Tonight, Kevin James returns to TV with Kevin Can Wait, the new sitcom in which he plays an ordinary guy who has just retired from the police force. This is a stunning change of pace for the actor, who was previously the star of The King of Queens, in which he played an ordinary guy … who worked as a delivery driver.
Network television has its reliable programming staples: cop shows, hospital dramas, anything written by Shonda Rhimes and sitcoms starring schlubs. Married … With Children, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, The King of Queens, Family Guy, According to Jim and now Kevin Can Wait have all been built around the exploits of everymen who are proud to be basic. You know these TV schlubs when you see them: They’re lazy, pointedly unremarkable, maybe overweight, definitely white.
Until Kevin Can Wait, it also seemed as though they’d been properly put out of their misery by the genius writers of Parks and Recreation. They created the most realistic schlub of all — Jerry Gergich. He was such a perfect schlub that, after him, there never needed to be another.
Portrayed by Jim O’Heir, Jerry was the office punching bag in the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department. A few years away from retirement, oddly pleased that he owned a timeshare in Muncie, Indiana, Jerry was the ultimate TV schlub: pudgy, dimwitted, breathtakingly ordinary, not particularly good at his job. He would perpetually embarrass himself by splitting his pants, falling down or letting out a big fart. In any other era, he would have been the main character, everyone else in his orbit loving him for how endearingly fallible he was.
But what was both smart and heartbreaking about Parks and Rec was that that wasn’t how anybody treated Jerry. For a sitcom that was rightly celebrated for its novel emphasis on “championing good old fashion niceness,” the one character who was rarely shown much love was Jerry. In fact, he’s mocked by everyone else. It’s telling, too, that the characters who picked on him were, by and large, the sorts of people who are usually marginalized on television. Women like Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) mocked Jerry. African-Americans like Donna Meagle (Retta) mocked Jerry. Indian-Americans like Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) mocked Jerry.
In the show’s sweetly sunny way, it suggested that the modern workplace didn’t have much use for a bumbling incompetent. That attitude runs counter to what we’ve seen in sitcoms for years, as the Homer Simpsons, Doug Heffernans and Al Bundys of the world get to be the stars just because they’re white — or, in the case of The Simpsons, yellow. The only thing that was interesting about them was their whiteness, which was meant to make them seem adorably average. In the process, whiteness was treated as the norm. Jerry was painfully ordinary and dumb — Vulture even compiled a list of everything he did wrong on the show — and an integrated, progressive show like Parks and Rec had no time for him.
Yet the irony was that, deep down, Jerry was a far better person than any of the schlubs who’d come before him. When Married … With Children launched, the then-new Fox Network wanted to create controversy by flying in the face of the traditional, pleasant family sitcom. Ed O’Neill’s Al Bundy was an asshole, and the show was a big screw-you to the banal life lessons extolled by The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Not long after, The Simpsons — a far smarter, sweeter and subversive show — achieved a similar feat for Fox, and soon there were plenty of hit sitcoms with dumb guys as their leads. They weren’t all dickheads like Al Bundy, but a lot of the humor came from their lack of sophistication or manners.
For his many faults, Jerry was never a dick. Sure, he messed up constantly, but he actually had a kind soul. He was a talented painter with a beautiful wife (played by Christie Brinkley) and three gorgeous daughters who all loved him. Fiercely loyal and unfailingly optimistic, Jerry was a good guy who just happened to be the laughingstock of his workplace, partly because he was the least cool guy there.
What’s funny is that Jerry probably would watch Kevin Can Wait or The King of Queens. He’s an ordinary guy with simple tastes, after all. But the future of network television (and the world, frankly) looks a lot more like the sitcom he was on than the sitcoms he’d enjoy.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.