The team behind ABC's forthcoming dramedy Kevin (Probably) Saves the World were faced with tough questions about the "Magical Negro" trope Sunday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.
The series stars Jason Ritter (Parenthood) as Kevin Finn, a cluelessly self-serving person who is on a dangerous path to despair. In a downward spiral, he returns home to stay with his widowed twin sister (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and niece. On Kevin's first night there, an unlikely celestial being named Yvette appears and presents him with a mission — to save the world.
While stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo originated the role of Yvette — who prefers the title "warrior for God" rather than an "angel" — in the pilot, Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Vice Principals) has since taken over the role, which led to questions about how the show will avoid the trope. Coined by director Spike Lee in 2001, the "Magical Negro" trope refers to black supporting characters whose only purpose in a project is to help the white protagonist.
"I certainly have heard of that trope and I think part of that trope is that that character exists only to service the white character, and I feel like we have built a character ... who has wants, has needs and has her own storyline," co-creator and co-showrunner Michele Fazekas said.
Co-creator and co-showrunner Tara Butters pointed to the term "warrior for God" as a key element in understanding the Yvette character's larger purpose. "We mean that, and the fact is she has her own hero in this story, too," she said. "As the show expands over multiple episodes, one of the things you're going to see is as much she's there to help Kevin, Kevin ends up helping her."
Continued Butters, "They end up creating this really interesting partnership," adding that viewers "will meet other people of her kind" later on down the line.
Butters also praised Gregory's performance specifically for pushing beyond the stereotype: "What I love about what Kimberly brings to the role is the strength and the warmth and just a unique take on what you call a guardian angel or a warrior for God — she brings a whole new kind of look at this archetype."
Gregory also weighed in on the early conversations about the character that went on behind the scenes. "She has her own mission," said the actress. "I understand that concept but the character is not an angel, she's flawed, she's not angelic, she doesn’t necessarily behave like an angel, she doesn’t use language that is necessarily angelic. She has a real purpose, and her purpose is really bigger than just helping Kevin do what he needs to do. ... She's almost kind of playing God in a sense."
Fazekas and Butters also discussed the reasoning why Gregory was recast in the role, revealing that when they originally wanted to offer her the role, she was unavailable. "It's was a hard role to cast and I think the tone of it shifted a little bit, I would say," Fazekas said.
Butters said the casting change was also the result of a tough pilot shoot, during which director Paul McGuigan had to leave in the middle of production for a family matter and subsequently the pilot was unfinished. Once they finally saw a finished pilot, they realized, "we wanted that character to go in a bit of a different direction," Butters explained. "We ended up getting Kimberly and It ended up being the way the pilot should be."
The unique tone of the show is also why the title of the show was changed from The Gospel of Kevin. "The title change came from the fact that Kevin (Probably) Saves the World captures the tone better than the old title," said Fazekas. "The tone of it really is the hardest thing to understand and the hardest thing to capture in a line, and I think this captures it quite well."
Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is set to premiere Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.