This is as good as the show gets.
Look, I’m as surprised as you are. I have despised many episodes of Go On, and last week’s episode “Fast Breakup” is probably the lowest point of the show’s entire first season, a mish-mash of poor characterization and cheap plot devices. But “Urn-ed Run,” the season finale, is kind of delightful. It’s significantly better written than any other episode of this season, particularly when it comes to extended stretches of dialogue that fit together wonderfully, with a snappiness that reminds me of New Girl (which is the sitcom to beat on television these days). But in addition to stronger writing and editing, “Urn-ed Run,” manages to do something very few other episodes of Go On have managed—it makes Ryan a character that matters. He’s not just interesting—his story is also legitimately moving.
The thing about making “a comedy with heart” is that you kind of have to take risks in order for both the comedy and the emotionality of the plot to hit home at the same time. The reason so many comedies don’t try to achieve that balance is because it’s quite tricky. Go On’s major problem has been that it’s hesitant and afraid to make any sort of decision that would move the show beyond its basic premise—it feels comfortable with the emotionality of the present tense, but is afraid to move the characters forward to uncharted territory. Many of the episodes this season have had funny scenes, subplots, or moments—a few times, the whole episode managed to come together in a way that felt like something had truly happened. But the back half of this season of Go On got very confused about what it was trying to accomplish. The Simone arc, a multiple-episode trip starring Piper Perabo, exacerbated the show’s main problem—that Ryan King himself is not a particularly charming or believable character, and the focus on his story is especially unsatisfying if he’s never going to grow or change or enter any conflicts that are not purely farcical.
Go On is rather aggressively not a show about plot, which is too bad, because all the material is there for a great dark comedy about trying to cope with death. But the show has had some trouble making that grief funny—it either ignores mourning entirely to go with a humor that feels like it’s skimming the surface, or it goes way too deeply into it, resulting in episodes that are almost ghoulish in their attempts to make the very upsetting funny. (“Videogame, Set, Match” is a particularly frustrating episode in this regard.) As the season’s gone on, Go On has gotten less about grief and more about quirkiness. It’s about a group of wacky misfits with increasingly depressing backstories, and hijinks ensue.
I haven’t bought into the premise until tonight, to be honest. I never felt free to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the grief support group, so it was often easier to get into this season’s B-plots, which tended to be free of the weight of trying to resolve an emotional issue. When I have liked the A-plots, it’s because they were handled remarkably well. Looking back, I think that corresponds to how Ryan as a character handles the heavier substance of any given episode. My favorite episodes of Go On are the ones in which Ryan comes across as a character with depth, one who can be the weird loser who avoids thinking about his wife’s death at the same time as being a character who feels deeply and is motivated by a genuine sense of loss.
I’m not sure why Ryan’s character is so inconsistent—it seems to be some kind of disagreement at a basic level, because at some times Ryan is just another version of Matthew Perry’s comedy face, and at other times he’s a character with some long-term motivations. But “Urn-ed Run” demonstrated to me how good Go On could be with a Ryan King that’s a stronger guiding force through the wild world of grief counseling.
“Urn-ed Run” could have been written as the show’s second episode. There is no single significant moment of plot that it draws upon to move forward, no crucial character development that’s required to understand what transpires. Ostensibly, the story is driven first by Lauren, who comes in fresh from her breakup with Wyatt eager to prove her self-worth by throwing herself into her work with her support group. The resulting tension is a pretty funny one, given how pointless this whole season has felt—is Lauren any good at this grief counseling thing? The group itself appears to be unconvinced in her efforts. Loving and attached to each other, but not moved by her abilities to help any of them.
It’s interesting too because this debate takes on one of the main pillars of the show’s premise—and then proceeds to demonstrate that the answer is not “yes” or “no” but “maybe, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.” In the B-plot, Sonia and Yolanda invent a dead coworker to make Lauren feel better about her ability to counsel them out of their grief, but needless to say, things go slightly awry when Lauren shows up at their workplace intent on counseling everyone else out of their grief. Yolanda and Sonia do the sensible thing and hire a team of actors and transients to pretend to be mourning. It’s funny, and Suzy Nakamura and Sarah Baker play off of each other very well to make it even funnier.
