It’s so easy to love Sean Hayes. Few actors embody the word “happy” the way he does. That’s why Sean Saves the World is so sad.
At the outset of this TV season, few new shows seemed as promising as Sean Saves the World. And for a group of people who will stop any channel-surf immediately at the blessed discovery of a Will and Grace rerun, or whose hands reflexively frame their face—palms out—whenever anyone introduces themselves as “Jack,” few new television events seemed as promising the return of Sean Hayes to NBC Thursday nights.
Fast-forward five months, however, and the sitcom is wallowing in a hybrid hell of abysmal ratings, dreary critical notices, non-existent buzz, and reported behind-the-scenes controversy. What went wrong?
Sean Saves the World should have been huge. Sean Hayes was getting his own show! This is the guy who won two Emmys and four SAG Awards for playing Jack MacFarlane, a human solar flare of joy almost blindingly unapologetic about his flamboyance, joviality, and joie de vivre. He was like some comedic humming bird, flitting from Megan Mullally to Eric McCormack to Debra Messing. Only, instead of flapping of his wings 70 times per second like a hummingbird, he was mugging for gut-busting laughs 70 times per episode—as much of a marvel comically as those hyperactive, tiny birds are scientifically. It was almost too much to imagine, all that talent being given his own show.
Sorely missed talent, of course, only goes so far in ramping up excitement for a new sitcom. (Just ask Paul Reiser.) There were plenty of other reasons to be bullish about Sean Saves the World. Hayes, who would also be executive producer on the show, had exhibited a shrewd talent for producing other television shows, striking niche markets with perfectly targeted programming of unexpectedly strong quality. Hot in Cleveland, Grimm, and Hollywood Game Night are among his success stories. The legendary James Burrows would be directing the pilot. Hayes would once again be playing a gay character, but 15 years later with all new possibilities of what being a “gay character” can mean.
But when Sean Saves the World premiered, after all those expectations, the results were surprising, to say the least. Now, the entertainment industry loves itself a good surprise: surprise hit! surprise smash! surprise success story! But there is something epically sad about the antithesis: the surprise disappointment. Some programming choices seem destined for failure. An entire series based on the Geico cavemen? A variety show starring the Osbournes? A second season of Smash? Others, however, seem so good on paper following their slow march to the television graveyard is a dejecting, disheartening experience.
And Sean Saves the World’s march began almost immediately, and with gusto.
When the show finally premiered, reviews were tepid, at best. Ghastly, in truth. “One line after another comes out manufactured and pointless, just like those before it,” wrote Tim Goodman in The Hollywood Reporter. “That makes you wonder how anyone got hired to write this dreck.” Agreed David Hiltbrand at the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The bad news is that Hayes isn’t so much gay as he is neutered. And Sean Saves the World has the archaic look and feel of an ‘80s show.”
Ratings were a disappointment, too. Its premiere failed to score even 5 million viewers. (To compare, 17.75 million watched the episode of The Big Bang Theory that aired that same night, and 8.5 million viewers tuned in to last week’s first post-controversy episode of Duck Dynasty.) But even as ratings continued to sink, critics and the network refused to forfeit their belief in the show’s potential. Even critics who panned the show’s first episodes found the gumption with which Hayes attacked the sub-par material admirable—it’s a wonder sweat didn’t flop off the poor guy’s brow, through the screen, and onto the viewer, he was working so hard to sell the material. NBC went ahead and made two separate orders of new scripts of the sitcom, too, even though ratings were cringe-worthy and Hayes himself was bad-mouthing the network.
Enter perhaps the saddest element of the whole ordeal: the petulant, defensive, off-putting way Hayes has publicly dealt with the less-than spectacular reception of his show.
In one interview, he blamed NBC for its ratings problems. “It’s just the struggle of the elephant in the room, which is, ‘How do you get viewers to NBC?’” he told The TV Page. “NBC programs great shows, it just doesn’t have the eyeballs CBS does.” At the time of he gave those tone-deaf remarks, the “elephant in the room” was the most-watched network on TV. His show was the lowest-rated NBC show this season that the network had yet to cancel.
But it’s not just the network’s fault. It’s critics’ fault, too! “I think critics like to associate themselves with cool, hip things and multi-cams feel retro to them,” he said. “But I think they get nervous because they want their name on something new and hip and cool, and a lot of times they associate that with single-cam shows because those are the du jour format. This format isn’t that so they get scared.”
Then came the delusions. “Even if I wasn’t on the show, it’d be the funniest sitcom, to me, on the air right now,” he said. “I watch it and go, ‘Well, this is really fucking funny.’”
It became clear that someone, anyone, (everyone?), must be blamed for the failure of Sean Saves the World…and it wasn’t going to be him. Earlier this month, Star reported that Hayes was “at war” on set with Linda Lavin, who plays his mother on the show. “Sean thinks everyone else, including Linda, is the reason that the ratings are low. But Linda thinks he is the problem.” Star’s report also included talk of a recent on-set screaming match between the two actors.
If Sean wanted to save the show, he’d have filmed and aired that. (Other sources have since refuted the Star story, saying that Hayes and Lavin “adore one another.” Boring.)
As far as the series’ future, pundits are already etching its gravestone. NBC will only say it’s “creatively” proud, offering a vague-to-damning forecast of its future. “We think they’re good shows, and we’re really unhappy that we can’t find an audience for them,” NBC boss Rob Greenblatt told reporters at the Television Critics Association. “So we’re going to still work hard to see what we can do on Thursday nights. It is a real, real uphill battle.” It’s typically the case, however, that at the top of the hill is a wall. And, for Sean Saves the World, the writing appears to be on it.
It’s rare that a show hits the trifecta that Sean Saves the World has managed to do: failure to live up to advanced buzz, critical and ratings disaster, and very public discord between the talent and the network. In fact, there’s only one real case to compare it to, and that’s the first season of Smash. Despite the critical lashings it took, the heartbreak of fans who were disappointed by its failed execution, and the warring between creator Theresa Rhebeck and NBC, the network renewed it for a second season. Things never got better.
Perhaps, then, the failure of Sean Saves the World should be, as disappointing as it for so many of us (none more, it’s so epically clear, than for Hayes himself), just that: a failure. Now it’s just our broken, Sean Hayes-loving hearts that need saving.
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