind of relationship to which she actually objects. As long as the woman is a girlboss, nothing else can matter. The trope is stripped of all the critical detachment and humor with which it was imbued in the Golden Age, and so has become merely a schlubby man in complete submission to a self-obsessed shrew of a woman.
If this is the alternative to what Soloski thinks is misogyny…well, I’ll take the misogyny, thank you very much. But is misogyny really the other option?
Consider Kevin Can Wait, Kevin James’s recent, short-lived attempt to recreate the Golden Age magic of The King of Queens. The title of Kevin Can F**k Himself is apparently a play on the title of James’s recent project, in which our hero portrays recently retired cop Kevin Gable. What did Kevin do to earn such harsh rebuke, besides being a bit on the heavy side? Why have radical feminists and Hollywood elites decided that this is the guy who typifies their hated schlub, the enemy of liberation?
Well, after spending a career on the police force defending his community at the constant risk of his life, Kevin decided to retire. With a modest pension, he had planned to begin a relaxing post-work life with his beloved wife Donna—played by the admittedly gorgeous Erinn Hayes, 11 years James’s junior. Upon his retirement, Kevin learns that his wife and children are experiencing troubles he didn’t know about. He puts off his planned life of leisure, working odd jobs in order to support them financially, and spends most of his time trying to help his kids navigate life’s problems. By the show’s second season, Donna has died, and Kevin has managed to start his own small business to support his children while simultaneously serving as a loving single father. After that season, the anachronistic Kevin Can Wait was cancelled by CBS.
When they tell people like that to go “f**k themselves,” you better believe they mean it.