Go On debuts tonight on NBC at 11:05 p.m. Eastern, immediately after the Olympics.
Todd VanDerWerff: Go On is such a big, messy show that it honestly wouldn’t be surprising to watch it in November and realize it’s become one of the best shows on television or realize it’s completely and utterly fallen apart. In its pilot, it attempts to be something like five different shows at once, and only one of those shows is any good. But the more it focuses on that show, the better it is, even if it’s hard to escape the fact that that version of itself is surprisingly similar to Community, that critically beloved, little watched sitcom that NBC apparently always thought should have been a bigger hit—perhaps ignoring the record for single-camera comedies, series set on college campuses, and shows on NBC. There are fun moments in Go On, and once it’s over, you won’t hate yourself for having watched it. But there are plenty of dire things here, too. It’s almost impossible to predict which way this one will skew, which is part of the fun.
The series’ focal point is Matthew Perry’s Ryan King, host of a radio sports talk show who’s recently lost his wife. (When the pilot begins, it’s been a month.) In an attempt to get past the devastating loss, Ryan tries to go back to work, but he’s stopped by his boss, Steven (an underused John Cho), who insists that to prove he’s “ready,” he get some grief counseling. Ryan eventually lands on a group that will take less time to get through than any of the others offered, and as soon as he arrives at the community center to meet his fellow group mates, he comes to realize that they’re a colorful bunch of oddballs whose antics will surely both irritate him and enrich his life in the weeks to come. Ryan first takes control of the group, but once group leader Lauren (Laura Benanti, mostly wasted) arrives, there’s an evident spark between the two that will surely play out for hundreds of episodes to come.
It’s easy to be cynical about Go On, which plays at times like a network Mad Libs version of a quirky sitcom, but there’s good stuff in it. There are some intriguingly developed characters in the supporting cast—particularly Julie White as Anne, a middle-aged lesbian lawyer coping with rage issues in the wake of her partner’s highly preventable death. There are some solid laughs—particularly in a sequence in which Ryan pits the various grief group members against each other in a competition to see who has the biggest sob story, a competition called “March Sadness.” And there’s a genuinely emotional moment, unlike any moment in any other comedy pilot this year, in which the camera pans past the many members of the group alone in their homes, struggling to move forward in a world that now has a giant void at its center. (Iron & Wine plays over this sequence because of course it does, but the filmmaking from director Todd Holland compensates for any overt schmaltz.)
Perry’s also as good here as he’s ever been. The man’s a consummate TV star, and he’s nicely modulated his essential Chandler-ness into something that fits within the single camera format while still appearing as the sarcastic jokester America loves. The moments when Perry expresses Ryan’s rage over losing his wife or digs into the loneliness and sadness he feels coming home to an empty bed at night are very well done, and he even makes the most of the stuff where he’s a jerkass radio host, which feels like it could be much more over-the-top than it is. Perry is essentially the only thing keeping Ryan from being a complete and total jackass we’re supposed to find charming, and he does a solid enough job of it to keep the show from being yet another in a long line of shows where assholes are meant to seem enjoyable to watch.
Yet the show is also stuffed with serious problems, problems that would fell just about any other show. For one thing, it never takes any time to do the stuff it wants to do. It has tonal whiplash problems, but ones that would be manageable if it didn’t feel the need to zip past every slightly poignant moment in favor of wacky jokes. There’s a part of the pilot in which Ryan is speaking with Owen (a very good Tyler James Williams) as part of an exercise designed to see what the two have in common. The scene needs to set up a lot of things, and the script (by former Friends writer Scott Silveri) blitzes past all of these things at lightning speed. By the time it ends up at its supposedly cathartic conclusion, the show has to move on to the next thing, lest it spend too long letting us contemplate just how deeply scarred these people have been by their experiences. At all times, Go On feels massaged to death, as if any rough edges were removed in favor of making everything as smooth and palatable as possible. Worried the pilot’s tone might stray too close to emotional realism? Don’t worry! Here’s some faux-charming, will-they/won’t-they banter to tide you over!
It’s entirely possible that will go away in the weeks to come. Comedy pilots are often so problematic because networks spend so long making sure everything has the most mass audience appeal they can muster (thus making the pilots less interesting to anyone). After a few episodes, Silveri and his crew may direct things more toward the pilot’s appealingly ragged edges, instead of the mushy center favored by the pilot. Yet at the same time, there’s a fairly terrifying specter of what the show might become. For some reason, the series spends an inordinate amount of time at Ryan’s radio station, despite there being precisely no memorable characters there and there being no real story there. It seems mostly present as an insurance policy against the show getting too real. If the series doesn’t succeed, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which it’s retooled into a show about Matthew Perry working as a jerkass radio host with colorful co-workers, rather than the more interesting show that the grief group suggests. And nobody needs that.
And at all times, the show’s weird similarities to Community distract. There are tons of similarities between Ryan and Jeff Winger, obviously, but Lauren might as well be Britta with auburn hair. The show also has an Abed, in Brett Gelman’s Mr. K., whose antics are meant to provide many of the laughs and whose exploits are meant to drive Ryan crazy until he realizes just how much he needs this wacky dude. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. If NBC is going to start copying shows, Community isn’t a bad place to start, and that also means the show’s cast is large and diverse, with plenty of fun comic ringers. But the show skews so close to that earlier series and seems at all times like so much of a committee-designed replacement for that show that it’s not hard to feel a little confused by it all. If NBC is going to attempt its sitcom renaissance with barely concealed remakes of its earlier shows that didn’t succeed, why start with Community? And, in particular, why start with a series that runs away at all opportunities from that which might make it interesting?
Erik Adams: In terms of tone, NBC is reaching into its not-so-distant past for Go On. In terms of premise, however, it’s looking toward the robust boom years of Cheers and The Cosby Show, where divorcé Judd Hirsch found himself a surrogate family of assorted kooks on the U.S. version of the British sitcom Dear John. So we’re not breaking a lot of new ground here.
In working with material that’s not exactly fresh, Go On will live and die on the merits of its cast, which is among the best comedy ensembles the broadcast networks assembled for the upcoming fall season. (Bested only by the eerily in-synch principals of Fox’s Ben And Kate.) You’ve rightly spotlighted White, Williams, and Gelman, Todd, but I’d also go to bat for Gelman’s fellow UCB Theatre alum Seth Morris (as a cuckolded, in-denial veteran) and Bill Cobbs—the latter of whom, with any luck, will be allowed to hang onto to his basic world-weariness and won’t be the blind man who ironically teaches Ryan to open his eyes and see all the beauty around him. This show starts getting good when it lets the members of the support group mix it up, and I’d be sincerely disappointed if the show jettisons them for a more conventional workplace setting.
Given the way NBC boss Bob Greenblatt spoke about his network’s new comedy offerings at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, a wider audience attuned to “conventional” is what Peacock brass is hoping for from Go On. Given the unapolegitically mawkish moments in the pilot, I don’t think those people will tune in once the show officially premières—but they’ll be missing out on something with the potential to be special. Or the potential to be a watered-down version of something special, with weird moments of maudlin sentimentality. It all depends on how Go On lets its talented cast grow together.