Late last month, ABC retitled its forthcoming drama The Gospel of Kevin to the more playful (and long-winded) Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. At first glance, this seems like a minor title change, its blithe tone better selling the show's comedic aspects. But as star Jason Ritter sees it, the switch serves a greater purpose.
“It felt like the original title could be interpreted as exclusive right off the bat,” the said actor during a break from filming. “So you go, ''Gospel' — this word means this specific thing in my brain, and so if that's not a word that I use or say on a daily basis, the show's probably not for me.’ ”
"Exclusive" certainly isn’t what creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Reaper, Agent Carter) had in mind when they conceived the series, which centers on a selfish, depressed man tasked with saving the planet, with help from Yvette (Kimberly Hebert Gregory, who replaced Cristela Alonzo), a so-called messenger of God who travels to Earth inside a meteor. Given the subject matter, one could be forgiven for assuming the series is aimed at "faith-based" viewers who made hits out of shows like Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven. But Butters and Fazekas would take issue with that characterization.
“Ultimately you can be a religious person or you can not be a religious person and still connect with Kevin's quest to be a better person,” Butters tells THR. “For us, the show really is about hope, because I feel like right now on television, there [are] more shows about dystopian possibilities than there [are] about people actually learning to be kind to each other. Now, I say that, and then [I] want to undercut the earnestness of that line. At the heart of our show, [the message is]: ‘Don't be an asshole.' ”
Viewers who have followed Ritter’s career will note that in concept at least, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is more than a little similar to his previous series, Joan of Arcadia, which ran on CBS from 2003 to 2005. On that show, Amber Tamblyn played a teenager with a direct line of communication with God. Here, Kevin communicates with a hired hand of the Almighty who is often fuzzy on the details of the plan herself. It’s a facet that Ritter sees as an important distinction between the two series. “Yvette is trying to help Kevin, and she has her own mission, but she doesn't know how it's all going to unfold,” Ritter siad. “She's on the journey with Kevin.”
Casting Yvette proved to be a bigger challenge than either Butters or Fazekas had anticipated. After the original pilot was shot with Alonzo, the role was recast with Gregory, who had previously auditioned for the part before signing on to another pilot (ABC’s Unit Zero, opposite Toni Collette, which was passed over). When asked about the change, Butters and Fazekas were quick to claim that a change of direction — not anything regarding Alonzo’s performance — was behind the switch. Still, they noted that Gregory grasped the tone of the show better than anyone else.
“She inherently understood that it was [a] comedy, where I think some people looked at [the character] and they think, it's an angel, so they think, ‘Well, I have to act like an angel,’ ” Fazekas said. “That's part of your character, but that is not all of your character."
The irreverence required to play Yvette is an extension of what Butters and Fazekas are trying to accomplish with the show itself. In Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, angels aren’t called angels, and they certainly don’t fit the mold of what one would expect a “messenger of God” to look and act like. “We didn't want to do a show about ‘capital R’ religion,” said Fazekas. “We did want to do a show about hope and about spirituality, and taking what you think you know about God and any of the sort of dramatic tropes about that and sort of turn them on their head.”
While comparing the series to Joan of Arcadia is an oversimplification, that show brought a similarly light touch to the topic of spirituality. As Ritter put it, both shows conceptualize God as “loving and benevolent” — not the merciless, judgmental arbiter so many people grow up learning about. “When you hear [a TV show] is even going into this sort of realm, I and a lot of people can sort of tighten up and be ready to be attacked or something like that, or feel excluded,” he said. “And [the script] kind of untied those knots in my stomach. Even by the end of the pilot, it was like, 'OK, this is a good direction. This feels right and this feels comfortable.’ ”
Thematically, God is just one of the series’ potentially button-pushing elements. In the pilot, viewers learn that Kevin previously attempted suicide and has come to the rural home of his sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and her teenage daughter Reese (Chloe East) to recuperate.
“When people are shorthanding what the show is about and calling his character ‘selfish’ in bios and pilot descriptions, really what we’re talking about is...his life prior to even his suicide attempt,” said Butters. “I think a lot of shows that do deal with suicide, the problem is, they're not showing that there might be another way.”
“Having been touched by suicide in my own personal life, and seeing suicide attempts and [trying] to sort of deal with the aftermath of that, it's something that I take really seriously, and I felt like they do too,” added Ritter. “I mean, they chose that Kevin tried to do this very specifically. It wasn't just sort of like, ‘How low can we make this guy?’...It feels like it's given the weight that it deserves.”
Ultimately, Kevin’s dark past ties in with Butters and Fazekas’ stated mission: to spread a message of faith — not religion — in a TV landscape that doesn’t often showcase it. “I hope what comes out of this show,” said Butters, “is [the message] that you can hit your lowest point and still find hope.”
Kevin (Probably) Saves the World premieres Oct. 3 on ABC.