Annie Murphy, fresh off winning an Emmy for Schitt’s Creek, already has her new role lined up. She’ll play a sitcom wife who, done with her lovable husband’s laugh-track one-liners at her expense, decides she wants to kill him. As the AMC show’s title suggests, Kevin Can F**k Himself.
Although he’s not in the AMC show, the Kevin being referenced here is presumably Kevin James, former star of King of Queens. In 2017, Erinn Hayes, who played James’ wife on his CBS sitcom Kevin Can Wait, was fired and her character killed off after low ratings. She was replaced in the female lead role by James’ King of Queens co-star Leah Remini, playing his former police partner. It didn’t help — the show was still canceled after its second season.
James doesn’t seem too bothered by the dig, probably because he’s got his own new show to promote. (In light of Kevin Can F**k Himself premiering later this year, James told TVLine, “I think if they can use me to get their show made, and it’s a great show, God bless them. Good for them.”)
It’s also likely because James still has the clout required to replace a lead female actor, see the show get canceled anyway and then still score another new sitcom where he plays a character named after himself. This latest project is The Crew, a 10-episode Netflix workplace sitcom about a NASCAR garage. It’s typical James fodder — a well-meaning, working-class white guy navigates a changing culture where his masculinity is tested against a headstrong female counterpart.
He’s played this role before, of course. James spent nearly a decade perfecting it to critical acclaim on King of Queens as Doug Heffernan, a delivery driver learning to be a good husband to Carrie (Remini). On Kevin Can Wait, he explored life as a stay-at-home dad (briefly) opposite his wife Donna (Hayes) and later former partner Vanessa (Remini, again.) Now, on The Crew, he must manage a NASCAR garage against the interest of a new female boss younger than him, Catherine (Jillian Mueller).
The Crew isn’t good. Sorry to be so blunt, but nothing about its deployment of a laugh track and multi-camera setup feels fresh, particularly on Netflix, where you don’t watch anything simply because it’s on and you can’t find the remote. “While the world has evolved in the 14 years since The King of Queens went off the air, it seems James’ perspective on these issues has not,” wrote Sadie Gennis in her review for Variety.
James represents a bygone era of the sitcom comic. “A lot of actors try to reinvent themselves, while he sort of tries to fit himself into this new world,” James Hennessy, a longtime James fan, tells me. James didn’t parlay TV success into serious film roles like his buddy Adam Sandler did, nor did he pivot to prestige dramas like Ray Romano. He’s also not embracing the wise comic elder turned talk show host role that Jerry Seinfeld now inhabits.
Instead, James seems content staying in the sitcom world, specifically its physical comedy underpinnings. Over the years, James has trotted out various iterations of a heavyset, wise-cracking everyman played for laughs on the small and big screens. Sometimes it’s a Queens delivery guy (King of Queens), retired Long Island police officer (Kevin Can Wait), New York firefighter (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), Boston zookeeper (Zookeeper) or Jersey mall cop (Paul Blart: Mall Cop).
There’s a major flaw, however, to his decades-long persona. For all his insistence that we continue to care about every iteration of the working-class white guy, James refuses to show us a nuanced portrait of this type of man, still relying instead on played-out gender jokes and failing to demonstrate the repercussions of these actions. Almost every gag delivered on The Crew — laughing at the idea of two men dancing together, mocking the female office manager’s height, dating the CEO of a company sponsor — would warrant an HR violation, except that office manager and HR director Beth (Sarah Stiles) delivers just as many jabs.
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Most concerningly, James stays apolitical: His everyday guys talk shop and locker-room talk, but never politics, which seems wildly out-of-touch with a time when it’s this exact demographic who are being increasingly radicalized by the alt-right. It’s hard to imagine James’ NASCAR garage, as depicted on The Crew, not uttering the name “Trump” when his team is ridiculing the neurotic Persian chief engineer for cowering to their hated female boss, or when whining about that same female boss partnering with a fake meat company. If James is supposed to be the real American on a show that makes a Pledge of Allegiance joke in the first two minutes, he’s oddly unconcerned about how his target audience likely views the state of America.
The simple answer to all of this is marketing. Noted Republican everyman comic Tim Allen saw his ABC sitcom Last Man Standing canceled in 2017, despite being the second-most-watched sitcom on the network that season. Allen’s fans accused ABC of canceling the show after Allen compared being a conservative in Hollywood to living in “’30s Germany.” When Fox later revived Last Man Standing, Fox TV CEO Dana Walden said, “Obviously, I think everyone took a good, hard look at the performance of Roseanne. It did so well, and it certainly did remind us that we have a huge, iconic comedy star in our Fox family in Tim Allen.” Less than two weeks later, ABC canceled Roseanne after its racist star compared former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape.
As such, it’s understandably easier for James to stay away from politics. His own political beliefs aren’t easily found online, which today is more telling than it is uninformative, but it also jibes with the format of The Crew, where the mile-a-minute humor of multi-camera comedy historically normalizes identity jokes, like pitting a misogynistic young race car driver against an intimidating female up-and-comer. “The female storyline of a female driver would make sense on a sitcom, even though it’s very regressive,” says Hennessey.
There certainly is an audience for non-political humor. Hennessy, for example, is an active poster in the Kevin James Fan Club on Facebook. Not everyone is a fan of The Crew, though. One poster simply writes, “Sucks…” However, with more than 13,000 members, the group is still filled with adoring posts about meeting nice-guy James and screengrabs of their favorite King of Queens clips. They enjoy reminiscing about the old old days — just like James.
Staying in his lane might be James’ way of maintaining relevance. However, it’s disheartening to see that such an everyman comic is so afraid of embracing what life is really like as a working-class white guy today. It’s not all gender jokes and racing puns — it’s learning how to find your footing in an ever-changing world without falling prey to the darker forces out there. If he successfully made a show about earnestly trying, maybe Kevin wouldn’t have to f**k himself.