Show: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
Genre: Fantasy comedy-drama
Premiered: October 3, 2017
Nightly news got you down? Does the world feel a bit scarier and a whole lot colder than it did even just a few years ago? Are you bored and just looking for an hour to kill? Well, whatever your reasons, you might find what you’re looking for in ABC’s new comedy drama, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. Created by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, the series follows the well-trod formula of quasi-mystical, inoffensive “spirituality” shows meant to drive home some tough-love lessons. This kind of gimmick would have gone the way of the dodo and Touched by an Angel a long time ago were it not for the recent desire to believe in something beyond the seemingly intractable political shouting matches erupting both within and between nations that have polarized and alienated so many. But can this old formula learn a new trick to keep up with today’s reality t.v. culture, short attention-spans, and cynical viewers?
Kevin Finn (played by Jason Ritter, son of the legendary television actor) is the very definition of “rock bottom.” A failed investment banker, he emerged from a hollow life and seemingly broken relationship disoriented and directionless. Worse yet, he’s cluelessly self-absorbed, unaware that his limited empathy drifts him further away from those around him and bring him closer and closer to the brink of despair. After a botched suicide attempt, he heeds the warning signs and heads home to stay with his loving, widowed twin sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia) and her caustically troubled teenage daughter Reese (Chloe East), all while trying to sort out the mess that his life has become. Unfortunately, contrary to Kevin's seeming day-to-day praxis, there’s a whole world out there he’s not the center of that’s experiencing its own tribulations. One night, Amy, a world-renowned engineer, is spirited away by the government to investigate a series of meteor strikes that have been afflicting the world in short series. When one of said meteors strikes near their home, and inexplicably enthused Kevin drags Reese out to investigate the space rock. What results is a violent shock, more heat from Reese, and an unexpected guest: a no nonsense angelic guide named Yvette (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) who informs Kevin that he is one of the chosen of God with a mission to save the world. Now our unlikely apostle must overcome his flaws to find the 36 other Chosen - and maybe, in the process, find some much needed healing for himself and his family.
I’ll say it straight out: I love Jason Ritter. He bestows Kevin Finn with so much awkward charm - such sensitivity for the nuances of a man simultaneously depressed, somewhat self-absorbed but heroically striving to be a better person - that you really can’t tell where the line between the man and the actor diverge. I rarely fall into superlatives like this, but Ritter truly does an outstanding job as Kevin, making us truly like and care for a man who’s supposed to be unsympathetic at the start; in fact, he may have done his job too well. Besides Kevin, JoAnna Garcia sparkles as his sister Amy. While most of the pilot gave them only limited interaction, it was still enough to notice Amy’s justifiable protectiveness, and by the second episode I was convinced that they really could have been twin siblings. Of course, Amy’s strengths aren’t limited to support; she’s weighed down with unresolved issues of her own, and how Kevin will help her work through them can prove to be a pleasant B plot throughout the series. Beyond Ritter’s stellar performance and the intriguing character interactions, the series’ narrative somehow blends the slice-of-life foibles of Kevin’s mission to be a better person and the wider mystery of why he was chosen by God and where his mission to find the Chosen will take him.
But with all this praise, there are a few notable disruptions to the show’s generally enjoyable pace. It’s sense of humor can use a little work - and no, I’m not talking about the witticisms and awkwardness Ritter pulls off so well. I mean its tendency to devolve into snark or even Buster Keaton levels of slapstick when it would be best to just let the scene play out naturally. Okay, I get it: you’re trying to push a series about faith and self-transformation to a world and generation swamped in the sarcasm, narcissism, and banal nihilism that are standard defense mechanisms in a seemingly meaningless and hostile global environment. This ain't your momma’s "walk by faith" show, and the creators are well aware that playing those tropes straight is series suicide. On the other hand, do I really need to see Kevin get zapped 20 feet in the air by a radioactive rock, or have someone butt in with a snide remark or sardonic glance every time the show takes a turn to the mystical or contemplative? There’s diffusing the potential for cheese in a situation, and then there’s derailing the mood altogether and ruining one half of what you hope to accomplish. The creators would be wise to hammer out that distinction more thoroughly, least what little sense of mystery and mystic uplift peeks out from under the covers will get swallowed up in the audience’s tempered sarcasm. And speaking of religion, the show’s bizarre Crypto Judeo-Christianese faith is a hodgepodge of mutually inoffensive beliefs that stands out by how arid it is. Nothing is said about the strictures or commands of this God - just a lot of harmony-with-the-universe nonsense, and I almost cringed when Yvette - usually a judgmental little tart on all matters Kevin every second of her screen time - casually brushes off any hangups he has regarding a sexual tryst with an old flame, regurgitating the usual “sexuality is a gift of God!” tripe of many modern series. It's not that I want to see an old-timey religion represented; just that the limp, PC non-faith shtick can leave us floundering as to what, exactly, we’re supposed to expect from this God and his mission.
There is one particularly “ugly” side to this series, and that's how it treats its male lead. Kevin gets kicked around and abused - verbally and physically - at least once every fifteen minutes or so. And yeah, I get that slapstick is the main way to disarm the potential pretense factor inherent to this genre, but it goes beyond that. The show pushes hard Kevin’s supposed “selfishness” and general failure as a human being, but does little to support its case. Maybe it's Jason Ritter’s disarming magnetism, maybe it's a matter of overstating the case; either way, Kevin just doesn't seem bad enough warrant most of the treatment he gets. He's a little self-centered and vaguely materialistic, but compared to Reese’s callous teenage hypocrisy where it concerns him, or Yvette’s overbearingness in general, he looks, if not quite good in comparison, at least no worse, and is certainly more tolerable. This makes the general insensitivity others show towards a man who had just attempted to take his own life especially painful. The emphasis at times squares on how much his death would have impacted other people's lives - which while a valid point, is loaded with lots unfortunate implications. This is a trait played very often with heroism fantasies - even comedic ones, like this - and especially when the lead is male: his personal struggles and emotional world are often downplayed or subverted in favor of his mission. The only reason I don't count this all as an "F" against the series is the second episode, which alleviated these irritants somewhat. Yvette is still obnoxiously judgmental and pushy, but...less so, and she seems to be warming up to Kevin. Reese has mellowed out as well, and in either case is mercifully absent while Amy steps forward and provides some semblance of concern for Kevin and his mental state for his own sake, and not how it will affect others. The plot's tightrope dance between slice-of-life, small-steps heroism and glimpses of a wider story arc are intriguing and interesting for now, but can run out of steam depending on how long it tkes to get this boat in motion.
Tune In or Tune OutTune in. Jason Ritter alone is worth sticking around for, and Garcia is icing on the cake. I’m honestly more interested in how they can aid in each other’s healing than in where the story is going, but Kevin's possible destiny is a nice carrot to waive all the same. There is a lot up in the air at the moment, but this Toughed by an Angel with attitude may be just the thing to complete your night.