Note: “Living the Dream” is currently available to stream on; its broadcast premiere on AMC is June 20, 2021.
In Chantal Akerman’s classic 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) has a specific routine. Every day while her teenage son is at school, she cleans, she does laundry, she goes to the market, and she cooks. She prepares each meal for him and then serves it to him and then cleans up after him. She rarely speaks. And at some point during the day, when her son is away and her housework is briefly paused, she opens the door to a man. She lets him into her bedroom and takes his money when they’re done. And then, on the third day we follow in Jeanne Dielman, she takes one of her knives and kills the man in her bed, stabbing him over and over. The blood gets everywhere, and Jeanne isn’t even fazed. It’s been a long time coming.
Allison McRoberts (Annie Murphy) is standing in the long shadow of Jeanne Dielman, isn’t she? No, she isn’t sleeping with men for money, nor is she a single mother. But yes, the monotony of her life, the misogyny that guides it, and the inertia that threatens to consume it are all unquestionably there. On the outside and in the sitcom world of Kevin Can F**k Himself, Allison is an accommodating, beautiful, and long-suffering wife living in Worcester, Massachusetts, in a slightly decaying single-family home in a slightly decaying town. Like Jeanne, she too cooks or prepares every meal for her husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen), a petulant child masquerading as a sexist, condescending adult. She too fills her days with chores, responsibilities, and tasks related to the domestic life that her man dominates. And she too is reaching her breaking point — in fact, in “Living the Dream,” she far surpasses it. The glass handle of a broken beer mug isn’t that different from a kitchen knife, is it?
Kevin Can F**k Himself creator Valerie Armstrong, who also wrote this premiere episode, and director Oz Rodriguez set up the series’s dichotomy quickly. Some of the time, Kevin Can F**k Himself is a CBS-style multi-cam comedy with a conservative sense of humor that does the whole light-misogyny, light-xenophobia thing. The production design should be familiar to anyone who watched The Big Bang Theory, That ’70s Show, or Roseanne: a big couch in a nearly cluttered living room with an armchair or two on each side, the camera plopped directly in the middle to take in everything. Each room is a little variation on this (the kitchen and the bedroom both follow that centered-furniture design), and the high jinks are based around the interruptions that occur in these spaces. And because this is a sitcom, and because American sitcoms are often about an arguably deserving husband and a resigned wife, most of those interruptions involve Allison.
Allison unknowingly steps into the game of beer pong being played by Kevin and his codependent friend and next-door neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), and being watched by Kevin’s casually dismissive father, Pete (Brian Howe), and Neil’s frankly bitchy sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden) — and gets pelted with a wayward ball, mockingly called “Mom,” and laughed at for saying, “I’ve been thinking.” In the kitchen, after Allison makes Kevin a hot breakfast, a roach scurries across the floor; back in the living room, where Kevin is playing video games, Allison’s before-work routine is derailed by his whining. Putting Allison at the center of all these scenarios implies that she is the problem: If she weren’t around, Kevin and Neil could play games and goof off all day; they could drink and never eat vegetables, spend their money on whatever they want, and judge the other neighbors. If only Allison weren’t such a buzzkill.
But then all of this — the multi-cam format, the jazzy background music, the persistent laugh track playing in response to everything Kevin does, the garishly bright lighting — falls away when Allison is alone. If the sitcom through which we view Allison and Kevin McRoberts’s relationship is one side of the dichotomy created by Armstrong and Rodriguez, this dark, dour, dank, single-cam reality in which Allison considers her life is the other. In the kitchen by herself, after she learns of Kevin’s plans for another “anniversa-rager” instead of an intimate 10th-anniversary dinner for the two of them, she breaks a glass and cuts her hand. When she says, “I’m fine,” it’s a reassurance in response to no one. Neither her husband, her father-in-law, nor her husband’s friends ask Allison how she is, and they possibly never have because they simply do not care.
