As we tally up our end of the year lists (of which there are many), I urge you to remember the series Kevin Can F*** Himself, which aired on AMC and AMC+ this past summer. The show stars Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, as Allison, a long suffering wife who is reevaluating what she wants in life. A scathing examination on how sitcoms have long treated this type of character, the show, which went back and forth between sitcom and single-camera formats, distinguishes itself from its contemporaries.
We spoke to the series creator and executive producer Valerine Armstrong about that shocking Season 1 ending, the influence of sitcoms, and female rage.
SEASON 1 of the dark comedy series KEVIN CAN F**K HIMSELF is now available on DVD and Blu-ray!
Spoiler Warning for Season 1
TYF: Did you always envision that Season one finale ending on such a notable cliffhanger?
Valerie Armstrong: No, no. It was similar for a long time. I had to write up a series document before we shot the pilot to tell them what I saw for the show and it was just me in my office at a different job kind of writing for fun. I never thought it would come to fruition and then it did. Initially I had it so that Neil died. So then it became real and we were writing it and a possibility of a second season also became much more real and suddenly on top of not wanting to write a second season with a dead body, something that is so obnoxious to me as a viewer, because you can’t talk about anything else since it’s the biggest thing happening since everything else just feels too trivial to focus on.
So, not only did I not want a second season with a dead body, we also hired Alex Bonifer to play Neil and he’s so good [laughs]. My showrunner and I were going back and forth all last summer going “can we really kill him, he’s so good, I don’t want to” and we finally decided—okay, if we can get together and figure out a better ending, let’s go with that. As long as we weren’t sacrificing by keeping Alex on the show I wanted to make sure we did it. And when I figured out that he could end up in a single camera at the end of the season I was like oh—yes. That’s something to me that generates story for Season 2 and keeps Alex in my show, which makes my job easy and I think it was the exact right move. It excited me rather than bummed me out. Once we figured that out I was really, really excited. The song we used at the end of the season—that has been in my head for years and I’m still so glad we used it because I think it’s exactly right.
TYF: With Neil now being a part of the single camera world, how does that open up for Allison and Patty’s stories as well?
VA: How I think about our show is that in the Pilot, we start out with Allison’s character completely. She’s in every scene aside from maybe an intercut phone call. Her life was so narrow and sheltered and she felt so alone that we followed pretty much just her for the first two episodes, until we realize Patty has more to her. I think of the show as Allison’s life and world view expands, so does our show.
Neil is still hanging out with Kevin all the time so he’s still in the multi-camera format but I wanted to tell a story about what it’s like to hold a man accountable and he stops getting away with things. He got to be in multicam for so long, for his whole life, and of course that’s metaphorically as nobody knows they’re in audience but they feel it and he felt it and he got to be a boy until he did something that was so beyond the pale that not even that audience could cheer for him anymore. He’s going to face some consequences for what he did this season. Figuring out how to tell a story for him and never let him off the hook for what he did has been a challenge but has been very rewarding and interesting for me.
TYF: It definitely catches you by surprise because you do think while watching that it’s going to be Allison and Patty’s story fully in the single-cam. Is there a character you almost want to always remain in the sitcom version?
VA: I think Kevin. Like I said, it’s a privilege to get to be a multi-cam character. A lot of people don’t see it that way or recognize that but he doesn’t have to be single-cam because he gets to get away with things and have people laugh away not just his idiocy but his destructiveness. He gets away with so much and that’s sort of the point that he gets to live in multi-cam for a very long time. I think the juxtaposition of the two means we get some lightness in the single-cam that we don’t expect and there’s also a deep, dark underbelly beneath that sheen of the multi-cam. Figuring out how those two go together is sort of the point of the show.
TYF: Were there any particular sitcoms that you drew from for the show? Even just in terms of how the set looks.
VA: It’s definitely commenting on a certain type of a sitcom—a family one—which is focused on this funny guy who has kind of inexplicably a hot wife, and I mean I wanted to make the argument that that woman is a real person who got stuck there and why she thought this was the right move for her. In terms of specific influences, I’ve been watching sitcoms the entire time I’ve been working on the show and I grew up with them but I make sure while I’m writing the show that I’m watching is a good one. It’s so easy for people to make fun of them and we’re never trying to do that. We’re trying to point out things that are regressive about them and things that need to be looked at twice but I love a good sitcom and they are so hard to get right. So I’ve been watching a lot of Frasier, which I think is brilliant, and Friends, which might be softer comedy but I do think it’s very well written. So I’m always drawing inspiration from other shows which do this medium very well.
