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'Kevin Can Wait' season 2 review: Donna's unexplained death left a black hole that hurt the show

Kevin James, Ryan Cartwright and Taylor Spreitler

 Kevin James, Ryan Cartwright and Taylor Spreitler of "Kevin Can Wait."  Credit: CBS/David M. Russell

THE SHOW "Kevin Can Wait"

WHEN | WHERE Season 2 finale Monday at 8 p.m. on CBS/2

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the season finale, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Billy Joel-band member Mike DelGuidice guest star as reuniting members of Smokefish, the old rock band of Kevin Gable (Kevin James). In the episode (“A Band Done”), Kevin entertains his latest delusion: success as an aging rocker. (A screener was not made available for review.)

MY SAY Since the beginning of the season, a writer for Esquire.com, Matt Miller, has been on a lonely, quixotic quest — to find out what happened to “Kevin's” Donna Gable (Erinn Hayes). As viewers know, Kevin's spouse was killed off before the season opener. Miller wanted to know why. He created a hashtag (#JusticeforDonna), then closely watched each episode for clues to her fate. After a few weeks, he grimly concluded that foul play was involved. “What's seemingly a harmless sitcom about a family in Long Island,” he wrote, “is actually a dark, subversive commentary on society's unsavory impulses disguised as a family comedy.”

He's not exactly right. (It's on Long Island, Matt.) But Miller's raucous mockery aside, he's definitely onto something. Whatever  did happen to Donna? She just vanished, reported dead as the proverbial doornail. But how, why, when? Death is forever. Sitcoms are only for the next commercial break. There was some dissonance here. What happened to Donna? (James' co-star from "King of Queens," Leah Remini, was added to the cast this season, as Vanessa Cellucci, Kevin's former cop partner, who now runs Monkey Fist Security.)

There have been lots of untimely demises on sitcoms over the decades. Susan licked too many stamps (“Seinfeld"). Charlie was flattened by a piano (“Two and a Half Men”). Col. Blake was shot down (“M*A*S*H”). But the point is, we knew how they died and why they had to; Charlie Sheen's character was the pre-eminent example. But Donna was dispatched without cause, and it was left to “Kevin” to explain.

“Kevin” did not, and, indeed, went the exact opposite direction — toward obfuscation, ridicule, morbidity. An October episode had Kevin skipping work by pretending to go to a Parents Without Spouses meeting, when, in fact, he went to a Jets game. In a recent episode, daughter Kendra (Taylor Spreitling) looks downcast when he says that something terrible happened to him at Enzo's. Finally, a clue: Donna must have died at Enzo's (or choked on pizza, as Miller surmised). But no, Kevin only saw the Yanks sweep the Mets here in the '00 World Series.

A weird black hole has existed at the center of “Kevin” this season because it's finally occurred to fans, viewers, really anyone, that “Kevin” hasn't a clue what happened to Donna and couldn't care less, either. Successful sitcoms float on a cloud of fake goodwill and bonhomie, even the most seditious of them (“Seinfeld”). By bumping off Donna, “Kevin” couldn't even fake that.

This has hurt the show. By Friday, the deadline for this review, CBS had still not handed the top-rated new sitcom of the 2016-17 season a third season order. Viewership is down by 16 percent, or about two million viewers.  Kevin James, the likeable lumpenproletarian of sitcoms and movies, may have taken a hit, too. At the very least, “beloved working-stiff everyman” doesn't seem to quite work for him any more.

Long Island has also taken a hit this season. Yeah, we know “Kevin” is set on Long Island (and in fact is taped at Bethpage's Gold Coast Studios), but we know this only because we're told via the occasional name-check, or “Massapequa rules!” T-shirt. Change the names and T-shirts and this could just as easily be set in Saskatoon.

The other weird thing about “Kevin” is that it's not a terrible show. There's a slick professionalism to this enterprise, a deep familiarity, too. Remini joined up and — just like the old times — has been perfectly good. Another old James pal, Bas Rutten – an MMA world champion – was also added to the cast. He's good, too, also a little scary because you know that with a few deft moves, he could kill everyone on the set.

And there we go again, ending this review on death, morbidity, existential dread. What a weird season.

BOTTOM LINE "Kevin" was weakened by losing Donna, and the damage was self-inflicted.

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