Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
There’s nothing any review of NBC’s new sitcom Sean Saves The World could say that’s as damning to the show’s aspirations of quality as a look at the promotional art the network cooked up for the show. It’s the series in a nutshell: Why, there are old sitcom pros Sean Hayes and Linda Lavin! And a cute kid! Why are they all posed like this show is supposed to air between Friends and Seinfeld in 1997? Even the title of the show—Sean Saves The World—has a whiff of those famously terrible sitcoms to it. The name of the protagonist is attached to some larger-than-life statement meant to cheekily suggest just what our plucky hero will be up against. In this case, his primary villain is boredom.
What really stinks about this is that Sean Saves The World should have everything going for it. In front of the camera, there’s Hayes, playing a gay man trying to raise a teenage daughter (Samantha Isler) from a prior, failed marriage. Add to experienced pro Hayes and winning find Isler the great Lavin—who knows her way around a live studio audience—playing Hayes’ mother, as well as a formidable bench in Megan Hilty, Echo Kellum, and Vik Sahay as Hayes’ co-workers at an online retailer. Mix with a liberal dose of Thomas Lennon at his weirdest (as Hayes’ boss), and you’ve got what might be the best sitcom cast of a fall stacked with great sitcom casts.
The behind-the-camera talent is impressive as well, starting with series creator Victor Fresco, best known for his work on Andy Richter Controls The Universe and Better Off Ted, two series that perfectly skewered American corporate life. Fresco’s no stranger to multi-camera sitcoms either; he created the better-than-its-reputation Life On A Stick, a bouncy multi-cam about workers in a mall food court that died a quick death on Fox. And as if that weren’t enough, the first two episodes—NBC sent out three—are directed by the legendary James Burrows, who worked extensively with Hayes on Will & Grace.
Theoretically, this should be the perfect blend of old comedy pros who know what they’re doing and fun, fresh faces who bring quick wits and/or live-theater experience. Instead, Sean Saves The World is almost completely devoid of laughs, outside of a few moments when Lennon puts over a bit of weirdness via his strange, clipped delivery. The gags here are eminently predictable most of the time—all three episodes feature some variation on a character saying something that could get them in trouble and quickly correcting to some other saying no rational person would ever believe—and when they’re not, they tend to fall into the school of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if…” humor, where the characters behave strangely, and there’s no rhyme or reason for when or why they do so.
Sure, Better Off Ted had its share of “Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if…” gags, but they were united both with a stronger sense of character than this show has and a ruthless satirical streak that hid its take-no-prisoners style beneath a perfectly polished smile. Sean Saves The World makes occasional stabs at this sort of satire—particularly when it’s strongly implied that a poor job market forces Hayes to spend his whole life at work, instead of caring for his daughter—but it’s mostly content to be a very safe family/workplace sitcom hybrid, of the sort where the characters are mixed up in each other’s lives, because they don’t know anybody other than the handful of people in the cast.
Normally, the presence of someone like Fresco would be reason to be hopeful, particularly with Burrows and this cast along for the ride. But Sean Saves The World simply seems too far from his wheelhouse. The storylines about Hayes trying to be a better dad are horrifically predictable even by family-sitcom standards, and the writers’ hearts don’t seem to be in them. (In the first three episodes alone, Hayes tries to get away from work to be with his daughter, worries about taking her bra shopping, and freaks out over her attending her first party while he’s on a date.) The workplace stuff is marginally better, but it’s constantly reminiscent of Better Off Ted in distracting ways. Listen to how Lennon delivers his lines, then think of Portia De Rossi’s character from that earlier show, and try not to imagine the two characters somehow meeting and merging into one, much more powerful sitcom boss. Hilty and Kellum try their damnedest, but neither has much to do, and Sahay almost disappears entirely.
Hayes is clearly bound and determined to make this series work. He’s put on his slapstick game face, and there are few who are better at giant pratfalls when the time comes. But Burrows’ direction is so blunt that these pratfalls are robbed of any energy or elaborateness that they might have had. Everything proceeds at such a manic pace that nothing gets a chance to breathe, making every episode feel like a collection of random gags, rather than a story that builds and grows. The only performer who seems truly above it all is Lavin, who seems to relish being back on a Hollywood soundstage and has as much fun with predictable zingers as she does a weird bit where she plays a younger version of herself who starred in a series of mattress ads in the 1980s.
It’s possible Sean Saves The World finds its way out of the too-safe cul-de-sac it’s wandered into. The show’s full of talented people, and series with worse starts have become good shows. But the shows this is most reminiscent of are the many bad family sitcoms of the ’80s, when NBC made its name by attracting top-flight talent and letting that talent do what it wanted, while the other networks tried to play catch up by putting any family comedy they could find on the air, then making writers better suited to workplace settings churn them out. Of course, back then, NBC was the network with vision, and now it’s desperately trying to pretend it’s never even heard of such a thing. Too bad it’s taking down a bunch of talented people with it.
Created by: Victor Fresco
Starring: Sean Hayes, Linda Lavin, Samantha Isler, Thomas Lennon
Debuting: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Multi-camera half-hour sitcom
Three episodes watched for review