August 10, 2012

TV: Go On (NBC, Tue 9)

NBC is taking advantage of the Olympics to offer sneak previews of a couple of their new sitcoms. This week, we got a first look at the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On, which will premiere in its regular Tuesday night time slot on September 11. (EDIT/Sep 7: Last minute schedule change from NBC; the pilot will air again on Monday, September 10, with a new episode in the show's usual Tuesday timeslot on the 11th.)

I will not be the only one, I'm sure, to note that the structure of the pilot episode is virtually identical to that of the Community pilot: High-strung professional gets booted from his job until he completes some task which he thinks is beneath him; doing so throws him into a group of semi-random strangers who will eventually become his support system and surrogate family.

Perry is Ryan King, sports radio host whose wife has recently died; his boss (John Cho) refuses to let him come back to work until he's attended ten sessions of group therapy. (It's already clear that the office stuff is going to be far less interesting than the group stuff; don't be surprised if it's slowly phased out to the point that Cho doesn't survive to the end of the season.)

Ryan winds up at "Transitions," which isn't specifically a grief group -- it's for people dealing with "life changes" -- where he meets his gang of lovable co-stars. At this point, I don't remember any of their names, and they've only got one or two character traits each, so we'll just shorthand them. There's Widowed Lesbian (Julie White), Elderly Blind Black Guy (Bill Cobbs), Young Black Guy with Brother in Coma (Tyler James Williams), Asian Control Freak (Suzy Nakamura, and if they mentioned the specifics of her "life change," I didn't catch it), and Creepy Stalker-y Guy (Brett Gelman, and ditto on his specific trauma).

Laura Benanti is the leader of the support group, despite the fact that her experience and training consists of leading a few Weight Watchers groups. (Which makes me wonder why this group was on Ryan's work-approved list of therapy groups in the first place. Which makes me wonder if an employer even has the right to require an employee to seek therapy before returning from bereavement leave. Any HR people in the room?)

There are a lot of talented actors here; in particular, I'm always happy to see Julie White and Bill Cobbs. And the central role is a pitch right over home plate for Perry, who could play this sort of lovably smug not-quite-an-asshole in his sleep.

An obvious question is how the show continues beyond a single season. People don't stay in "life change" group therapy indefinitely; the show could get away with rotating supporting players in and out around Perry and Benanti (she could, theoretically, be replaced by a new group leader herself, but I assume the show has long-range romantic couple goals for the two of them), but how do you keep Ryan coming back to the group every week over two or three or six seasons?

The even bigger question is what direction the show takes from this point on. Clearly, the gist of the narrative will be that Perry's insistence that this is a waste of time and we all need to just get on with our lives will be good for the group, and Benanti's insistence that the process is important will be good for him.

But does it do that by really exploring the darker and more difficult side of grief -- does it delve into the painful parts of these characters' psyches in the way that (since it's already an obvious point of comparison) Community does? -- or is it content to be a cheerfully glib sitcom about a bunch of people who are stumbling wackily through recovery? There are moments in the pilot that suggest the show isn't afraid to get dark; the funniest scene finds Ryan leading the group through a "whose problems are worst" tournament he calls "March Sadness."

If the show stays at the usual superficial sitcom level, it'll probably be a harmlessly entertaining half-hour; if it has the courage to dig deeper, though, it could be really interesting.

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