And it’s funny, I saw somewhere when I did a Reddit AMA, where someone said that it was clear I ripped off Everybody Loves Raymond. Then somebody commented and said “no, they obviously ripped off All in the Family.” Someone else said it’s That 70’s Show. It’s like, guys, don’t you see a pattern here? We didn’t rip it off from anybody, it’s what the show looks like, it’s an easy shorthand to say it’s that type of show. It’s amazing how much work is done for you just aesthetically.
TYF: Putting it softly, isn’t it interesting that this familiar type of story gets told from the female perspective and is written by a woman and instantly people are saying it’s been ripped off from something else.
VA: [Laughs] I’ve been writing this for a long time and nobody, nobody was interested and if they read it, it was as a favor and it just means that this felt like something I had to say. I wrote it to write it, not to be sold and somehow, somehow, it got sent to other people and that’s kind of been the joy of my life. It was just sort of something that was in me and it makes it so that things like that, people thinking I ripped things off, feel like, “eh, it’s not for you, and that’s fine.”
TYF: Could you talk a bit about the influence sitcoms can have on popular culture, especially when women in the most classic ones have been written as nags or shrews. It feels as if people don’t see them as being influential on people’s opinions on women but it clearly does.
TYF: It absolutely does and while I try not to be too invested in reviews I think about how some people wrote that the wife was never this passive. Or look at Debra from Everybody Loves Raymond—she fought back, she had a voice. And the truth was yes, she had a voice, but she would complain about her dissatisfaction and we would laugh! It was laughed off and I don’t think that’s any better. I don’t know if that absolves the writing of that character because she was so dissatisfied and seemingly angry a lot and we would just laugh at it.
I think that growing up watching these shows, to me it’s very similar to what Instagram does to young girls now, which is like, we should be happy all the time, this is what you should love, this is what you should look like, everybody looks good with makeup on. I think I internalized a lot from sitcoms and tons of other places. It taught me that my dissatisfaction and rage and the things that I thought were so flawed about me—I learned to hide them because I didn’t see them being portrayed by these women. Or through the writing for these women.
I think it matters just like every other media representation matters and I’m really glad that it resonated with you.
TYF: It’s funny you mention anger because I think there are too few examples in the media of angry women handled well. My favorite part of the show is how it deals with the rage felt by Allison and you kind of touched on this but why do you think it’s so easy to make women’s anger the punchline? Is it just we’re always trying to diminish their emotions?
VA: I think it’s definitely that we’re trying to diminish their emotions, I think you’re exactly right and I think it’s easy to dismiss our emotions as “hysterical.” That’s just who we are and women complain, women express things, women cry, women are crazy. To me what mattered to me about Allison’s rage is that I didn’t try to speak to anything globally, I didn’t encapsulate everyone’s experience in her. I just used my own experience in things like how I didn’t know how to tell an ex-boyfriend how to put the toilet seat down because I was like, “how do I say this without sounding like the idea of a naggy girlfriend?”
I didn’t know how. So there are so many things I would repress and deny and was ashamed of that I put into this show and tried to make Allison feel those things. She has so much rage, absolutely, and sometimes it comes out in funny ways but usually because she apologizes right afterwards because she feels she doesn’t have any right to. She feels she should be happy and the feeling of thinking you should be satisfied but are not, you put it on yourself, not on the people who are keeping you down.
TYF: Anecdotally, the most upset I’ve ever been was when, after a discussion with a boy, he told me how sorry he was for how angry I am. So I’m just thankful for how you depicted anger on the show.
VA: [Groans] Is he alive?
TYF: It wasn’t a great end to the night! So I really appreciated that element being in there. Lastly though, as a New Englander myself, I loved the setting of the show and wanted to know what led you to placing the show in Worcester, MA?
VA: I’m a New Englander too and I grew up in Connecticut and I really wanted to set the show in a very Blue Collar state around the people that I knew and grew up around and understood. The people that repress all their feelings because everything is fine all the time but we’re ultimately Puritans who need to believe we’re going to heaven because of how great we’re doing.
But the minute you say Connecticut to the wider side of the country they instantly think of something fancy, even though that’s not where I come from. So when setting the show I thought Boston would be a good place but then I thought that everyone does Boston, what’s more specific and a little more offbeat that has character to it? I remembered Worcester and it’s where my brother’s roommate was from and he has the best accent and the same kind of mentality and it’s just a little bit worse.