'Go On,' Matthew Perry, And Being Patient With Comedy Pilots
Tonight, after NBC wraps up its Olympic coverage — at a time currently listed as 11:04 p.m. — they'll be previewing Matthew Perry's new sitcom, Go On, which will then go away until its regular premiere on September 10.
Trying to boost a scripted show by tacking it to the end of a sports broadcast is nothing new, as you know if you've watched the annual drama called What Will Get The Coveted Spot After The Super Bowl? And it's also not limited to this show: the network will repeat the gambit Sunday night with Animal Practice, its vet's-office comedy currently famous mostly for being that show where the monkey rides an ambulance.
So how's the show? Well, a lot of that depends on whether you like Matthew Perry doing what Matthew Perry does. If you saw him on Friends — or, for that matter, on the short-lived ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine — you won't be surprised by what he does here. This is basically what Chandler Bing would be like if he lost his wife and became angrier and sadder.*
Here, Perry plays the generically named Ryan King, a guy who does sports radio and has, in fact, recently endured the death of his wife. In one of those plot cheats that probably wouldn't ever happen in any universe that has ever existed, he's forced by his boss to participate in a grief counseling group he suspects will be pointless. Many have noted the similarities between this setup and Community — the man who reluctantly becomes a leader of misfits — but there's certainly a little more darkness in group therapy for grief than there is in community college.
The ostensible leader of the group, played by Laura Benanti, is minimally qualified (widely circulated clips have revealed that her prior experience is in leading Weight Watchers meetings), so Ryan steps in and becomes the de facto driver of this somewhat broken-down grief bus. Of course, that doesn't necessarily get him any closer to managing his own loss, but we will inevitably get to that.
If I may wax philosophical for just a moment: Recent years have made me more cautious than I once was about pilots — especially comedies. The pilots of The Big Bang Theory, Happy Endings, and Parks And Recreation all left me cold only to later become shows I loved. Others have said similar things about major improvements over the early episodes of New Girl and Cougar Town. At the same time, even a pilot a lot of people like can turn into a show that nobody is very excited about: this time last year, a lot of critics had high hopes for 2 Broke Girls that haven't been realized.
Roughly speaking, when I watch comedy pilots now, I put maybe 10 percent under "ugh," 10 percent under "hooray," and 80 percent under "it will be interesting to see where they are in six or eight episodes." Go On is one of the many shows in this last group.
In fact, while I was out at press tour, I spoke to a comedy showrunner who told me a variation on this same thing — that comedies with decent bones get better with time, and that even a bad comedy will probably be less bad given a year to find its voice.
For one thing, comedy pilots spend a lot of time building worlds, and it's often much funnier to live in worlds than it is to construct them, particularly when you only have 22 minutes or so. Almost inevitably, pilots for ensemble comedies feel like capsule reviews of people, or even like watching a bunch of online dating profiles — this is the reserved kid with family problems, this is the lesbian who lost her partner, this is the weird guy, and so on. The rhythms aren't established very well yet, the writers haven't figured out which combinations of people work together best (remember, it took a while for Community to make Troy and Abed best friends), and the tone is often uneven. Comedies take patience, and what I look for now is pieces that could, with minimal fiddling, add up to something — not anything as adventurous as Louie, for instance, but a solid, funny comedy.
There's always been something intriguingly seething about Matthew Perry, for me. Even as Chandler, he had a kind of pent-up frustration, almost like he (Chandler, not Perry) was forever aggravated about being trapped in a series of sitcom situations. His signature delivery — "Could I be any more helpless to avoid using this voice?" — is not only sarcastic but deliciously impatient when deployed in moderation. It's basically the same act he's doing here, and they make effective use of the tension between his barbed, glib way of talking to people and the fact that everyone is gathered there to talk about profound losses. He's obviously not going to be cruel to the grieving — network comedies don't push you away from their protagonists that hard — but there's a bit of puncturing of the self-help culture that a lot of people are probably going to find satisfying.
I see a surprising amount of promise in this pilot, particularly when Ryan organizes a March Madness-style bracket competition where everyone in the group tells their tale of woe so they can determine, once and for all, whose grief is the worst, which he claims is always what everybody's thinking about anyway. It's a lithe and funny sequence, and surprisingly dark, and Perry has great fun with it.
It's really just a start, and it's easy to imagine the characters collapsing into caricature and the jokes never quite getting to where they need to be. But if you like Matthew Perry, there's absolutely no reason not to give it a shot.
*I can't bring myself to say "if Monica died." It's too weird.