In the movie Jerry Maguire, Dorothy Boyd famously says of Jerry: “I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is.”
A similar slack-cutting description applies to Kevin Finn, the lead character in the new ABC series Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, and, for that matter, the show itself. It wants to be something, and it’s almost something, but, at least in the pilot that airs tonight on ABC, it hasn’t fully figured out what that is yet. Unlike Renée Zellweger’s Dorothy Boyd, I’m also not sure that I love it, at least not based on this single episode.
Jason Ritter stars as Kevin, a guy who recently tried to kill himself after losing his job and his girlfriend. As the series begins, he’s visiting his sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), who lives with her daughter Reese (Chloe East) in a house just outside Austin, Texas, that’s vaguely reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey’s place in Interstellar. That’s not the only way in which sci-fi edges its way into the picture: Shortly after Kevin arrives, a helicopter lands on the front lawn to pick up Amy, a professor and defense analyst who acts as a consultant to the government and is called upon to provide her expertise about 35 meteors that have randomly landed around the globe in the past 24 hours. (This whole scenario is similar to the beginning of Arrival, right down to the fact that Swisher looks a little like Amy Adams.)
During Amy’s meeting, a 36th meteor streaks across the sky and lands close to her house. When Reese and Kevin investigate, Kevin places his hands on the meteor and has some sort of mystical experience. The next morning, a pleasant, businesslike woman (Kimberly Hébert Gregory of Vice Principals) suddenly appears and explains that she is a messenger of God, Kevin is the last member of “the righteous,” and she’s there to help him engage in multiple acts of kindness, then find the other 36 members of the righteous — this all connects back to the meteor thing, in case you didn’t catch that — whom he will anoint by hugging, and thereby, somehow, save the world. Basically, it’s a My Name Is Earl scenario with some It’s a Wonderful Life–ishness thrown in, and a whole lot of God stuff on top. While Kevin’s role may be to save the planet, ultimately, of course, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is about Kevin figuring out how to be a better man.
Ritter, as he has been in previous roles, is a naturally affable presence onscreen. He barely has to open his mouth and, as a viewer, you’re already on the guy’s side. He also possesses a versatility that uniquely equips him to handle material like this, which skates from cartoonish comedy — when Kevin first touches the meteor, there’s a wide shot of him being catapulted into the air that looks like something straight out of Looney Tunes — to sentimental drama to straight-up spiritual/meteorite mumbo jumbo.
The problem is that there is so much stone-skipping across tones in the first episode that it’s hard to settle in and get a feel for what kind of show Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, co-created by former Agent Carter showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, is going to be. There are other issues, too.
Kevin says he’s a “bad guy,” which is necessary for him to undergo the sort of redemptive journey that’s hinted at in the premise. But there’s not much evidence that he is that bad. He’s a bit self-involved, a tad materialistic, and he stopped talking to his sister at a time when she really needed his support. But there is no evidence that he’s a true scoundrel.
Then there’s the way the pilot, written by Fazekas and Butters, handles the fact that Kevin recently attempted suicide. It doesn’t ignore this information, but it also doesn’t handle it in a way that feels believable. A guy who recently overdosed on pills and is lost enough to randomly head to his sister’s for an indefinite stay should be a lot more despondent than Kevin seems to be here. I get it, this is a fantastical story that isn’t necessarily going for realism. But Kevin’s psychological stability seems like it’s going to be a recurring issue. (No one can see Gregory’s character other than Kevin, which makes Kevin (Probably) Saves the World seem more like The Leftovers than it may have intended to, and also suggests people are likely to conclude he is crazy.) Any show that touches on severe mental-health issues, even if it’s only lightly, has some responsibility to demonstrate an understanding of how serious and debilitating they are.
But the biggest obstacle that Kevin (Probably) Saves the World has to overcome is its tendency to descend into mawkishness. This is a one-hour drama that’s clearly intended to highlight the goodness in people and make audiences feel warm, fuzzy, and inclined to donate to charitable causes after every episode. It’s basically This Is Us, but with more religious overtones, or possibly what would happen if one of those people wearing a Free Hugs sign was turned into a TV show.
In future episodes, it’s possible this series will lean less heavily on melodrama and figure out how to balance its tonal shifts more effectively, in which case, it could become something quirky and great. But for now, based solely on the pilot, I’d say Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is (probably) not worth the space it’s going to take up on your DVR.