It gets better. That's not just a life motto anymore; it also should be the tagline for NBC's new sitcom, Sean Saves the World. Because though the pilot is very schticky, relying heavily on physical gags and hitting punchlines hard, there is a promise of a sweeter, softer story to emerge as the audience settles in with these colorful characters.
NBC is treating Sean Saves the World like Will & Grace's Jack is back. I understand why they would: Will & Grace was on when NBC was still having success with comedies, let alone traditional sitcoms, and Sean Hayes still looks and sounds exactly like he did back then when he was a supporting player. He's still just as willing (and agile!) to throw his full body into a scene, exaggerating everything from flourishes to pratfalls. And admittedly there will probably be a good chunk of the audience who just wants that from him since it's what they are know and with which they are comfortable. Eighty-five percent of this pilot is built on that, easing the audience into a story with Hayes as the leading man. And because he is the leading man here, I want something more from him than just comic relief-- something the show doesn't allow him to deliver until the very end of the pilot episode, but thankfully it does deliver at all.
Hayes is playing a single dad on Sean Saves the World, and as the opening expository dialogue explains, his daughter has just come to live with him and he has just gotten a new boss at work. These two things have shaken up his life so much, antics should follow, hence making it the prime time in his life to watch his story unfold on-screen for our own amusement. As "Sean," Hayes is also playing a gay father, and the pilot very heavy-handedly, and immediately, explains this through exposition, too, almost as if it is "getting something out of the way." There are many moments in the pilot episode that feel rushed and like they're pushing the comedy too hard, rather than letting the moments land naturally. The show certainly wants you to get swept up in theatrics-- and at times you can even feel the acting in the dialogue delivery, which strips away some of the naturalism. But for all of those theatrics, the show has a very big heart, too, and when it finally pushes its way to the spotlight, you can't help but be charmed.
Thankfully, Hayes is not playing your typical hapless sitcom father either. Sure, he has some less-than-brilliant moments like sticking a utensil in a toaster, but when important moments come up, he is sharp as a tack, picking up on his daughter's attempts at trickery through careful word selection. He may be silly at times, but he can be serious when it matters, and that inspires a lot of confidence in the character and the show as a whole.
Surrounded by quirky characters like his on-screen mother (Linda Lavin), best work pals (Echo Kellum and Megan Hilty), and aforementioned (and slightly inept) new boss (Thomas Lennon), you might think there isn't much room for Hayes to be the center of comedic attention, even if he is the center of the show, at all. Instead, though, it is his on-screen daughter (Samantha Isler) who has the tough part of playing the straight man type to all of the over the top personas that surround her. Her eye-rolls are the reactions of the audience at first, not coming from typical teenage angst, but as time goes on, she warms, just as we will.
Isler is a gem and a true rising star, and she will inevitably learn from the best here, as Lavin is also at the top of her game, providing a rich yenta of a maternal character who has an immediate banter with Hayes that makes it feel like they truly are related. It's hard to walk away from Sean Saves the World not wanting to spend more time with these two characters, and they both keep the show grounded and relatable. The same should be true for Kellum and Hilty's characters, who complete Sean's non-traditional new kind of family in this sitcom that looks at both the home and office life. But we barely get to know them in the pilot, only seeing them as helpful friends and slightly disgruntled employees. They are sympathetic but there to serve Sean and Sean's story only right now. Lennon seems to be having as much fun as Hayes with yet another oddball character. Though he has ditched the short shorts, he not only still wears an oversize mustache but actually spends a scene with a pet cockatiel on his shoulder, keeping him firmly planted in sitcom territory. It makes me fear that scenes that only feature him and Hayes may veer off into extremely broad territory without these other characters to round them out and reel them in.
For now, though, Sean Saves the World leaves its audience on a high note, feeling good about the future. Pushing through the inevitable, introductory muck at the top of the episode, the show cuts to the core of the father-daughter relationship in a very sweet way. Though the opening acts may leave you will the feeling of trying too hard to be noticed, the later ones actually allow both the characters and the audience moments to breathe, as the show calms down and settles into its own rhythm. As long as the balance that is struck by the end is maintained in future episodes, this will be one comeback for which I'll be rooting!
Sean Saves the World premieres on NBC on October 2 2013 at 9 p.m.
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