As far as Go On’s standards go, “Any Given Birthday” is a perfectly adequate episode. The support group tries to help Ryan reclaim his birthday with mixed results. A weirdly expensive scavenger hunt makes an appearance as a plot device. But everything, obviously, turns out fine.
I’m beginning to think I would like Go On a whole lot more if Ryan wasn’t in the show at all. The way it is now, Ryan is positioned as our everyman, mugging at the camera in lieu of a laugh track to guide the audience toward an appropriate reaction. So grief counseling is a joke, and the members of the support group are alternatively pathetic or laughable.
The problem is, I like the members of the support group, and most of the time, I understand them more than I understand Ryan. In broad sketches, Danny, Owen, Anne, Sonia, and even Yolanda convey so much about their characters, good and bad, that they manage to be relatable, flawed, and comic. Once again, it seems like Go On is trying to have it both ways—it wants the comedic high ground of laughing at emotional vulnerability while also getting to display emotional vulnerability so as to appeal to both audiences.
But they’re doing a half-assed job at both right now. And a key issue is the inherent problem of Ryan as the anchoring character of the show. I feel like my episodic reviews of Go On are turning into a kind of manual: How Not To Write A Sitcom. Every week, I find something else baked into the premise of the show that simply does not scale to season-long comedy. This week, I found myself dwelling again on the fact that Ryan has no flaws, which makes him a phenomenally uninteresting character in the long-term.
To be fair, he sort of pretends to have flaws. He makes fun of the support group—who then, of course, practically make fun of themselves with their antics. He likes talking about himself—an inconsistent character trait used primarily as a convenient plot device. Much is said of the fact that he was, or is now, kind of an asshole. But we don’t see it. We see him being kind of desperate under the influence of grief, yeah. But Ryan is primarily a good and decent guy. He takes care of his friends, like a post-op Steven in “Any Given Birthday.” He cares when he hurts people’s feelings. He thinks his wife deserved better. He cries. Even his constant attempts to escape the support group are rooted in his desire to not be crazy like everyone else there. Sure, he has delusions of grandeur and a weakness for sports cars, but let’s be real, who doesn’t?
He’s regular, in other words. Ryan is Regular Ryan. He’s normal, perhaps a tad more sarcastic and tan than Average Joe, but probably within the range of what Average Joe thinks about himself on a good day.
I get that this is what television shows sometimes do when they are trying to appeal to broad audiences: They drop in a character that is a stand-in for the audience’s feelings. Desi in I Love Lucy is a good example, the guy who laughs at Lucy and shakes his head at her antics for the benefit of the viewers. But Ryan isn’t playing second fiddle to the far more eccentric main character of the show—he’s carrying the whole thing himself. The eccentric support group is instead playing second fiddle to him. To emphasize his… regularity, I suppose. His flawlessness. This comes out in “Any Given Birthday” in a perfect little exchange between Ryan and Sonia. He snarks at her that if she’s so upset about her ex-boyfriend, she should get six or seven cats to solve her problems. She snarks back that he should go “undead” his wife. She doesn’t say that he should get his head out of his ass, or that he should lay off on the spray tan—no, she points out his most prominent flaw on the show, and that is merely that his wife is dead.
Go On wants to have all of its cake and eat it too, in every episode. It wants the perfect lead character and the flawed but loveable ensemble cast. It wants the workplace comedy and the friendship sitcom. The inclusion of grief and then the mockery of said grief. As a result, it refuses to make hard choices. It wants hijinks, but no conflict; a love interest, but little chemistry. No one grows, no one changes; so little, so very little happens week-to-week. As I said: perfectly adequate, but far short of compelling.
- God, I’d watch a show with Mr. K and Anne just walking around and complaining about things. Their Cyd Charisse conversation was one of the most genuine moments of affection between two characters in this entire series to date, and their dance to save Ryan’s birthday was hilarious. I can’t wait for the inevitable realization that this was all a dream in Mr. K’s head the entire time.
- Kudos to the writers for going after the Ryan/Lauren dynamic with that awkward faux-seduction scene. Somehow that was a sweet moment, and mostly because Lauren’s real desire to help Ryan came through. It was one of the few tense moments the show has grappled with—a moment where the group is hiding something from Ryan for his own good, and when he finds out, he’s (momentarily) crushed.
- I’m fine with Steven doing anything, pretty much, as long as he’s on-screen. Meanwhile, Danny and Owen are so great and so underused. Why, cruel world, why??