“Living the Dream” is a sarcastic depiction of Allison’s life, of course, and during this episode, we get example after example of the indignities and irritations she endures every day. She dreams of living in a nicer home, but how can she and Kevin afford it when she works at a liquor store and he installs cable? At that liquor store, her co-worker tells her she “got lucky” with Kevin and basically encourages her to ignore or accept all of his failings. When Kevin accidentally invites his boss to their home for the anniversa-rager, he forces Allison to entertain him and then abandons her completely. The mechanic–cocaine dealer Marcus (Justin Grace) tells her, “A smile looks nice on you” (ugh); Patty laughs at the deli-meat faux charcuterie platter she has put together for the party; and Kevin and Neil break her prized Pottery Barn coffee table. Murphy communicates Allison’s incrementally increasing anger well, making her a little more flustered and a little more curt with each interaction. None of Alexis Rose’s quirks show up here — none of her hair fiddling, excessive gesturing, or huffy body language. Allison is collapsing in on herself, and Murphy makes her smaller and smaller.
The only person remotely kind to Allison is (her ex?) Sam (Raymond Lee), who has returned to their hometown after 15 years, now owns a diner, and is married. But is one person’s compassion enough to balance out all the other crap? Doubtful. Not when the crap, again, involves Kevin, who Patty reveals has secretly blown through the savings Allison worked so hard to put away for them both. Years ago, his involvement in a fake-sports-paraphernalia scheme cleaned out their account, and although Neil and Patty both know about it, Kevin never told Allison. For that matter, neither did the siblings. Instead, they hung out every day with Kevin, mocked Allison, called her Barbie, and derided her attempts at a more sophisticated, more intentional, and more worldly life. With friends like these!
All of that is gone now. Allison’s quietly trailing-off admission of “I had something to hope for. Now I try to picture anything good, and …” is a heartbreaking moment, but Kevin Can F**k Himself doesn’t let Allison wallow for long. She goes on a bender. She basically tells Patty she was an asshole for not having divulged Kevin’s betrayal sooner. And that fantasy sequence in which she stabs Kevin in the neck is pretty declarative, isn’t it? “I’m not sorry,” Allison says earlier to Marcus, and I think her days of self-pity and acquiescence are over. “Miss Hercules” is not messing around, and that broken glass handle in her surplus-jacket pocket sure seems like a Chekhov move to me.
• Thank you for joining me on this ride through Kevin Can F**k Himself! These recaps will be tied to the AMC+ streaming premiere dates for this first season. Each of the eight episodes airs a week later on AMC TV, starting June 20.
• This episode is dedicated to filmmaker, director, and writer Lynn Shelton,. If you haven’t watched her films before, Your Sister’s Sister and Laggies (both on Showtime) are particularly good.
• Every pop-culture product set in Massachusetts is contractually obligated to include a dig against the New York Yankees and praise for the New England Patriots, but what if you hate both? Asking for a friend, who is me.
• Related: Of course, the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” is Allison’s ringtone. Of course.
• If you watchedearlier this summer, you may think Kevin Can F**k Himself is repetitive in its use of the sitcom format. But I think there’s something fundamentally different here in how Armstrong views the sitcom as an end result of a culture comfortable with making entertainment out of misogyny, compared with how WandaVision uses the half-hour comedy as first an escape and then an indicator of the ways we protect ourselves from trauma — not the same thing, even if the ’50s- and ’60s-style day dress that Murphy fantasizes here bears some similarity to the outfits Elizabeth Olsen wears in some of the early WandaVision episodes.
• The worst thing Kevin does in this episode: shrug off Allison’s bloody hand injury by saying, “It doesn’t mean you get to be moody; you already used this excuse once this month.” The worst thing we learn Kevin has done before this episode: holding a grudge against the mail carrier and getting her deported!
• “Pretending things will change is how they sell washing machines” is a very Don Draper–esque line, isn’t it? I thought immediately of “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”
• Murphy’s “I’m just so tired” may be my favorite line delivery from her this premiere — so exhausted and so relatable.