Go Onpremiered on Wednesday night after the Olympics — it won’t be back until its regularly scheduled series debut in September — and on a first look, I’d have to say I’ve rarely seen a show with such a gap between the abilities of its cast and the ideas at the heart of the series. Matthew Perry, making another attempt at using his prodigious comedic timing after the ratings failures of Mr. Sunshine and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has surrounded himself with very good performers pushing an odd agenda.
That agenda consists of making fun of support groups that deal, in this instance, in grief. Perry plays Ryan King, a wiseguy sports-talk radio host whose wife died recently. His boss, played by the excellent John Cho in a role that barely registers in the pilot, insisted that Ryan do 10 hours of therapy work before returning to his job. And so we arrived at the organizing family-structure of Go On: the “Transitions” therapy group.
It’s led by the completely charming Laura Benanti (an acclaimed stage actress whom you might also recall on the short-lived Playboy Club) as a therapist who (let’s start counting the ways Go On sets up characters for Ryan and the audience to condescend to, shall we?) has no formal training as a therapist but did work for Weight Watchers. Benanti’s Lauren had to utter humiliating lines about losing “40 pounds and I kept it off” and, when Ryan glances rear-ward, added, “Oh, yeah, it’s good,” as in “I have a great ass” — a response that isn’t just tiresome (don’t most women in sitcoms and reality shows these days seem to have to either brag about or accept compliments about their posteriors?) but also rather out of character for the one that Benanti does a heroic job of establishing.
The class also includes a blind man (the terrific Bill Cobbs), a woman mourning the death of her cat (tee-hee? the show seems to think so), a guy who just acts randomly weird (Brett Gelman, a superb comic actor on some excellent Adult Swim shows and in the Upright Citizens Brigade), a largely silent young man whose brother is in a coma (Everybody Hates Chris‘s likable Tyler James Williams) and a woman who recently lost her female partner (Julie White, another uncommonly skilled theater, film, and TV actor). The pilot was smoothly directed by Todd Holland, who’s done such fine work on The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle, among much else.
What do these folks do? They sit around being mopey until Ryan shows up and brings more joy into their lives than Lauren has been able to do in, presumably, months. He has them compete in games like who’s got the worst situation, and advises Julie White’s character to hit something, to take up boxing; enough talk, just go DO something! is Ryan’s message, which is meant to stand in stark contrast to Lauren’s careful, sincere exploration of emotions.
I get it that we’re supposed to think Ryan is a wounded ass who is hiding his pain (and we know he’s in pain because we were shown him trying in vain to sleep in the bed he used to share with his wife, and having an out-of-proportion rage attack when he sees a character texting while driving because his wife died in an accident while texting in a car); that this is all lurking beneath his game wisecracks and his ridicule of the therapeutic practice. But the subtext of this subtext is that we really are supposed to laugh and agree with him when he says, “I think this is all kinda dumb” and that “the talking, that wallowing, it keeps you from getting on with your life.”
The takeaway from the initial Go On is that you should indeed acknowledge your pain… but then for God’s sake, just buck up, man up, and get on with your life. Because, you know, having someone (or something) you love die — it’s just a bump in the road. Get happy, you wuss.
I have hope that this very well-cast show will get better; it could go either way — improve by moving beyond the initial premise and become a sitcom about eccentric people who help each other help themselves, or turn its potentially appealing characters into mere freaks, with Perry and Benanti caught in the middle. I’ll keep watching Go On for a while.