In his new NBC series Go On, Matthew Perry plays Ryan King, a recently widowed sports talk radio host, eager to return to work after a leave of absence. Surely, when it comes to his career, something similar is going on with the erstwhile Friends actor who’s had a few notable guest starring roles since that earlier gig ended in 2004 – most recently on CBS’ The Good Wife – but who hasn’t been a regular fixture on our TV screens for some time now.
The preview premiere of Go On’s pilot, which aired Wednesday night after NBC’s Olympics coverage, begins with a wink to the audience that suggests as much – Ryan pounds on the glass of his studio, informing his boss and co-workers that he’s “back and better than ever.” This is former Friends writer and Go On creator Scott Silveri’s adorable, if a bit heavy-handed, way of marking Perry’s return and perhaps implying that after a string of unsuccessful projects wherein the former ensemble player took on lead actor duties (2006’s Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 2011’s Mr. Sunshine), this will be the one that sticks.
So, is Perry better than ever here? Well, there’s really no topping “Ms. Chanandler Bong” but this show certainly has the potential to be the first in Perry’s post-Friends career to get a second season order.
Go On is a sitcom that oscillates between being very cute and very depressing. However, the show isn’t really a comedic drama or even a dark comedy. It’s some strange hybrid of comedy and tragedy that I’ve never encountered before on network TV. At the behest of his boss Steven (played by John Cho), Ryan begins attending a grief support group to deal with the loss of his wife – Steven won’t allow Ryan, who is clearly masking his pain with humor, to start working again until he’s completed ten sessions with the group. During his first meeting, Ryan, being the fast-talking charmer that he is and having no intention of actually trying to work through his issues, takes over. He gets the other members of the group to compete against each other in a kind of “who has it worse” March Madness style mini tournament, referred to as “March Sadness.” The scene provides us with the type of lighthearted introduction to the sorrow underpinning the series that you’d probably expect from your basic sitcom.
Other times, though, Go On delves deeper – juxtaposed with the more traditional sitcom elements, these scenes end up creating jarringly pronounced tonal shifts. Owen, the youngest member of the group (played by Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams), usually doesn’t participate in discussions but he almost accidentally opens up to Ryan about his comatose brother. It’s one of the most poignant exchanges of the episode. Yet, right before this happens, we get this silly moment between the two quirkiest members of the collective – the odd, creepy guy (Brett Gelman) gets a little too touchy feely with the woman who’s mourning her cat’s death. As I said, that sort of tonal shift is jarring but it works because the emotional scenes feel authentic and everything else is genuinely funny – Perry has always been a master of comic timing and delivery and that will never change.
While Go On should be applauded for its experimentation with genre, the support group does resemble Community’s study group in that they’re both comprised of multi-ethnic, multi-generational odd balls led by a cocky white guy in his thirties or early forties who doesn’t want to admit that he’s just like them. Maybe this is just what every group in modern TV, movies, and real life looks like but as the show moves forward (the first season will begin on September 11th) it’s going to be important for Silveri to make sure that the characters’ idiosyncrasies are specific and not pilfered from some “sitcom characters for dummies” book.
Another potential problem is that the subject matter almost lends itself to cringeworthy sentimentality.
The pilot’s conclusion is uplifting (it involves the group coming together while donning LARPing costumes) but saccharine enough that it almost undermined the creative and engaging mix of humor and tragedy that had come before it.