Whatever else can be said about "Sean Saves the World," the Sean Hayes vehicle which premieres Thursday night on NBC, know that the sitcom doesn't treat sexuality with kid gloves.
Take the explanation divorced gay dad Sean (played by out "Will & Grace" vet Hayes) gives his teenage daughter Ellie (Samantha Isler) when she asks -- in a convenient piece of pilot episode exposition -- how she came to be conceived. "Gay," Hayes says matter of factly. "Tried not to be. Was. Was again. Was one more time, because it was not unpleasant. End."
Such a simple utterance, punctuated by an aggressive laugh track, reflects the huge shift in television's treatment of LGBT characters that Hayes helped spark. Because after "Will & Grace" and "The New Normal," why make a big deal about gay dads on TV? They're just not that special any more.
The writers on "Sean Saves the World" appear to get that, and the freshest thing about the show is that it doesn't try to do much with the "he's gay, but he has a kid which defies expectations" trope. Sure, there are a few one-liners about Sean's sexuality -- "people can tell you're gay faster than they can tell I'm black," says Echo Kellum as Sean's coworker Hunter -- plus a clunky bit of gay-related back story explaining why Sean's mom (Linda Lavin) and best gal pal ("Smash" alum Megan Hilty) don't see eye-to-eye. But by and large, sexual orientation doesn't move the needle much in "Sean Saves the World."
Unfortunately, nothing else really does, either. Despite its impressive pedigree and beloved cast, "Sean Saves the World" (and I apologize for this) needs saving. Nearly everything in the three episodes NBC sent for review felt frustratingly familiar and mired in the past. The show's plots all feature tired set-ups, the emotional payoffs are disappointingly bland and the characters are full of dated stock types. There's Lavin as the overbearing (and oversharing) mother, Hilty as a somewhat-promiscuous best friend, Thomas E. Lennon of "Reno 911" as eccentric, no-nonsense boss Max and even Kellum gets sidelined as the black best friend.
The show's biggest issue, though, may be Sean himself. Hayes became beloved by TV audiences and many critics for his performance as the campy, energetic Jack McFarland on "Will & Grace." Now, eight years later, he's bringing the same physical comedy chops and adept timing to "Sean Saves the World." But that blend might have been better left in the past. Hayes' mugging was kept somewhat in check when he was part of a four-person ensemble. When he's at the center of a show, it becomes a little exhausting, even if you're a fan of his antics. Worse, though, is that the plots meant to anchor Sean all cast him as a single parent grasping with work/family balance. And there's too little else in "Sean Saves the World" to set it apart from the long-line of TV comedies that have tread on the same territory.
Lavin was the star of one of those shows, "Alice," and in "Sean" she again plays a single mother who had to raise a young son. She has an imposing presence and delivers a handful of snappy zingers, but for the most part, she's just overdoing it. So is Broadway vet Hilty, who over-emotes as if she's trying to be seen by audiences in the back of a theater rather than those sitting comfortably in front of the screen. Then again, Hilty's a talented actress (she was hands-down the best part of the otherwise abysmal "Smash") who isn't given great material to work with.
Far better are the two actors closest to the show's periphery: Kellum and Lennon. Both actors add some refreshingly weird and relatively-understated humor to their jarringly manic surroundings, and they prove the show has untapped potential. And it really does -- Hayes is certainly charismatic and appealing to viewers, plus the first three episodes of "Sean Saves the World" feature enough laughs to demonstrate some skilled writing. Besides, there's plenty of room for another gay lead character on network TV in 2013.
To fill that void, though, Hayes and company need to ditch outmoded sitcom tropes and make their show into something fresh. At the moment, they're collaborating on what coould have been a reasonably successful "Will & Grace" spinoff back in 2003.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun