Sitcom wives are a tired trope, but Annie Murphy of 'Schitt's Creek' is flipping the script
Imagine a sitcom. It's easy. There's the laugh track and the high-key lighting. The husband, dense and loud, drinking a beer on the couch while simultaneously sucking all the air out of the room. His wife stands behind or beside him, at the ready for whatever her husband needs. Conjuring these images — scenes perhaps left over from childhoods spent by a television — we never wonder what happens when the wife walks out of the picture. Where does she go? What does she think? Who is she? What does she need?
That is the premise that creator and executive producer Valerie Armstrong invented for the new AMC dramedy series "Kevin Can (Expletive) Himself," executive-produced by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. At first, it looks and feels like a traditional comedy, shot in multicamera format. Dipping in and out of that bright living room, though, is a darker, more realistic world, shot with a single camera, that brings the viewer into the rooms and minds we rarely get to see.
Set in Worcester, Mass., and starring Annie Murphy ("Schitt's Creek") as the wife, Allison McRoberts, the series gives us the story that Peg Bundy, Debra Barone, Carrie Heffernan and many more weren't afforded over decades of sitcoms.
"It is not a show within a show," says Armstrong, who was a staff writer on CBS's "SEAL Team" when a meet-and-greet with AMC executives turned into a pitch meeting for what would become her own series. "It is not something that is in her head or supernatural. We worked really hard to make it so that both worlds are reality; it's just a different lens."
Though Allison is an amalgam of sitcom wives, "Home Improvement's" Jill Taylor (Patricia Richardson) was often front of mind for Armstrong when it came to building the character. As a teenager, Armstrong heard Richardson lamenting about her role in an interview, begging the writers to give her something — anything. They sent Mrs. Taylor to law school, which mainly resulted in a few scenes where she got to carry some books.
There have been exceptions to the rule, of course: Clair Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad) of "The Cosby Show" was given a progressive lifestyle — something often commented on by the media and critics. Holding that coveted law degree, a job, running the household and having the chutzpah to speak up for herself, Mrs. Huxtable was every bit the antithesis of, say, Peg Bundy (Katey Sagal), who is described as lazy in the "Married ... with Children" tagline. Or "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Debra Barone (Patricia Heaton), constantly ridiculed by her mother-in-law for bad cooking and subpar cleaning — women pitted against women as comedic fodder.
When Armstrong listened to a podcast where two actresses were talking about constant auditions for those kind of roles and being used as a setup machine for jokes by men, she thought, "I want to see that woman on screen."
At the same time, Murphy was deliberately trying to find a role that would give her leave of Alexis Rose, despite the famously ditzy "Schitt's Creek" character's hidden vulnerability and eventual growth. "Finally, a good script," Murphy thought when she first read Armstrong's pilot. "Finally, something new and exciting and (like nothing) I've seen before. I read a lot of bad scripts (and kept) getting different iterations of a rich, blond socialite that people were like, 'No, no, no, but we can make it totally different.'"
None of them were actually different, though. When Murphy read Allison on the page, she connected with her humanity. "Every decision that she makes is basically the wrong one and she's dealing with the repercussions," says Murphy. "We make mistakes all the time and we make the wrong choice all the time, but we keep trying to keep going. I think that might be what people will root for in Allison. They might see themselves in her."
One of the aspects of this oft-marginalized character that Armstrong and her writing team wanted to tap into was Allison's rage. It was important to Armstrong that in the flowery, multicamera format, it's not clear that Allison is upset.
Allison isn't completely alone in her single-camera rage, though. Patty O'Connor (Mary Hollis Inboden) is the McRoberts's neighbor of 10 years and seems to understand the droll hum of being a sidelined woman a bit more than Allison — though, at first, she's not all that much into helping her out of it.
At "Kevin's" best, Inboden posits that TV can act as social work, and for far too long, we've learned from the Kevins of the sitcom milieu, embedding their behavior into our own psyches. Armstrong has found a fun and funny way (the plot of a wife thinking about killing her husband notwithstanding) to say something about a woman's rage and her dissatisfaction. To give all the Debra Barones a voice.
"All I want is for one woman to watch Allison and say, 'Oh, thank God. It's not just me. It's not just me,'" says Armstrong. "Maybe they don't want to kill their husbands, but ..."
Murphy finishes her thought, laughing: " ... But maybe they just want to make a change. And it could be a small change, but even just the opportunity, or the thought, that maybe things can improve just a little bit from watching the show."
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