Whenever an established TV star is flailing in a new vehicle, TV watchers try to figure out what went wrong – this season, former Will & Grace star Sean Hayes returned to television in a vehicle, Sean Saves the World, that pairs the funny guy with TV legend, Linda Lavin (Alice). It’s a shockingly dated and tepid show that feels like it was cryogenically frozen in the mid 1990s, and thawed for this season. He stars as Sean Harrison, a single dad who is trying to juggle work with being a dad – the recipe is careworn, but still could’ve been interesting because Sean’s gay. TV recently had to bid farewell to another gay parenting sitcom, The New Normal as well as the demise of two Will & Grace alum projects: Debra Messing’s Smash, and creators Max Mutchnick & David Cohan saw their Partners fail.
And now it looks like poor Mr. Hayes is hanging on, as well. It’s a shame that Hayes hasn’t found a stronger vehicle for his talent, which he has in abundance. Sean Saves the World tells an intriguing story, but it’s undone by a lot of hacky sitcommy conventions: wacky best friends, a volatile and eccentric mother, and a mean, ornery boss. And in the middle of all this cheery artifice, is Hayes who looks a bit weary at having to drag this so-so material.
While some viewers may recall Will & Grace because Hayes’ performance seems like a slightly scaled down Jack McFarland, but judging from the pilot, Sean Saves the World owes more to The Lucy Show – like Lucille Ball’s Lucy Carmichael, Hayes’ Sean Harrison is dealing with a domineering and mercurial boss (Reno 911 breakout Thomas Lennon). In one laborious sequence, Sean tries to escape work through a bathroom window (which is inconveniently too high for him to reach), while tossing a chicken. Using cheaply-made furniture as props, he becomes increasingly frazzled as he smashes through chairs and end tables, trying to get out of the window. This bit feels just like something Lucy would’ve done with Mr. Mooney.
There’s something depressing about seeing a talent as ingenious as Hayes being saddled with this square sitcom. In interviews, the actor has placed some blame on his network as well as critics for the show’s less-than-stellar reception. In one interview, he implied that critics who bristled at the show’s dated quality are merely trying to hang on to the trend of the single-camera format.
But there’s something strange about a multi-camera sitcom, in light of shows like Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and the still-fresh-in-our-memory 30 Rock and The Office. There’s a strange staginess to Sean Saves the World – not only with the sets, but also with the way the actors relate to each other and deliver the one-liners, verbally punching them to the hooting roars of a studio audience.
But not all of Sean Saves the World is terrible – as the teenaged daughter, Ellie who is suddenly living with pop again, Samantha Isler is a find, while Broadway star Megan Hilty (who plays Sean’s bestie) easily walks away with the show on the strength of her sunny personality. As Max, Sean’s asshat of a boss, Lennon offers the show some much-needed subversive quirkiness. But the writers and makers of this show should be levied a heavy fine for squandering the immense talents of Lavin, who does what she can with such a thinly written role.
This season saw the TV return of a lot of familiar and popular faces: Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Janney all join Hayes in a crowded field of freshman comedies. Hayes’ much-loved performance on Will & Grace has still given the guy a lot of good will, which is used to give the show a much-needed gloss of quality. But for Sean Saves the World to succeed, it has to shake off its dusty staleness.