Sunday, September 18, 2016

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'Kevin Can Wait'

CBS will premiere its new original comedy series Kevin Can Wait on Monday, September 19 at 8:30/7:30c. following the season premiere of The Big Bang Theory. The comedy stars Kevin James, Erinn Hayes, Taylor Spreitler, Mary-Charles Jones, James DiGiacomo, Ryan Cartwright, Lenny Venito, Gary Valentine and Leonard Earl Howze.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its premiere episode.

There is definitely room for a broad, Kevin James-starring sitcom in the television landscape of 2016. It can exist in this medium just as easily as Donald Glover's Atlanta or Pamela Adlon's Better Things or Issa Rae's Insecure can. That is especially true on CBS. It is a network that knows exactly what its brand is. In fact, this new slate of fall shows seems perfectly manufactured to appeal to CBS' strong and loyal brand of viewers. However, that makes all of them quite formulaic and familiar. CBS is not striving to be on the forefront of creative and original thought right now. It can still bring in tens of millions of viewers to watch its shows. As a business model, that makes them very successful. These new shows won't rock the boat. It just makes it hard to muster any kind of excitement for shows like Kevin Can Wait because they are just so dated and don't appeal to younger audiences at all.

I can - and I will - rip apart Kevin Can Wait based on one episode. But whether critics like it or not (and most of them do not), this sitcom will more than likely be a hit for CBS. Kevin James is still a reliable performer. He still has a fan base that's excited to see his projects. This is his big return to CBS since The King of Queens ended back in 2007. The television industry has changed dramatically over the last decade. But fans of that former show will take comfort in Kevin Can Wait virtually being the same thing. Familiarity can be a powerful marketing tool. The broadcast networks are certainly hoping so this fall. They are betting on familiar sounding projects to get viewers back on their networks. Audiences and critical conversation has shifted to cable and streaming. That's where exciting things are happening. It's not where they are exclusively happening though. Broadcast is still doing a number of great and interesting things as well. Not every new show this fall is based on a pre-existing concept. That will make for an exciting premiere week over the next few days. Kevin Can Wait isn't an original premise. The structure will feel familiar to fans of the genre. But shows don't have to break the mold in order to stand out. Sometimes solid versions of those familiar concepts can be strong and entertaining too. Viewers may feel that with Kevin Can Wait. I did not. I won't be watching a second episode. But I also understand why this type of show will work for mass audiences - which is what CBS ultimately whats.

So, Kevin James plays a police officer looking forward to his retirement. He sees it as a golden time for him and his buddies (Lenny Venito, Leonard Earl Howze and Christopher Brian Roach) to finally kick back and relax after a life on the force. He gets a wake up call once his wife (Erinn Hayes) and kids (Taylor Spreitler, Mary-Charles Jones and James DiGiacomo) get in the way of all of his fun plans. Things won't be any easier or more fun in retirement than they were on the job. Kevin just has to find the perfect balance so that he can be there for his family while still having fun with his friends. And cue the wild and hilarious hijinks.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Kevin Can Wait based on its premiere is that the premise doesn't make any sense at all. This just doesn't feel like a man in a solid enough family situation to actually retire. First of all, Kevin James is only 51 years old. That just seems way too young for his character to be considering retirement - especially in 2016. His character also has a proclivity for reckless and irresponsible choices. It seems incredible that he was actually a police officer. In retirement, he wants to day drink and learn how to shoot a crossbow with his friends. He wants to combine go cart racing and paint ball. It's these extravagant moments that highlight the show's wild and crazy comedic sensibilities. It's not completely playing things close to reality. Kevin spends money like crazy and it's not that big of a deal. And yet, it totally is. He and his wife, Donna, believed that they could offset his salary simply by renting out the room above their garage. With a daughter in college and two more in middle school, that just seems ridiculous. Donna is asked to be nothing more than the too impossibly hot sitcom wife who nags the husband and gets in the way of him having a good time. But she isn't concerned enough about her husband's spending habits and how foolishly planned this whole retirement actually was. The show is obviously trying to buck that cliche character type. They try to let Hayes in on the fun as well. It just doesn't work at all.

More importantly, I'm getting extremely tired of the buffoonish father character type as well. It still has some value in some rare cases. But the quality of the material has to be strong otherwise the characterization just feels lazy. With this show, it's as if series creators Bruce Helford and Rock Reuben thought that physical comedy bits were all that audiences like about Kevin James - who is obviously game to play them. It's not even two minutes into the premiere until James is dancing around with a gyro ball. And yet, it feels more like product integration than a solid beat of physical humor that informs the character. That's what the show wants to do though. Kevin is the fun-loving guy who just wants to go do crazy stuff with his friends. He's completely oblivious to what's going on with his family. His two young kids have issues at school while his oldest daughter, Kendra, has a serious boyfriend. He doesn't want to deal with the responsibilities of this life. That's not appealing at all. It's suppose to be seen as good parenting when he takes his son out on his go cart adventure in the end. Instead, it almost plays as child endangerment because it's not something the kid wants to do and the entire sequence is over-the-top with the guys riding down the street destroying public property.

Kevin Can Wait obviously wants to play everything for laughs. It's attempt at sentiment is really forced and doesn't come off as natural at all. That's because nothing in this show feels real or genuine. It's actually quite horrifying when the studio audience bursts into laugher when the son says "I think I have a concussion from football." Or when a prospective tenant says "By the grace of God, I'm sober now.... for 18 days." Or when Kevin's brother interrupts a conversation to say "Your smoke detectors are running low on batteries." Those aren't sentences that are inherently funny. Nor is the line delivery or specific situations justify such laughter. It's just the show's approach to comedic structuring. Everything is a joke. The heart and lesson don't come until the end of the second act. And then, the episode closes with a fun sequence. That's the structure the show believes in. The most successful shows do much more than that though. There's just no indication if Kevin Can Wait wants to do anything more than what's on the surface. Those immediate details with the characters aren't great either. Kevin calls Donna a prostitute on two separate occasions. It's played for laughter. Donna calls Kendra a stripper. It's played for laughter. Kendra's boyfriend, Chale, has weird mannerisms because he's an app developer. It's played for laughter. All of this is cliche and really lazy writing. None of it is great or offers any hope that it will get better in the future.