Allison walks into the living room in Sitcom World, a scary decorative spider web draped over the door falling on her head like a net. It’s Halloween in Kevin’s world, or “the day and Neil and I scare each other — the 31st of every month!” Kevin’s in full nonsense mode and stops Allison as she’s about to make her exit for a movie. She imitates him saying, “it’s wicked cool when you’re not here,” and Kevin’s all, well, that was mean — and he adds, “I don’t sound like that.” He wants her to stay because he doesn’t want to get too scared, a request he couches in manly, Neil-blaming terms. She leaves anyways (growth!) and Kevin’s already a little spooked.
Over at Patty’s salon, she’s turning everything upside down looking for her keys. Tammy’s there too, being critical of Patty, and then critical of Allison, and then talking shit about her job. And Tammy knew where the keys were the whole time? Observation or just deduction? And is Tammy a terrible, controlling girlfriend whose tendencies are basically extensions of toxic cop culture, or a confident mommi-type who is just not a match for Patty? I’m really not sure, but they’re trying with each other, and Patty promises to come by Tammy’s family thing that night, after she picks up a table with Allison.
Allison and Patty meet on the street. They’re on their way to the mortuary, where Billy PI greets them, snottily, at the door. Why are they there? It’s a crucial step in Allison’s plan to fake her death: They need to find an unclaimed young, single person, recently deceased, whose identity she can take for her new life. Billy PI tells them to go into the basement and ditches them.
They’re looking for a white female born between 1979 and 1991, little online presence, no relatives, on vacation. As they head down into the bowels of the big Victorian building, Patty quips, “On vacation in Worcester? And I thought the new you couldn’t get any sadder!”
Au contraire, Patty — Allison has been very sad before! In fact, she was in this very mortuary, at a wake in 2005, saying good-bye to a cop, in her pearls and a big blonde wig. She focuses on a run in her tights. As they go through the room where the wake occurred, Allison is haunted, and Patty notices her distress. Allison says, quietly, that it’s nothing, and “Just glad you’re here.”
In the basement, Allison and Patty find the sad, creepy room of unclaimed bodies. It’s death that’s “sadder than regular death,” Allison says. Terribly true. Patty’s focused on the task at hand, ready to find Allison a new name so she can go to Tammy’s sister for a night of board games. Allison appears a little bit jealous, or moody, to say the least. But there’s no time to fight because Patty found the right candidate for Allison’s new life: a woman born in Connecticut, died on the Mass Pike in a pile-up, no obit, no “co-worker guilted into doing a GoFundMe to pay for the funeral.” The only problem? Her name was Gertrude Fronch, a 40-something.
Back in 2005 Bleak World, Allison is having a panic attack in front of the wake crudités in a side room. When her mom barges in, we’re in Sitcom World, and the ham on the table clatters to the ground. Immediately her mom calls Allison an “emotional eater,” and says nitrates killed her father (i.e., the cop whose wake we’re at). They banter a little to the laugh track and her mom chides her about how she planned the wake. Everything’s too fancy. There’s ham. Her late husband is in a suit. (But it’s Gooci, a knockoff!) Allison’s just like her dad: lofty ideas, terrible followthrough. She scoffs at Allison’s dreams of college and leaves the room. Alone, sad, and angry in the lighting of Bleak World, Allison rips up her tights.
I try not to harp on the set-up of Kevin Can F**k Himself too much, but I could. (Short version: It’s a fascinating idea, rife with potential, and it feels ham-handed by its own cleverness.) I think what hurts the show’s effect is that there’s never quite enough commitment to the deconstruction of form. The logline may have been at some point “the secret world of a sitcom wife” but Sitcom World doesn’t feel like the primary world, it mostly serves as a sort of place where abuse is laughed off and made palatable for regular audiences, and the way the show goes, you believe that Bleak World is the real world, the everyday world. The rules are feeling like narcissistic abusers are living in Sitcom World, and everyone else orbits around it, and that’s … okay, but you need Bleak World to be legitimately gripping in the story that it’s offering. (Often, Sitcom World is kind of fun, you know? Stupid, bad, sexist fun, and a lot of the credit goes to Eric Petersen as Kevin, who is excellent.) Lofty ideas, terrible followthrough is not not a fair critique of this show in some ways.
