Tuesday night marked the NBC premiere of the network's new sitcom Go On, which really meant the second episode of the show, since the pilot debuted on Hulu over the summer, and on television several times since its mid-Olympics debut. As such, any member of the technophobic masses who caught the advertised premiere without having already seen the pilot on Hulu, or any of the feebly advertised TV airings, would have been sorely confused by the lack of establishment in terms of plot, character, or setting. But then again, all of those computer-haters and people with schedules too busy to constantly survey the TV listings for Matthew Perry regenerations are probably not reading this article anyhow — so who cares about 'em?!
Confusing TV prereqs aside, there is something very interesting about Go On. The series introduces radio sportscaster Ryan King (Perry), a workaholic and recent widower who is having an understandably difficult time moving on after the death of his wife Jane; Ryan's strategy for overcoming this sorrow is to bury himself in his work, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. His boss (John Cho, who seems like he should have taken this role at the beginning of his career rather than at the height of it) insists that Ryan undergo counseling before coming back to work; his doting assistant (Allison Miller) agrees. So, a begrudging Ryan engages in ten mandatory sessions of group therapy, expecting to breeze through it with his sarcasm and play-to-win attitude, without any intention of really gaining anything from the ordeal.
Obviously, this isn't what happens. Ryan inadvertently winds up connecting with his effectively severe therapist (Laura Benanti), and, more importantly, the mass of eccentrics that make up the support group. Among them are a mother of two whose grief over the death of her wife has turned into uncontrollable anger (Julie White), a socially inept young lady mourning the death of her cat (Sarah Baker), an aging blind man with more medical problems than he can count (Bill Cobbs), and several others, most notably a teenager (Tyler James Williams) who, prior to Ryan's intervention, has refused to open up about an accident that rendered his brother brain-damaged.
It'd be easy to deliver these character and their problems without any deep examination. It's understood that the loss of spouses, siblings, pets, and one's own faculties are taxing hardships — Go On wouldn't really need to paint so vivid a picture of each group member's grief in order for us to accept that they are all going through pain. This strategy would also leave more room for the sort of straight comedy you'd expect from a Matthew Perry sitcom. Simply, there'd be more time to chuck in the laughs. And beyond that, the mood wouldn't be weighted down by genuinely tear-jerking depictions of Ryan struggling to fall asleep in an empty bed, Anna (White) lashing out at her late wife's grave, and Fausta (Tonita Castro) welling up looking at a picture of her husband and son, who we assume have died. It'll shock you how powerful these illustrations actually are; the idea of Go On shifts terrifically once the pilot moves from Perry shucking out goofy sports metaphors and jokes about Internet memes to scenes of people crying over the losses of their loved ones.
The drama continues into the second episode, which shifts away from Ryan dwelling on the death of his wife to Ryan looking for someone to fill the void. His attention sets naturally upon his twentysomething assistant, whom he begins following everywhere, explaining that he has always considered her to be his "vice Jane." And this is not at all in a lecherous way. Their relationship and his desperate need for her to care about him are sincerely sweet and sad. Ryan's misplaced journey to become the most important aspect of Carrie's (Miller) life is extremely honest and relatable; although a good source of comedy throughout the episode, it is treated earnestly in the end and not played for laughs. Nor are the personal traumas of any of Ryan's peers, who he will slowly welcome into his life and connect to throughout the series. We've already seen it happen with Owen (Williams), George (Cobbs), and Sonia (Baker). There are still a handful of lovable, unfortunate shnooks yet to conquer.
There are plenty of emotionally terse comedies on television, several of which air on NBC. Parks and Recreation is no stranger to sentiment and warmth. Community has delivered many notably heartrending stories. But these guys didn't come flying out the gate with tearjerker episodes. Over time, we came to care about Leslie Knope and Abed Nadir, and from that, organically invested ourselves into their hardships to the point where a good cry or two were inevitable. Moreover, Parks and Community are comedies capable of digging deeper. But Go On doesn't seem to be interested in this formula; it seems to be pioneering the title of sitdram.
Although we've only been granted two episodes so far, it is pretty easy to see that Go On isn't going to deliver any installments built just on the jokes. A piece of evidence that backs this up is one of the final moments of Tuesday night's episode, "He Got Game, She Got Cats." After revealing to George that his prized basketball has been stolen, Ryan (using his clout as an esteemed sportscaster) decides to treat his new friend to floor seats at an NBA game. In an effort to help the blind George enjoy the game, Ryan rattles off a rapid-fire play by play, prompting George to eventually ask him to shut up, close his eyes, and just listen to the sound of the crowd and the players. The screen fades black as Ryan closes his eyes and allows himself to calmly escape his own head for a minute. An avid sitcom watcher would expect, at this point, the sounsd of a loud "Clunk!" and for Ryan to awaken in the hospital with a mild head injury, or something. But that is not the case. That's the end of the scene. The show cuts to a commercial, comes back with an amusing tag, and rolls credits. There is no punchline — Go On doesn't need one, because it's not all about the comedy.
