Writing comedy for an actor who's most comfortable with physical humor is a challenge in the best of situations. The temptation is to simply write some sort of comedy scaffolding that sets up the joke, knowing it's likely the actor can wrangle laughs out of the situation. Plus, physical comedy is tough to write and it's a skillset that even veteran TV comedy writers struggle to get right.
When it comes to physical comedy, there are few performers as comfortable with the process than Kevin James. TV critics seem to consider the success of "King Of Queens" as some sort of reflection of the CBS audience's lowered comedy expectations. Or at best, an indication Leah Remini can make anything funny.
But I've always thought of James as an extremely under-appreciated talent. I watched a few live tapings of "King Of Queens," and in that context, you could really see his ability to wring a laugh out of the dumbest punchlines. I remember watching him try and get a laugh out of this stupid little motion he was supposed to do with his hands in one scene. He did the scene, again and again, tweaking his delivery and hand motions until the bit worked. James knows how to deliver a line and is as comfortable with his body as any beefier actor has ever been on television.
When he returned to CBS last season in "Kevin Can Wait," it was clear what the network and studio wanted to see in the show. James is a familiar name to audiences and the success in syndication of "King of Queens" meant that all everyone had to do was get the new show working well enough to crank out a few very lucrative seasons. Then cue the cash register.
The problem is that from the start, "Kevin Can Wait" seemed as if it were cobbled together Frankenstein-style by some committee of junior executives under the age of 30. The premise of a recently retired cop learning to live with retirement and his daughter's new live-in boyfriend might work with an actor better suited to blustery complaints and sarcasm. But that certainly isn't the strength of James and the entire season was a mish-mash of dead-end premises and missed moments.
Given all that, I can understand on one level while the network and show's producers thought the cast needed a shake-up. And having former "King Of Queens" co-star Leah Remini guest star on the show as Kevin's old police partner Vanessa late in season one probably seemed like a gift from above. James & Remini still have a strong chemistry and a shared history that makes it somewhat easier to wring laughs out of often mediocre lines. So the decision was made to kill off Kevin's wife (played by Erinn Hayes) and bring Remini into the show full-time.
But one episode into the new season, it's too early to know how successful that move will be. Next week introduces the new wrinkle of having Kevin work for Vanessa at her new security company. It has at least the potential of creating some richer opportunities for comedy and the chance to organically add some new characters.
Unfortunately, the changes don't address the core problems of the show. Too much of the show still focuses on the relationship between Kevin and his now son-in-law Chale (played by Ryan Cartwright). Chale has never been more than a one-dimensional foil and his slightly effeminate artsy English persona has never seemed to be based in reality. Season two begins with Chale and Kevin's daughter Kendra (Taylor Sprietler) rushing to get married so he won't be deported. But the couple has no real on-air chemistry and it's not at all clear what the smart and funny Kendra sees in Chale. Other than that he's just not her Dad. The scenes between Chale and Kevin still fall flat comedically and every time they appear together you can just feel the energy and joy being sucked out of the room.
There's also the problem that Kevin's character isn't well-defined, which is unfortunate given the show has "Kevin" in the title. If you're going to compare "Kevin Can Wait" to "King Of Queens," the biggest difference between the two is Kevin James was given a character that has some range and nuance. Yes, he generally lost the argument when dealing with his wife. But he got to notch some wins in other parts of his life and even when he lost, the setback was organic and believable. Erinn Hayes was given the difficult task of playing a low-energy wife who for whatever reason was married to a likable dumbass. It wasn't a dynamic that had any possibility of working, no matter how talented the actors. Adding Leah Remini ups the sarcasm and energy. But at least in the season's premiere episode, Kevin is still a dumbass. It's not that he makes bad decisions, he makes bad decisions that only seem to exist in order to try and give other cast members the opportunity to be disappointed in him.
If you want to see an example of what I'm talking about, watch the underrated Netflix movie "True Memoirs Of An International Assassin." In that film, Kevin James plays a sad-sack struggling author who is mistaken for a real-life assassin. But the movie provides James with a balanced character who is both buffoon and hero. He's likable and still the butt of a lot of jokes. But he seems more innocent and well-meaning than the idiot. That's a major reason why that film works while "Kevin Can Wait" continues to flail around in search of a point of view.
I have no idea whether the Leah Remini-led reboot of the show will work out in the long run. But producers didn't buy themselves any goodwill from fans of the show by almost ignoring the exit of Erinn Hayes' character from the series. Her death was mentioned in passing, as part of a joke about a gym promotional mailer and later during the wedding. For all of the talk from producers of the desire to honor Hayes's work on the show, they devoted more time to Chale's description of his English hometown than they did to the death of Kevin's wife. It's was a tacky move, but a decision consistent with a show that doesn't have any core identity.
I'll continue to tune in and follow the evolution of the show in coming weeks. But based on what I've seen so far, what Kevin seems to be waiting for is a show deserving of his talents.