'Kevin Can Wait': Why this TV mom had to die

Kevin Can Wait
Erinn Hayes (left) and Kevin James in a scene from “Kevin Can Wait,” which is killing off Hayes’ character.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Looking back, I can’t think why the news that CBS was killing off another TV mom surprised me.

I grew up watching widowed fathers on TV, from My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I was a mother myself by the time Valerie Harper’s character met her death on a family sitcom called Valerie. Bewitched might have subbed out Darren, but TV mothers had always been on thin ice. Many never even got to lace up their skates.

(Not that movie mothers have fared any better. See: Almost every Disney movie ever.)

Maybe it was the matter-of-fact way Thom Sherman, the network’s senior executive vice president for programming, answered a reporter’s question Tuesday about how the previously announced departure of Erinn Hayes from Kevin Can Wait would be handled.

“The character will have passed away,” Sherman said, “and we will be moving forward in time, catching up at a later date.”

And then, as someone else asked CBS entertainment president Kelly Kahl a question about CBS All Access’ new Star Trek: Discovery,  reporters’ Twitter feeds began to register their shock.

It goes that way sometimes during Television Critics Association meetings, a semiannual marathon of news conferences, set visits, working (really) cocktail parties, and countless opportunities for face time with people whom it otherwise might take days or weeks to get on the phone. We may think we know what the stories might be going in — issues like diversity, the changing way people consume (and pay for) TV, shows with buzz — but there are always the headlines we didn’t see coming.

Like the one that tens of thousands of Philly.com readers clicked on this week, reporting that Kevin Can Wait would kill off the wife to make room for Leah Remini.

Many of us in the Beverly Hilton ballroom hadn’t seen much, if anything, of Kevin Can Wait since the pilot, which introduced Kevin James as a newly retired cop named Kevin Gable and Hayes as his wife, Donna. The Kevin James I saw in what I’d called “the most ordinary of dumb-dad sitcoms”  was reminiscent enough of Doug Heffernan, the character he played for nine seasons on The King of Queens, that I figured he’d be just fine, with or without Remini, his former costar.

And now you know why I’m not running a TV network.

Because I’d probably have made fictional Kevin stay married to Donna, the mother of his three children, even after seeing what Kahl called the “undeniable spark” between James and his former TV wife when Remini guest-starred at the end of the first season as Kevin’s ex-partner on the job.

Once it was announced, though, that Remini was joining the show and Hayes was leaving, what else could Kevin Can Wait have done? Told the kids their mom had gone to live on a farm where she’d have plenty of room to run around?

Anthologies are big, but I don’t see Kevin Can Wait becoming a show that presents James with a new TV wife every season. So Donna had to die. Yet things may have changed since the days when TV’s maternal mortality rate raised few eyebrows.

Take the reaction three years ago to the series finale of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. Remember how not thrilled many fans were to learn that the “Mother” — played so charmingly by Cherry Hill’s Cristin Milioti — was dead by the time the narrator, Philadelphia’s Bob Saget, started talking about her?

We should have seen it coming: Before he was the voice of Older Ted, Saget had played one of TV’s most prominent widowers, Full House’s Danny Tanner.

Kahl, to be fair, isn’t expecting producers to make Donna’s death funny. This isn’t The Simpsons (where even Maude Flanders’ exit wasn’t without pathos). No one’s changing the title to Kevin Can Date (though he almost certainly will).

Best case for CBS: People who loved James and Remini together show up when Kevin Can Wait returns Sept. 25, and Hayes’ character, mentioned less and less over time, eventually becomes a Wikipedia footnote, like Happy Days’ forgotten brother, Chuck Cunningham.

Worst case? This kills the show.

I’ve always assumed TV liked widowers with children because writers found the idea of men being capable hands-on parents laughable, and because of, yes, the dating. But it may be just that the shows I grew up watching were largely written by men. Maybe some were exploring, comically or not, one of the things they feared most?

On Wednesday, the CW brought together much of the cast of the old WB’s Everwood — sans Chris Pratt — for a sometimes-tearful 15th-anniversary reunion that not incidentally promoted the show’s availability on the network’s free, ad-supported streaming service, CW Seed.

Everwood was, in its day, one of the better dead-mother shows, featuring Treat Williams as Andy Brown, a workaholic surgeon in Manhattan who, after losing his wife, turns his life upside down, moving with his son, Ephram (Gregory Smith), and daughter, Delia (Vivien Cardone), to a small town in Colorado.

Created by Greg Berlanti, who was doing shows with heart years before anyone had heard of This Is Us, Everwood could be sappy. But it never failed to acknowledge the hole in the Brown family’s lives, even to the point of casting Brenda Strong as Andy’s late wife, Julia. (Strong went on to play dead again in Desperate Housewives, as the original desperate housewife, MaryAlice Young.)

Why, I asked Berlanti afterward, did he choose to write about a widower?

“One of the very first scenes I wrote was a scene between Andy and Ephram. And I wrote the scene before I knew I was going to write a show about it,” he said. “It was just that sense of like, what if my father, who I knew so much less than I knew my mom … had been left to raise me? Would he have given up everything just to focus on me?”

Growing up, he said, “I liked The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” but he was also influenced by Atticus Finch, the widowed father of a son and daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. “I liked sort of that triangle in the household.”

He also liked the idea of making Julia a character  — “she’s not alive, but she’s there” from time to time.

“What do we owe someone’s soul to live on after they die? Do we owe promises to them?” Berlanti said. “I think those were questions we got to ask.”