Let me just state, for the record, that I have nothing against Kevin James. His long-running CBS sitcom The King of Queens, while mostly standard blue-collar-guy-with-unrealistically-hotter-wife fare, had its positive qualities, including an appealing chemistry between James and co-star Leah Remini. It’s true that Paul Blart: Mall Cop was not my favorite movie of 2009 and that I still can’t believe it made more than $183 million worldwide, making it the all-time top-grossing motion picture in the extremely significant Comedy — Bumbling subgenre. But even though James has often appeared in lazily conceived works of nonart, he's always seemed too middle of the road to inspire real ire.
That said, Kevin Can Wait, which marks James’s return to CBS sitcom–land for the first time since Queens ended in 2007, is a terrible and unimaginative show that has no business being on the air at a time when the standard for TV comedy has risen (at least on other networks and platforms) to such a high level. CBS has only made the pilot, which airs Monday at 8:30, available in advance, and it always feels a bit unfair to review a show based on roughly 21 minutes of material, minus commercials. But unless things change radically in the episodes that follow, Kevin Can Wait looks like a strong contender for worst new comedy of the fall season. (It will be a tight race, though, especially since retooled Matt LeBlanc sitcom Man With a Plan — also on CBS — is still coming in October.)
Whether it's true or not, everything about Kevin Can Wait suggests that the idea to put James back on TV came first, while the premise for his show came second.
“We need a new show for Kevin James.”
“Oh, oh, I know: let’s call it Kevin Can Wait.”
“Wow. That is brilliant. What will he be waiting for, though?”
“Validation of his masculinity while he experiences the wild cultural shifts of the 1960s? No, they already did that on Mad Men. A sense of fulfillment and happiness that has always eluded him even though he lives, ironically, in sunny California?”
“Dude, this is for network, not cable or streaming.”
“Fine. Hey, what if he just retired from being a police officer, but is forced to go back to work and therefore has to wait, again, to fully retire?”
“Green-light this NOW.”
That is indeed the premise of Kevin Can Wait, as established in the pilot: Kevin Gable (James) has just started his retirement after 30 years on the force and is planning to spend it day-drunk while engaging in juvenile activities with his fellow recently retired cop buddies. But when the oldest of his three kids (Taylor Spreitler) announces that she’s planning to quit college so she can help her tech-wizard fiancé realize his app-building dreams, Kevin decides to let the couple move into the garage he was planning to rent out and instead find a job to help continue supporting the family. (The pilot implies there’s a chance he could pursue mall-security work, so get excited, America!)
All the sitcom tropes that feel like they should be a thing of the past are here, including: the gratuitous laugh track; the nagging, much hotter wife (Erinn Hayes, forced to punch below her comedic weight after her run on Children’s Hospital); the man-boy husband who can’t be bothered to rake leaves, pay attention to his kids’ behavioral problems, or eat fewer than four burgers in one sitting; and dialogue that sounds like it came from a spec script written in the early '90s.
After a supposedly funny bit in which Kevin plays with a gyro ball while his wife, Donna (classic sitcom-wife name), verbally paints a picture of him being on a rocky boat, Kevin passes her the gyro ball.
“Now you give me a scenario,” she says.
“You’re a prostitute,” Kevin responds. “I’m sorry, I don’t even know where that came from.” He then compensates by suggesting she could be a princess who started her own charity. Jokes based on the misogyny firmly embedded in our culture are just the funniest, aren’t they?
Look, I get that everyone doesn’t necessarily want to watch half-hour comedies that deal with struggle, or people battling depression, or British women who provide running commentary while having anal sex. TV still needs family sitcoms, even more traditional ones, especially to serve those of us who want to watch something with our kids without having to sit through the same damn episode of Liv and Maddie for the 18th time. But as ABC has proven on several recent occasions, it’s still possible to make those sitcoms without sacrificing quality or catapulting audiences back to … I was going to say the stone age, but honestly, that’s an insult to The Flintstones, which is also a much better show than Kevin Can Wait.
I suspect Kevin Can Wait will still wind up being one of the most widely watched new comedies of the fall season because it’s familiar, and a lot of viewers crave that on a weeknight at the end of a long Monday. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s basically the original, pre–Twitter-complaints version of The Dudleys from this SNL sketch. It also doesn’t change the fact that I think audiences — and for that matter, even Kevin James — deserve a hell of a lot better.