But by far my biggest laugh of the night was in the main storyline, in which Ryan finds himself unable to dispose of Janie’s ashes. It’s now been a year since her death, according to the show’s timeline, but he still hasn’t found the perfect way to say goodbye. So when Lauren goes on her kick to fix everyone, she pushes Ryan to get some closure. But Ryan can’t say goodbye, and so swaps out his wife’s ashes for Bisquick, which he then pours into a lake with great ceremony, accompanied by Stephen singing a hymn very, very badly. The service, the reveal, and Ryan’s increasing anxiety about Janie’s ashes are all handled very well—so when Anne and Mr. K decide to intervene to push him along on his journey, it’s both funny and emotionally resonant.
Naturally, because it’s Anne and Mr. K, they decide to help by breaking into his house and stealing Janie’s ashes. But before they can get to the lake to scatter her real ashes, Ryan and Stephen catch up with them, and Anne puts the urn aside for a moment… only to watch it glide away on the roof of another car before smashing to smithereens on the concrete floor of an L.A.-area gas station. This, in itself, is hilarious, but the extended reaction shot is priceless. The camera just stays on the four characters staring open-mouthed at the havoc that they have wreaked for a good 15 seconds longer than most reaction shots would take, staying on them as Stephen slowly assesses the situation, and then breaks out into the hymn that Janie would have wanted him to sing.
In this moment, Go On finally lives up to its potential. The stakes are high, and all the characters know it—but the most well-meaning intentions lead to catastrophe. It’s funny and tragic. These are the trials and tribulations of an average life, where humor tempers tragedy to bring acceptance. And Ryan’s struggle to accept what has happened to his wife’s ashes is a microcosm of attempting to understand what happened to his wife—with perfectly good reason. What’s nice is not just that the episode manages to capture this tiny moment of struggle—it also manages to deliver a tiny moment of acceptance and closure, those things that the rest of the season of Go On has struggled with. I didn’t love the flashback device that kept sending Ryan back to his wedding day, but it’s not that bad, and it does end up being relevant. “Urn-ed Run” ends on a bittersweet note that is incredibly rare for Go On—the resignation that this era is over, mingled with the slow beginnings of acceptance that it’s okay to move on. Ryan’s move makes it okay for everyone else to move on a little bit, too; not everyone can, of course, but in their own ways, it’s a pivotal moment for everyone. I particularly liked that Ryan’s alone when he makes his peace with his wife’s remains—that thoughtful solitude contrasts well with the show’s normal tone of frenzied group action.
This is the show Go On can be and should be, if it would try a bit harder to keep the narrative cohesive. Right now, the show feels dragged down by too many different ideas and way too many episodes for what is essentially a slim concept. If it’s going to save every plot twist for the season finale, that’s not going to be the best week-to-week viewing experience, but I’d rather there were any plot twists than none whatsoever, and an episode like “Urn-ed Run” makes the season feel surprisingly worthwhile. But I am not sure that Go On is going to come back for a second season—I can't find any information on it either way. This could be the last episode for the support group, or just the last one until the fall. Either way, I'm glad they got to go out on a high note.
Finale grade: A-
Season grade: C
- “And The Talented Mr. Ripley, or as I call it, Buy A Winnebago, Mr. K.”
- Mr. K has had a problem eating candles in the past. He recently relapsed.
- John Cho should start singing and just, you know, never stop.
- I am not convinced anything particularly important happened in this entire season. Oh, Lauren got engaged to Wyatt, and then broke up with him last week! And Carrie kissed Ryan… also last week. And Danny and Sonia had a semi-date, but then Danny disappeared (why?). Courteney Cox came by that one time. And Brett Gelman and Julie White slowly but surely stole the show from right under Matthew Perry’s producing credit. But that doesn’t seem like a lot?
- “Well, maybe they should have named him nuclear holocaust instead!”
- “Who here isn’t satisfied by what they’re getting emotionally from Ryan?”
- I might as well admit now that I have been calling this show Goon ever since it started; I’m just confused NBC hasn’t caught up with my trendsetting.