After finding Gertrude, Patty is hankering to leave, but Allison is insisting on more searching. She wants a better name. A potentially better life! And she gets a little “I’m not like you, Patty, I’m special” in the way that she’s going about it. But a haunting is going on right now — Allison is back in the building where the worst day of her life happened, where she went to her father’s wake and met Kevin (later, at a bar) and possibilities went down one road. Of course she’s tetchy. They’re interrupted by the creepy mortician, or a creepy guy at least, and the girls are scared straight (out of the mortuary). Allison and Patty split up.
Bleak World, 2005. Allison and Patty first meet at the bar. Allison’s having a symbolic beer, reminding herself of her dad, but she hates it, in all honesty. Patty makes eyes at her and blurts out that when her mom died, she threw up Bailey’s behind the church. They exchange names. Allison puts her hand on Patty’s arm. They shake hands, goofily, as Patty walks off, stealing a passing glance back at Allison. A spark was there, huh?
In the graveyard, Allison is looking for the potter’s field section of the place, and it’s a spooky time of night, dark and scary and misty. A cat yowls, and Allison stumbles, backwards into an open grave. The camera looks down at her, framed in the dirt. It’s creepy and frightening.
And now we’re in Sitcom World 2005. Kevin is at the bar with Neil and another dude friend. He is discussing a shenanigan with: “There’s coffee, donuts flyin’ everywhere,” and when he gets to the punchline, everyone laughs, Patty rolls her eyes, and Allison, at the bar, giggles and makes eyes at Kevin. They get to talking, Kevin offers to buy her a drink, Allison impresses the doofuses by asking for a beer, and Patty yells “Hello!” at her because she knows she’s lying. Kevin and Allison are all goony-eyed at each other.
Patty finds Allison in the open grave. She pulls her out. She went there because she knew Allison would get lost, that she needed the support. And she helps her limping friend walk back home, suggesting — rightfully — that she maybe needs a new funeral home, because that place is a little bit cursed. (After all, she almost got buried alive.) Allison says, clipped, that it wasn’t the worst day of her life because of the wake. (We know why.)
Neil, Kevin, and Pete share a blanket, watching a scary movie in Sitcom World. Tammy sits in the chair, rolling her eyes. Neil’s sleep issues are why she’s there — he called for support. Previously, Neil thought that Pete was an intruder, and he and Kevin joke “we almost shot him.” After that joke, the door rattles and scrapes. Scared, Kevin does a dropkick at the door in order to protect Neil, hurting Allison in the process. A hurt Allison holds frozen peas to her head as Kevin and Neil explain the thought process that got them there (sitcom shenanigans, off screen). “I pop you in the face with a door one time. How many times do I have to say I’m sorry?” Kevin says. “Once would be nice,” Allison shoots back.
In Bleak World, Allison is holding the frozen peas to her face, looking in the bathroom mirror. Annie Murphy’s face is a roadmap of a ton of emotion. And here’s where it gets weird, right? Because she’s an abused wife. That’s a brutal injury. But we’re shown it in this harmless seeming Sitcom World, and it’s just part of the laugh track. It’s hard to square the two ideas. Sitcom World seems to be serving as a metaphor for narcissistic abuse, through a genial, stupid lens. Does that give her injury less dramatic power, overall?
Allison remembers 2005, how giddy she was outside the bar, telling Patty that Kevin was going to cook her a meal for their first date. Patty’s eyes go wide, she says nothing but “Good luck.” It was more of a warning.
And back in the present, Patty’s behind Allison, supporting her. She tells her that Gertrude is her best option. Allison’s ready for it.
Starbucks?! Over Dunkies???
• How do you feel about Detective Tammy Ridgeway? At her sister’s place, she’s petulant and bratty but still her semi-stiff, rules-y self, wanting her phone to see if Patty got in touch? And her sister is also kind of a tough nut, guess it runs in the family.
• Is it symbolic that when Allison is lying in an open grave, she then flashes back to the first time she meets Kevin?
• Hi! Do you want to know how to fake your own death? Maybe you would be interested in Elizabeth Greenwood’s book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud.
• Kevin bon mot: “You have to be ready to haul ass at any moment. [From] bouncers, Yankees fans, nocturnal animals.”
• One thing about the show that makes my brain go in circles is this question: Is it critiquing dumb sitcoms, or is it using dumb sitcoms to critique misogyny? Or maybe the answer is all of the above?