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CBS’ new comedy Kevin Can Wait premieres Monday like a thing chipped from a block of amber, perfectly preserved from 1996, a backward-looking relic of a bygone age in which men were insecure about their place in society, despite the availability of disproportionately attractive women content with little more than marrying them and raising their children, and sitcoms were content with little more than making audiences at home join the studio audience in laughter.
Is there harm in just urging audiences to laugh along with Kevin James, a man whose CBS sitcom King of Queens was far from the worst of its generation?
Air date: Sep 19, 2016
It’s not that there aren’t still network TV comedies bent on delivering mirth, but it’s our perception that the half-hour landscape is increasingly proliferated by shows whose goal is to test the depth of abject misery viewers can be subjected to while still occasionally cracking a smile. Alcoholism, cancer and death are now the backdrops against which we’re supposed to get giggles, so where’s the danger in reminding us of the simpler pleasures of James gyrating his hips?
Chances are good that you know your own answer to that without a review, because Kevin Can Wait comes programmed to basically be the show you hope or fear it will be.
Blending NBC’s quickly canceled Crowded, ABC’s unkillable Last Man Standing and a slew of James movie plots, Kevin Can Wait begins with our hero (James) eyeing retirement after 20 years on the police force. He fantasizes about go-karting, amusement parks and an inhuman consumption of beer and pizza, all facilitated by his pension, rental income from a garage apartment and a cohort of similarly retired chums from the force. Maybe he dreams of parenting his two young children (Mary-Charles Jones and James DiGiacomo) or spending time with wife Donna (Erinn Hayes), but those fantasies go unmentioned. Complications ensue when eldest daughter Kendra (Taylor Spreitler) arrives at home with a wimpy British boyfriend (Ryan Cartwright) and threatens to drop out of college. Is Kevin about to realize that his elaborate plan for laziness must, indeed, wait? Why, yes!
As you’d expect from a show bringing James back to TV and a show that carries his name in punny fashion, Kevin Can Wait is basically Kevin James 101. His character is an innocent-minded man-child who wants to put an emphasis on “child,” after years of dealing with murders and other crimes on the job forced him to put the emphasis on “man.” The studio audience roars as James dances, devours a quantity of hamburgers meant for his whole family and implies that 50 is the new 12. (I initially wrote “50 is the new 15,” which sounds better, but the ideal Kevin James persona is wholly prepubescent.) His is not a retirement composed around popping Viagra or going hunting or traveling the world or fulfilling really any goals with an eye on mortality. Even beer is just a pathway to greater juvenile sloth and not mature rambunctiousness. It’s an arrested development that’s stale and familiar, but also a state that James embodies with precision and — at least in the pilot, which I’ve now watched three times for inexplicable reasons. Whether this is good or bad is almost irrelevant, because it’s an achievement of such low aspiration.
Would that the rest of the pilot were as relatively successful.
Hayes has built a career around being better than the mediocre sitcoms she’s been cast in, with her very fine work on the matchingly fine Childrens Hospital serving as the rare exception. The actress is too funny and too strong a comedic presence to be stuck playing the disapproving wife to an undisciplined husband in a network multicam. In Donna’s first scene she shames Kevin for not raking the leaves. She proceeds to tut-tut his retirement financial plan and wag her finger at his choice of garage apartment tenant. Only in a brief moment at the top of the episode, as husband and wife play around with a new gyro-bowl, does she come across as a partner in domestic bliss.
You can be certain Hayes has no desire to play a hands-on-her-hips nag, but the best thing I can say about her character is that she’s many times better than the main female character in Matt LeBlanc’s Man With a Plan, which is actually the comparison that serves to most elevate the entirety of Kevin Can Wait.
Also unrelated to James and therefore also falling short of being fully developed are Kevin’s kids. The son makes a joke about football-related concussions, which is the sort of thing that gets to be treated as a punchline on a network making a lot of money from the NFL, but otherwise he’s a non-entity. The youngest daughter says something early on, but vanishes. Spreitler actually is likable, but she’s paired with Cartwright in a part that was written as a quarter hipster dweeb, a quarter British fop, a quarter tech nerd and a quarter creepy guy who lurks in a van across the street from schools. Nothing the character says is funny and so the audience is just laughing at him, not with him. Kevin’s cop buddies also aren’t defined very well, but at least when you have veteran comic character actors like Lenny Venito on the scene, they add authenticity.
The supporting cast was so essential to the success of King of Queens, and it remains to be seen if that was sacrificed to James’ increased current star power or if the pilot just wasn’t time enough to build the world.
Kevin Can Wait also is hoping to get limited authenticity from the ability to mix multicam studio material with some filmed material shot around its Long Island studio space, but the pilot’s location work is limited to a wacky climactic sequence set to a straight-up rip-off of “Yakety Sax” and ending the episode on a note entirely disconnected from the tone of the rest of the pilot.
In a fall that finds networks banking heavily on established brands and IP, CBS looking to multicams with James and LeBlanc is something akin to anti-intellectual property, and I feel more confident in the demand for that than new TV versions of The Exorcist or MacGyver. By setting its sights no higher than giving James’ fans what they want, Kevin Can Wait hasn’t earned any critical adulation, but thanks to CBS also ordering Man With a Plan as well, at least I have the perspective to give it some begrudging acceptance.
Cast: Kevin James, Erinn Hayes, Taylor Spreitler, Mary-Charles Jones, James DiGiacomo, Ryan Cartwright, Lenny Venito, Gary Valentine and Leonard Earl Howze
Creators: Kevin James, Bruce Helford and Rock Reuben
Showrunner: Rock Reuben
Airs Mondays at 8:30 on CBS (moves to 8 p.m. on Oct. 24)
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