'Kevin (Probably) Saves the World': TV Review
Jason Ritter and JoAnna Garcia Swisher have strong chemistry as siblings in an ABC dramedy that can't quite figure out what it wants to be.
As we've seen this fall, when broadcast networks sense a conservative shift in the country, their first instinct is "Let's try shows about our troops." It's too soon to know if that instinct is right or wrong for 2017, though the premiere numbers for The Brave and SEAL Team haven't been absurdly promising.
A logical enough second step is often, "Let's try shows with a religious undercurrent," which almost never means "Let's try religious shows" or "Let's try shows about religion." It's a hard genre to crack, because snooty liberals make fun of the more overtly religious entries like Touched by an Angel and then self-righteous conservatives attack more overtly religious entries like NBC's short-lived Book of Daniel for the sin of attempting to put the sacred in a contemporary context. That's why the genre much more frequently becomes "Let's try shows that are basically superhero or supernatural shows that pay lip service to religion, in case we can yoke a few viewers in with that."
It's casting no inherent aspersions on ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World to say that it falls into that latter category. Maybe as it progresses the religious aspects of the pilot will become more sincere and more convincingly organic? Maybe as it progresses the religious aspects will become less overt and will blend more into the jokey tone of much of the rest of the pilot? Maybe the religious aspects of the pilot are just a plot twist to be revised or undone entirely? Let's just say that the Kevin (Probably) Saves the World pilot, premiering Tuesday, is trying to be a lot of things at once, with only pockets of success.
Jason Ritter plays Kevin, formerly a wildly self-obsessed financial something-or-other now adrift after a suicide attempt and a breakup. Kevin briefly moves in with twin sister Amy (Joanna Garcia Swisher), still grieving the death of her husband and trying hard to keep her daughter Reese (Chloe East, pouty in a reasonably unforced way) on track.
When Kevin and Reese go to investigate a meteor that landed nearby, Kevin has an experience of some sort and soon he's having conversations with Yvette (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), who refuses to describe herself as an angel, because she says angels are "a human construction." Instead, Yvette says she's "a warrior for God" and she enlists Kevin in one of those confusing-but-finite missions that give an episodic structure to a show that might otherwise be lacking such a thing. Kevin, not surprisingly, isn't an especially religious man, so there's a lot of push-and-pull to get him to believe and, in turn, to get viewers to believe at least in the short-term that what's happening isn't extra-terrestrial in nature, nor is it a manifestation of a troubled mind. Like the heroes of such series as My Name Is Earl and Wonderfalls and Joan of Arcadia and bunches of others — there was a wave of shows like this around 10 years ago — Kevin now has a purpose.
Kevin (Probably) Saves the World feels like it perhaps has several purposes, and it will be up to creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, the minds behind another of those ordinary-guys-on-possibly-divine-missions shows Reaper, to make some choices.
After all, this could just as easily be a prodigal-son-returns-home drama in the vein of Ed. Kevin left many loved ones behind and when he returns, he isn't just repairing things with his sister and niece. He's reconnecting with his wacky high school friend (Dustin Ybarra) and the girl who got away (India de Beaufort). "Bad man returns home after bad thing and tries to become a better man" doesn't need any more embellishing. It would be a familiar dramedy retread.
That makes Kevin's partnership with Yvette really important. In the pilot, it's a mess, and that's all critics have been sent. They need Yvette to be a sassy messenger from God at the same time as they need her to avoid or possibly upend "Magic Negro" stereotypes. Yvette spends the pilot being Kevin's tourguide to becoming a better Kevin, rolling her eyes in impatience when he can't figure out something that, empirically, makes almost no sense. The specifics of Kevin's mission are fuzzy, the execution of how he goes about trying it are clunky and the last 10 minutes are such hokey schmaltz it would take a brilliant first 30 minutes to support them. The first 30 minutes aren't brilliant. Since Gregory was a late piece of recasting, we'll have to see if she becomes a more distinctive character in the second episode and what Yvette's voice turns out to be.
It's conflicting that the biggest strength in Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is also its biggest narrative weakness. Everybody keeps talking about how awful Kevin used to be. His sister goes so far as to call him the worst person she knows. It's repeated enough that it isn't just a thing people are saying. That's not what Ritter is playing, and I don't know if it's something he's capable of playing. Adrift? Absolutely. Questionably motivated slacker? For sure. Self-obsessed, distracted hipster? Maybe. But can I buy him for a second as an asshole who abandoned his sister in her deepest moment of emotional need because he was prioritizing making money? Nope. And if you can't buy that, you can't buy the grand redemption arc that the show is based upon. What Ritter is playing here is reluctant prophet and he sells that completely, the wide-eyed everyman trying to process an unbelievable situation. So why does the script keep distracting us with a version of the character the star isn't even trying to embody? The second episode could abandon the idea of "Bad Kevin," steer into "Long Absent, Well-Meaning Kevin" and it would be fine. Garcia-Swisher is bringing fine emotional honesty to the table and it could just as easily be "I wish my brother had been around more" as "I wish my brother weren't the worst person I know."
Ritter has probably-too-good chemistry with Garcia-Swisher, and I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that they're playing siblings and that the best solution for their respective problems probably wouldn't involve them kissing. It's like, "She misses her husband, he misses his ex-girlfriend and Reese needs a father, why is this so hard?" But then they're supposed to be twins. Kevin can be retconned into being a decent guy, but he and Amy shared DNA can't be so easily erased.
Speaking of shared DNA, Fazekas and Butters' Reaper had its soul-retrieval/supernatural mission engine and had its identity in place from the beginning. It was a comedy and, with Kevin Smith directing, the pilot pushed all its chips in on comedy. Kevin (Probably) Can Wait is directed by Paul McGuigan, a pilot director whose greatest gift is propulsive storytelling and not, apparently, broad comedy or sentimental spiritual drama. For all of the likable elements on the show, it'll be up to future episodes to (maybe) tell us if this series is worth watching.
Cast: Jason Ritter, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, J. August Richards, India de Beaufort, Chloe East, Dustin Ybarra
Creators: Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)