Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pilot Reviews: Welcome to the Family & Sean Saves the World

With the departure of The Office and 30 Rock, NBC has begun to restructure its Thursday night comedy lineup as family-centric rather than workplace-centric. The centerpieces are the returns of beloved sitcom stars Michael J. Fox (whose show last week didn't do as well, critically or commercially, as I'm sure NBC had hoped) and Will & Grace's Sean Hayes. Joining them are Parks & Recreation, the sole survivor of the workplace comedies, and Welcome to the Family, a much less ballyhooed, nontraditional family sitcom starring Emmy nominee Mike O'Malley (Glee, Yes Dear) and Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight). They're a mostly uneven blend, and mostly uneven in quality as well.

Welcome to the Family (Thursdays at 8:30 on NBC; Premieres October 3)

First up is Welcome to the Family, a totally useless and offensively unfunny little thing. O'Malley stars as Dr. Dan, the patriarch of the Yoder family. His daughter, Molly (Ella Rae Peck, Deception), just graduated high school and has discovered she is pregnant with her boyfriend's child. The problem? His family is Latino, but the Yoders are white! *Mindblown*

The entire concept of this show is so dated and offensively stereotyped that I don't even know where to begin. Every joke is predicated on either the Yoders (possibly the worst TV family name ever, by the way) or the Hernandezes making racist comments or having racist ideals. For example, Junior (Joey Haro) is the smarter of the teen couple with a scholarship to Stanford; it's funny because the white girl is dumb and the brown boy is smart! It's like comedy has regressed forty years with this show. I think creator Mike Sikowitz, formerly a writer on Rules of Engagement and a slew of other swiftly-canceled comedies, was going for a kind of updated take on All in the Family, but instead he ended up with a boring mess of contradictions full of "dumb blonde" and "lazy Mexican" style jokes.

O'Malley is genuinely funny, but he has proven on Glee that he is also full of warmth and wisdom. None of these traits are on display in Welcome to the Family. His character here is a workaday schlub (yes, even though Dan is a doctor, O'Malley still can't shake his typically blue-collar persona) who can't wait for his daughter to move out so he can have sex with his wife on a more regular basis. McCormack blends into the background; Peck's character is annoying to the nth degree; and Ricardo Chavira (Desperate Housewives) does little more than yell and intimidate the white folk as Hernandez patriarch Miguel. They're all capable of doing better work, and they all deserve better material. I honestly can't imagine anyone finding this funny, but kudos to NBC for attempting to tap into the Latino niche that Univision has had a monopoly on. I just don't think any of them will be sticking around either thanks to the borderline racism on display.

Sean Saves the World (Thursdays at 9:00 on NBC; Premieres October 3)

Anchoring the night in the 9:00 timeslot (and also going up against Robin Williams's The Crazy Ones, which had the year's biggest comedy debut) is Sean Saves the World, a surprisingly traditional multi-camera sitcom starring Sean Hayes as a gay man trying to balance his personal and professional lives. This is complicated when his 14 year-old daughter Ellie (Samantha Isler) moves in with him full-time. Adding to this new pressure are his pushy mother Lorna (Linda Lavin) and his new boss Max (Thomas Lennon, Reno 911!). Lots of gay jokes and a really loud laugh track ensue.

Compared to Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World is pure genius. On its own, not so much. I did find myself laughing, but it all seems kind of tired. Every character is a trope, and little is done to break them out of these tropes: moody teenager, high-strung dad trying to do it all, overbearing mother, dickhead boss, sassy friend, etc. Basically, it's every sitcom that ever aired in the 1990s. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's also not terribly exciting. Still, I found myself very happy to be spending time with Hayes again. He's playing a more mature, more grounded version of Jack McFarland here. There's a little less manic energy and a little less bite to the comedy, but the groundwork for Sean is firmly rooted in Jack (I'm sure having James Burrows, who directed all 194 episodes of Will & Grace, on board has something to do with that). Luckily for the audience, what Hayes made work fifteen years ago is still pretty funny now.

There are moments that don't work, of course. Whenever the action shifts to Sean's work, the show loses something. Hayes just seems more at home... well, at home. His interactions with Isler and Lavin are the strongest in the series, both of whom nearly steal their respective scenes. His interactions with Lennon and Echo Kellum as co-worker Hunter are not nearly as funny and lack the same chemistry. Megan Hilty is pleasant and amusing as his female friend, and the comedic bond they shared on Smash carried over well to this new show. But that's neither here nor there, because you're going to watch Sean Saves the World based on whether or not you like Sean Hayes's brand of humor. If you do, you will find enough to like and walk away satisfied, if not in love. Personally, I find Hayes hysterical, and even without the strongest script or freshest setup, I liked him here. Sean is campy, ridiculous fun, which is not a word I could use to describe many of the other new comedies this season.

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