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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