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‘Kevin Can Wait’ season 2 premiere barely mentions Erinn Hayes’ character’s death

"Kevin Can Wait" co-stars Kevin James and Leah Remini. Credit: CBS / Jeffrey Neira

Oh, so that’s how you do it.

“It” is take a reasonably popular Long Island-based sitcom and kill off the sitcom matriarch over the summer, then return in the fall as if nothing particularly unusual has happened.

The recipe: First, flash-forward a whole year. Second, have the star and sitcom namesake grow a beard to signify the passage of time, and convey an inner sadness (oh cruel world . . . why bother to shave?).

Three, pretend nothing happened. Four, almost pretend (make two well-veiled references to the dearly departed, but absolutely not one more than that . . .).

And so, “Kevin can Wait” returned for a second season in an attempt to answer the question that no one seemed to have an answer to over the summer: How do you kill off the popular co-star, Erinn Hayes -- aka Donna Gable -- without turning a featherweight sitcom into Chekhov?

Answer: See above.

Hayes was dropped from the show after the end of last season, for reasons never explained. CBS wanted to make Leah Remini -- Vanessa Cellucci, back Monday -- a regular in an attempt to invoke some of that ol’ “King of Queens” magic, and presumably figured Hayes’ character would be in the way. Nevertheless, the move perplexed fans because, well . . . why? Hayes was good as Donna. Why mess with what works?

In the opening seconds, Kevin Gable -- Kevin James -- is seen in full-beard, while his TV kids are getting ready to catch the school bus. Daughter Kendra (Taylor Spreitler) tells her dad to put healthy food into her brother and sister’s lunch. Dad does not.

And then, the moment we’d all been waiting for -- an explanation -- and it’s left to Kendra to do the explaining. As her boyfriend, Chale (Ryan Cartwright) enters the kitchen, Kevin says he’s got mail. (Chale: “Oh, Chale mail . . .”)

Then, as Kevin is going through the pile, he says: “You gotta be kidding me. Not again. It’s from your mom’s gym. It’s a postcard. ‘We haven’t seen you in a year. We miss you.’”

He then says, “You know what? So do I.”

Kendra: “It’s been over a year since she died. They shouldn’t be sending that.”

Kevin: “That’s right, right? Oh, but don’t throw that out. On the bottom there’s a coupon for a Kung Fu lesson. I wanna go.”

And that, fans, was your elegy for Donna. She comes up again -- as an afterthought -- later in the episode while Kendra is preparing for her quickie wedding to Chale (to prevent his deportation). Donna’s name is not mentioned. It’s almost as if she never existed at all.

TV comedies, like TV dramas, are strange cultural fixtures: They exist on their own plane of reality, until they are canceled, but from that moment of conception to that moment of demise, they attempt to achieve a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. The balance is particularly precarious in a sitcom, because on some level you have to like the leads but also, especially, identify with them. That’s part of the chemistry, the magic, of any successful TV enterprise.

A show that messes with the chemistry threatens to mess up the very show. And Monday, “Kevin Can Wait” messed up. By barely acknowledging Hayes, the show pretended it could go on as if nothing had happened. She died? Who’s “she?” So what. The sitcom laughs, like the show, must go on. Kevin Gable -- last season, a funny, genial, ex-cop and all-around good guy from the Island -- now comes off as someone who’s callow, shallow and glib. Don’t forget the Kung Fu coupon, Kev.

Bottom line: A disappointment, more keenly felt because this is LONG ISLAND’S own sitcom and in James, its hometown TV hero.

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