The show wants to make us laugh and cry every week, and has given us a cast and crew of writers capable of earning this. Sure, some aspects of the pilot and its followup ep are a bit goofy, but they're effective. Perry and co are really selling the heartbreak; his onscreen chemistry with Miller stands out as a winning element of the series. The characters feel full; we know we're going to get more out of Anna, Owen, Fausta, hapless divorcee Danny (Seth Morris), high strung adult child Yolanda (Suzy Nakamura), and the oddball of the bunch, Mr. K (Brett Gelman). And we know it's not all going to be funny. It's going to be sad and painful, possibly to the point where laughs are foregone entirely. But that seems to be okay. If we're connected to this show enough to get wrapped up in these peoples' lives from the first two episodes, then they'll warrant some overarching dramatic stories in the future.
[Photo Credit: NBC]
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It seems as though Matthew Perry is television's little engine that could. He, along with fellow actors Tyler James Williams, Julie White, John Cho, Laura Benanti, Suzy Nakamura, Brett Gelman, and producers Todd Holland, Karey Nixon, Scott Silveri, and Jon Pollack took to the Television Critics Association stage to discuss their NBC fall comedy, Go On, at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday. Perry, who recently completed work on the failed ABC sitcom Mr. Sunshine, was quick to self-depricatingly sing the praises of his new employer.
"First of all, this is the room where people like Mr. Sunshine?" Perry joked, when a reporter praised the departed show. "I wish I had just stayed in this room that whole year! The bad news for me, creatively, is that Scott created a TV show for me better than the one that I created for myself. This show is just better. Scott is a better writer that I am." Silveri modestly joked back, saying "I also happen to be a better actor than he is." Perry went on to explain his desire to work on the show, saying that he "gravitate[s] towards broken characters who try to be better people. The set-up is better here. This guy has had some very dramatic things happen to him, and he's in denial when you meet him. It's a built-in excuse to be really funny." On the show, Perry plays a popular sportscaster who attends group therapy as a way to cope with a devastating personal loss. A reporter noted that group therapy is typically very fluid, but Silveri insists that this is a good thing. "It will become a natural thing for him to be attending," Silveri said. "In the research that I've done, there's a fair bit of continuity for years in these groups. People don't heal all that quickly. There's also an easy way to cycle new people in, and cycle people out as people misbehave." The show will also feature characters from Perry's workplace, which Silveri insists is another positive asset for the show. "There is going to be some cross-pollination, because these are all characters that are important to Matthew's character," Silveri said. "We love the work characters, we love the support group characters. Each being strong helps the other." White, who plays a support-group member, was the first to be cast. Her character was pitched as a widow grieving the death of her husband, but she soon received a phone call from Silveri asking if she minded playing the role gay. "The idea of losing your spouse, or your partner, is the same kind of grief for everyone," White said. "In that way, Matthew and I, our characters are on the same kind of journey." "It was important for us to represent all kinds of people in the show," Silveri added. Benanti plays the sexy leader of the support group, and though her character has great chemistry with Perry's, she noted that viewers shouldn't necessarily expect a romance (at least not right away). "I think that my character probably has relatively straight ethics," she said. "You can tell from the pilot that [she and Perry] have a nice chemistry, and him telling me about his loss is something that I'm very empathic towards... maybe more so than a traditional therapist might be." But that doesn't mean that they'll get together. "I flirt with him just off-screen," Benanti joked. Gelman's wacky character, who is seen in the pilot going to lamaze classes, only goes to group because he wants to fit in... somewhere. Anywhere. "He's not a sociopath," Gelman insisted. "But he's not someone who is used to being around people very often. He wants friends, but he doesn't know the proper way to go about acquiring them. It gets pretty awkward. He meets the number one cool friend, which is Matthew. ... he has strange intentions at times. But he's harmless." Silveri — who was also a producer on Friends — says he still enjoys working with Perry, whose talents have only improved over the years. "Having worked with him for 8 years, I was well aware of the full spectrum of his talents," he said. "But I still get surprised." What's not surprising, however, is that Perry has maintained his Chandler Bing brand of self-deprecating sarcasm. When asked about his favorite role, the actor replied: "It's either this, or The Whole Ten Yards." Yikes. Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna [PHOTO CREDIT: NBC] MORE: TCA 2012: NBC Boss Defends 'Community' Move, Insists Firing Wasn't Persona Matthew Perry's Sitcom Goes to Series, But Will It Break the Curse? Fall 2012 Pilot Preview Catch-Up — VIDEOS
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.