Sunday, October 8, 2017

Just Possibly: ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Chloe East and Jason Ritter in ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.

Yvette: In every generation since the dawn of man, there are 36 righteous souls in the world. And they protect humanity by merely existing. Now there's only one. You, Kevin . . . you are the last of the righteous. 
Kevin: Cool.
The last network series Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters brought us was Reaper, in 2007. Telling the story of a slacker-turned-devil’s helper, Reaper was a blast for the two seasons it ran on the CW. It was cartoonish, noisy, and profane – and hardly had a redemptive bone in its body. Fazekas and Butters’s new fantasy series, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, premiered on ABC last Tuesday, and one thing needs to be said right off the bat: it is nothing like Reaper. Beyond the broad plot of a sad-sack man-boy given a tacitly epic mission that shakes up his mundane existence (a thumbnail that could just as easily describe Chuck), Kevin is as earnest as Reaper was caustic – and, moreover, comes with an unapologetic and often compelling message of hope.

We meet Kevin Finn (Jason Ritter) as he returns to his Texas hometown, after his high-flying life as a Manhattan investment broker falls down around him following a suicide attempt. He's come back at the request of his recently widowed sister, who is struggling to raise her teen daughter in the aftermath of her husband's death (cause of death, still unrevealed). Kevin sleepwalks into their home, capable of little more than awkward hugs and a few wry asides – that is, until a meteor crashes nearby (one of 36 which has fallen worldwide in the last day) and his investigation earns him a hearty zap after he recklessly touches it. The new morning, the meteor reveals itself to be a messenger of God (“Angels are a human construct,” she tells him. “Let's just say I'm a warrior for God”), played by Kimberly Hébert Gregory. (Her character is credited as “Yvette.”) She tells Kevin that he is the only righteous soul on earth and that his mere existence protects humanity. "Cool," he responds, with more indifference than either disbelief or disdain. Kevin’s mission? Not to fight demons but simply – and perhaps much more difficult for him – to become a nicer guy, and help find the other 35 righteous.

It’s a high concept played with low-frequency charm. It is also a story which could easily become weighed down by sentimentality. But, carried primarily by Ritter’s shrugging charisma, the first hour holds the line amiably, choosing to balance the saccharine with sincerity rather than cynicism. Kevin’s more direct precursors are easy to list: from dark (Saving Grace) to formulaic (Eli Stone), from magical realism (Wonderfalls) to slapstick and entirely non-metaphysical (My Name is Earl). But the series that casts the biggest shadow on Kevin is, of course, Joan of Arcadia, and not only because that teen drama also featured Ritter in the main cast. (Joan, back in 2003, was also my introduction to Jason Ritter, who played the lead character’s recently paralyzed older brother.)

Without any need for special effects, vampires, or werewolves, Joan of Arcadia (like Rob Thomas’s very differently-toned Veronica Mars) creatively picked up Buffy Summers’s blood-red scythe after Buffy the Vampire Slayer shuttered earlier the same year. Dark, smart, and philosophically rich – part family drama, part crime drama, with equal parts theology and adolescent angst – Joan mined its potentially thorny central conceit of teen girl who begins talking with God into one of the best network shows of its era. On those terms alone, Kevin has some large shoes to fill.

Jason Ritter and Kimberly Hébert Gregory in Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.

The inspiration for Kevin is a two-millennia-old Jewish legend, preserved in the Talmud, where Rabbi Abaya teaches of the thirty-six hidden righteous souls that exist in every generation, upon whose actions the universe is sustained. What the myth implies is that the fate of the world doesn’t depend upon world-historical personages, but rather – unbeknownst to them – on the everyday virtue of ordinary folks. It is a simple and profound teaching that not only gives (possible) mystical value to our small, often imperceptible acts of kindness but also suggests that the one before you, however poor, dispossessed or humble, just may be one of the thirty-six. The result, either way, is the same: believing it makes it more likely for each of us to treat one another with compassion and love. (In the pilot, when Yvette reveals his status to Kevin, she is essentially quoting from the Talmudic source, though Buffy fans might be forgiven for mistaking it as a shout-out to Rabbi Joss’s more recent Haggadic tale).

True to the small-scale message of the source legend, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World seems committed to keeping its story close to home. In addition to his twin sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and his niece Reese (Chloe East), the pilot has already introduced a small ensemble of locals for Kevin to work out his redemption upon (including an old high-school sweetheart, played by India de Beaufort). And already some big questions have been posed: why, among the 36 potential righteous ones, is Kevin the only one who has been revealed? How much of the story will be devoted to the official inquiry into the 36 meteorites, which did not go unnoticed by the authorities or by his aeronautical engineer sister? What led him to the suicide attempt?

Joan of Arcadia succeeded in large part because of its unflinching refusal to sugar-coat its stories. God’s messages to Joan often came down to a single plain, and always timely, exhortation: open your eyes, pay attention to the people around you. The drama of the series came from what she saw, and how she – and others – responded. Fazekas and Butters seem inclined to tell a far lighter story here, but Kevin will still need to balance that with more gravity and reality for its well-meaning message to land as anything but a banal truism. We have been given hints already of the weight of reality that Kevin may find, once he bothers to look. The pilot’s most powerful scene is one where his sister confesses to him how difficult it’s been since her husband’s death, and she tells him that hearing about his suicide attempt almost killed her. Kevin, for his part, has barely begun to engage at all with the people in his life, or even with himself – and his struggles, and varying success, in this regard promise to be at the heart of the stories the series will be telling. (Yvette has more or less promised to keep throwing obstacles in his path to help unstick him from his previous self – as when she unceremoniously destroys his Beemer.) Kevin’s lack of interpersonal competence is certain to be the centre of the show’s comedy and likely drama, and Ritter thankfully seems up to both tasks. Ironically, however, he is so endearing as the hapless, emotionally sleepwalking Kevin that it’s genuinely difficult to buy into one of the show’s basic premises: that, until a month earlier, he’d spent a decade as a hard-driving Wall Street banker-wanker. (It’s a challenge that many character-based transformation stories like this face as other characters continue to react to a person whom the audience has never seen or experienced themselves – as here, in the pilot, when we watch his sister Amy’s dramatic loss of faith in Kevin and it is hard not to feel, even as Kevin himself owns it, that she is acting without justification.)

Few new fall shows (Star Trek and Star Trek-like series' being among the few exceptions) have intrigued me so far, but I feel like there is something powerful lurking in Kevin. Its moral lessons, timeless in their own way, are pointedly (and tragically) timely in 2017. What is perhaps most compelling about the show and its lead character is that it isn’t cynicism or selfishness that he is working through, but exhausted indifference and a kind of anxious fear of hope itself. (After a small flash of genuine engagement with the world around him, he resists, complaining: “I think everything is beautiful . . . and I don't like it.”) It is a rare show that is both human and sharp. Only time will tell if – just possibly – Kevin (Probably) Saves the World has as much head as it does heart.

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World airs on Tuesday nights on ABC. Its second episode airs this week.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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