One of the great pleasures in life is learning from experience. When life gives you lemons, you don’t just make lemonade; you also get it in your head to shake a different tree. Case in point: a little over a year ago, I was commissioned to critique early episodes of the NBC sitcom Community. My articles turned out so misguided (or awful according to some) they earned me an unceremonious booting from a community (hoho!) for which I rather enjoyed writing. In retrospect, I think the problem lied in my thorough dislike of reviews that point at stuff and exclaim, “Wasn’t that cool?” I find them as boring to compose as to read.
Anyway, I’m now faced with a new NBC sitcom: Go On from executive producers Scott Silveri, Todd Holland (of Wonderfalls fame), and Matthew Perry, who also stars. Based on the strength of this pilot, I’d recommend it as well. However, rather than list the bits I found funny, a reviewing mandate that never sat comfortably with me, I’d like to go over some of the core themes and dynamics at play in this episode and what they might mean for the series as a whole. This is not to say I didn’t laugh out loud at certain points, but, in describing such moments, I’d be either spoiling some inspired gags or telling you something you already know.
On that subject, the plot centers on Ryan King, a wily radio sportscaster portrayed by Perry with his usual sardonic charm. Ryan can in many ways be viewed as an evolution of his previous role in the short-lived Mister Sunshine, that of a goodhearted but slightly narcissistic workaholic who can talk himself out of, but usually into, the most ludicrous situations. The difference lies in his shallow demeanor serving as a front for some genuinely affecting pathos. You see, our hero just lost his wife in a tragic accident (more on that later), and he seems to think a quick wit can help him outrun his own grief.
In a gesture of administrative compassion, the station manager, played by John Cho, imposes on our hero ten therapy sessions before he can go back to work. We’re talking group therapy, of course, allowing for an extensive supporting cast, whom we meet by way of a clever info dump montage masquerading as a contest to determine whose loss is the greatest. Grieving regulars include Julie White as a lawyer stuck in the anger stage of grief, Suzy Nakamura as an anal-retentive pushover coping with her parents’ divorce, Brett Gelman as a creepy weirdo, and Tyler James Williams (from Everybody Hates Chris) as a quiet teen who, like Ryan, thinks the whole thing is kind of stupid.
We get where they’re coming from. After all, the group’s leader, Lauren, is a career motivational speaker whose only experience with loss consists of helping folk lose pounds as part of the Weight Watchers program. Mind you, I’m willing to bet that’ll change before season’s end (or perhaps in the finale). At any rate, Laura Benanti does a good job of conveying her character’s fluster without coming off uppity or unsympathetic. The central message of Go On lies in her conflict with Ryan, who believes deflection a healthier coping mechanism than blathering about one’s feelings in a controlled environment.
Owen revealing his brother’s coma in the midst of exchanging YouTube videos proves our hero right. Then again, the latter’s reaction to his guest texting while driving shifts the pendulum back toward Lauren. It’s a balancing act, you see. The title “Go On” could refer to the common active listening phrase, but it could also mean moving forward with one’s life. This sense of ambivalence permeates the whole episode, from the touching shot of Fausta cake-box crowning her family portrait to Ryan’s glib parenthetical when recounting his wife’s fatal accident: “at that moment, and it couldn’t wait, she needed to tell me to get a bag of coffee, so at least it was important.”
After the unprecedented success of Friends, it would’ve been easy for Matthew Perry to coast in mid-level rom-coms, so I appreciate his tackling challenging material with no easy answers. Still, I fear for this one. How does one market a comedy about death, let alone one that treats it as a genuine tragedy? Mr Sunshine proved more chipper and tanked regardless. Of course, that show suffered from alienating characters and a somewhat elusive point, fatal flaws of which we’d never accuse Go On. I guess he’s learning too.