Why would we want actors to merely tell us jokes when they can YELL THEM AT US? Why would we want their faces to be slack when they can tighten their muscles and pop out their eyes and HAM IT UP? And why would we want their jokes to succeed or fail based on their own merit when a laugh track can tell us what is funny and EXACTLY WHEN TO LAUGH?
The last new sitcoms of the fall season arrive on Thursday night with a nudge, a wink, and a thorough clobbering over the head. Both CBS’ “The Millers” at 8:30 and NBC’s “Sean Saves the World” at 9 are blunt instruments that, like too many other broad new network comedies, from “Dads” to “The Goldbergs,” don’t mess around with the intricacies of wry humor or satire. With a fusillade of punchy one-liners, they demand our attention, rather than earn it. They are iron fists in velvet gloves — without the velvet gloves.
“Sean Saves the World,” starring Sean Hayes as a single gay father, is remarkably familiar. If you were to construct a “Will & Grace” spinoff for Hayes’s character, Jack, that sitcom would look, sound, and move like this new one. Sean is less manic and flaky than Jack; he’s Jack after a few life lessons and with an office career. But he’s very Jack-like in his fast comic timing, his slapstick, and his mugging for the cameras, which isn’t a bad thing if you finished eight seasons of “Will & Grace” in 2006 hungry for more.
Sean’s life is dominated by two overbearing women, a relationship model that harkens back to old clichés about gay men. His brash, oppressive mother, Lorna, is played by Linda Lavin in full queen mode, much like her performance in a short-lived sitcom called “Conrad Bloom” from the 1990s. She and Sean’s sassy best friend, Liz, played by Megan Hilty from “Smash,” are in a constant competition to be the most important woman in Sean’s life. They enact a little “Real Housewives of Sean’s Apartment.” But of course Sean’s most important lady is — aww — his 14-year-old daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler), who recently moved in with him.
The shtick flies fast and furiously, but with only one decent joke for every 10 rote punch lines. Thomas Lennon from “Reno 911” plays Sean’s boss during the workplace scenes, and he is a strange sight. He doesn’t appear to understand his character, particularly in episode two, so he simply just acts weird and creepy and hopes we’ll think he’s being original. Echo Kellum, so winning in “Ben and Kate,” is on hand as Sean’s unlikely and generic work pal. The best thing about “Sean Saves the World” is, as in so many 1990s comedies about being single in the city, the apartment is absolutely fabulously fantastic. I want to go to there.
“The Millers” is harder to take than “Sean Saves the World,” in that it squanders some really great talent. I expected a whole lot more from a comedy featuring Will Arnett, Beau Bridges, and Margo Martindale, who has been so excellent on “Justified” and “The Americans.” The show is basically about how irritating and embarrassing older parents are — but we love ’em. Arnett plays Nathan Miller, a newly divorced TV reporter whose bickering parents, Tom (Bridges) and Carol (Martindale), decide to break up after 43 years. Carol promptly moves in with Nathan, while Tom moves in with Nathan’s sister, played by Jayma Mays of “Glee.”
Carol proceeds to cramp Nathan’s style, crashing his parties, cutting his toenails while he sleeps, and, in a repeating joke, farting without realizing she has farted. Martindale throws herself into the material, looking like a trooper trying to make the best of a bad situation. Bridges, alas, succumbs more passively to the ridiculous old dad stereotype. And Arnett does what he does in every show — he yells his lines and looks ironic.
The first half-hour of “The Millers” is so banal, it’s just sad. There’s no promise lurking anywhere in the setup, nothing that could get better and become more central as the writers find the show’s voice. Martindale is the only element that could bring me back for more, but even she can’t make the “Dirty Dancing” gag — the world’s zillionth — fly. I didn’t have the time of my life, because I’ve heard these jokes too many times before.
Starring: Will Arnett, Beau Bridges, Margo Martindale, JB Smoove
Time: Thursday, 8:30-9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.