Posted Wednesday, December 6, 2017 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
In Stone Mountain earlier this week, Jason Ritter was shooting a scene for the 12th episode of ABC’s dramedy “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.” His character Kevin is in jail with 20 others for disrupting a court proceeding. He apologized for what he did, saying it was the only thing he could do to help the case.
But his invisible helper Yvette told him he could have spoken to the attorney. He relays that bit of legal knowledge to his imprisoned co-patriots. “That’s hindsight,” Kevin said sheepishly, shrugging his shoulder. “Hindsight. Again, super sorry. Truly. From the bottom of my heart.”
Jen Lynch, the episode’s director and daughter of the famous director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” Twin Peaks”), laughed at Ritter’s bumbling, good-guy act as he performed in the screens in front of her. It reminded her of Ritter’s late father John of “Three’s Company” and “8 Simple Rules” fame.
“He’s incredible,” Lynch said during a brief break in shooting. “He’s done a beautiful job maintaining his father’s echo yet making it his own, which is an important thing for a performer. It’s a tough place to be. I’m someone else’s daughter and I’m often compared to my father. We all sort of tend to find our way.”
In a broadcast TV world still more comfortable with “genre” shows about doctors, lawyers and cops, “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” is trying to find its way through a melange of drama, comedy, absurdist humor and spirituality.
Quick plot summary: Kevin returns to his hometown in Texas to stay with his twin Amy (JoAnna Garcia) after a failed suicide attempt in New York. He is a miserable mess while she is still grieving the loss of her husband. Then he and his niece Reese (Chloe East) see an asteroid crash and he decides to touch it.
His life instantly changes. Yvette (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) appears out of nowhere and convinces him he is one of 36 “righteous” people on Earth. She defines herself not as a guardian angel but as a “warrior of God,” though she sure acts like a guardian angel in terms of saving Kevin from various calamities such as car crashes and falling off buildings.
It’s a fantasy show in which Kevin tries to redeem himself from his previously selfish and self-absorbed ways. He is compelled each episode to help someone in a way that makes them better people through kindness and empathy whether it’s convincing a bar owner’s son to do what’s right for himself and leave the family business or helping a frustrated artist release his fear of showing his art in public.
“It’s a really beautiful balance especially in this day and age between the authentic universality of what we’re all struggling with and the joy of playing make believe,” Lynch said. “It’s a really nice balance.”
In an interview, Ritter said he sees the show as “joy and pain all mixed together. It feels more real and representative of the world. It’s easy to be joyful in a saccharine universe. I appreciate that we acknowledge darker moments in life.”
Kevin, who somehow gets by with no visible employment on the show, has to keep his motivations behind helping folks secret, per Yvette’s request. And while that frustrates his family members, a suspicious but increasingly accepting niece Reese tells him during this past Tuesday’s episode: “It doesn’t matter why you act weird because you use your weirdness to do good stuff and those little things add up.”
“It’s a breakthrough for Reese,” said East, who plays her. “He has helped build her back to where she needs to be.”
In one memorable scene in the fifth episode, Kevin confronts a deadbeat dad, a man who so angers Yvette that she grabs Kevin and has him beat the dude up. Since she’s invisible to the guy, Ritter has to show Kevin punching the guy against his will like a puppet. It’s a virtuoso performance in physical comedy. His father would have approved and we began talking about his dad John a bit.
“One of his favorite games in public when we were kids was to act like he didn’t know me,” Ritter said. “He would just be a very awkward weird person in front of people. He loved embarrassing us in public. I’ve used that in my relationship with Reese.”
The show, which just aired its eighth episode earlier this week, is still struggling to establish itself in a very crowded TV world. Its overnight ratings, now around 3 million viewers, place the show “on the bubble.” ABC recently gave the show an extra three episodes on top of the initial 13. That’s six less than normal but better than none at all.
Co-creator and showrunner Michele Fazekas (“Resurrection,” “Agent Carter”) said if the show makes it to a second season, she hopes ABC will give it an earlier time slot than 10 p.m. on Tuesdays. “The people who watch it seem to get the show,” she said. (On imdb.com, “Kevin” receives a respectable average rating of 7.6 out of 10 from 1,880 reviewers. In comparison, hit ABC show “The Good Doctor” garners an 8.5 out of 10 from 14,339 reviewers. “This is Us”? An 8.8 out of 10.)
“I still have high hopes for it,” Ritter said, ever the optimist. “I feel we’re in a period of time where there is so much divisiveness. People have reached out through Twitter and Facebook to say they feel like this is just a nice way to laugh, that they can watch it with their family. We have more in common than what separates us. We’re all human.”
Garcia, who plays his twin and was on an NBC show 18 years ago that became a cult classic “Freaks and Geeks,” feels like “there is a lot of goodwill, a lot of love for the show.” She has respect for the producers and for Jason: “What he’s doing is incredible. He can both do comedy and drama so well.”
Small world alert: she also played John Ritter’s daughter in a TV movie nearly 20 years ago and Jason almost played her brother at that time. Garcia said Jason and John “share that humanity, that likability, that immense talent.”
The producers love to write scenes between Amy and Kevin. “It’s one of the best relationships on the show,” said Tara Butters, Fazekas’ co-creator and showrunner. “Episode 10 we have some really fun scenes where they are pushing each other. They know how to push each other’s buttons. You don’t get to see relationships like theirs very often. JoAnna and Jason do an amazing job making it feel really natural.”
Ritter, in his first lead TV acting role, was on a similar, well-regarded spiritually-based show years ago called “Joan of Arcadia” starring Amber Tamblyn that lasted only two seasons. He likes the “big picture” concept behind “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”
“I love thinking about these things: is there a plan or is there not a plan? How does this whole system work?” Ritter said, while sitting on the set of Frankie’s, the very convincing bar/restaurant Kevin uses as a hang out. “It’s no wonder I did that show. I was also intrigued by the premise of this one. And I appreciated the humor.”
And what’s great about Ritter is his ability to improvise, producer Fazekas said. “Half the time what he improvises is so funny, we’ll use that,” she said.
Yvette is a celestial being who is also learning how to be a human through Kevin, who may not be the best teacher. “There’s a lovely give and take between the two characters,” said Gregory. “She is teaching him how to get in touch with something he has lost touch with. He’s teaching her to experience things she has never experienced before” like sleep and eating.
I delved into a tricky subject a friend brought up: Yvette – played by a black woman – seems to evoke the “magical Negro” trope that Spike Lee referenced in 2001 and seen in films like “Ghost,” “The Green Mile” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance”: the black spiritual guide who helps the white person. My friend had seen the first episode and bowed out over that issue.
In reality, the “warrior of God” role was originally cast by Latino actress Cristela Alonzo in the pilot but after ABC gave the show the green light, the producers switched to Gregory.
Fazekas said Yvette isn’t there just to service Kevin’s character. “She has her own motivations and plot lines,” she said.
“She has a bigger mission,” added Butters. “He is there to service her. Her goal is to save humanity. As the season progresses, you’ll see she doesn’t always tell him the full truth. That’s different from the movies. It was something we were careful about.”
“Kevin (Probably) Saves the World,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC
The mid-season finale airs December 12 but the show returns in January for a seven-episode stretch through early March.