Go On Pilot Review: Good Grief! Finding Humor and Warmth in Tragedy
A grief counseling group seems an unlikely setting for a situation comedy, but as portrayed in Go On, NBC’s new series from Friends creator Scott Silveri, it’s not only hilarious but heartwarming as well.
In the pilot episode (currently available for free viewing on NBC.com), Matthew Perry plays Ryan King, a radio sportscaster whose wife was killed only a month earlier. Ryan is anxious to get back on the air and let work distract him from his personal tragedy, but his supervisor Steven (John Cho) feels it’s too soon, and insists that Ryan get counseling before he’ll allow him back at his job. Thus Ryan is forced into a dysfunctional support group, led by an annoyingly earnest therapist of questionable credentials (Laura Benanti) and filled with a wide range of sad, quirky, and some downright bizarre individuals in various stages of grief and transition.
Ryan, who is obviously made squeamish by open displays of deep feeling, finds the blandly supportive framework of the group stultifying. In his first session, he livens things up by calling on his sportscasting background to turn the support group into a session of grief Olympics, pitting the members against each other in a fast-paced competition (cleverly titled “March Sadness”) to see whose tragedy is the worst. The scene is both laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely touching, concluding with a poignant montage sequence that shows the competitors going back to their lonely lives, perhaps just a little less sad.
Perry (most famous for his ten starring seasons as Chandler Bing on Friends) seems much more at home playing repressed, sarcastic Ryan King than he did as comedy writer Matt Albie, the recovering addict on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, although both are similarly broken characters. Ironically, Go On, a comedy about drama, is both funnier and more affecting than Studio 60, a dramatic show about a comedy series which never entirely succeeded at either genre. Go On has elements of some of television’s best sitcoms; in addition to the acting talent of Friends’ Perry as Ryan, there are echoes in both tone and setting of Sorkin’s brilliant comedy series Sports Night, and the diverse members of Ryan’s support group bear more than a little similarity to Community’s wild and crazy study group misfits.
In Go On, Julie White (Transformers) is convincingly ferocious as Anne, a lawyer who is having trouble moving past the “anger” stage of grief after the death of her lover. Comedy veteran Brett Gelman (Adult Swim, Funny or Die Presents) plays Mr. K, the oddest member of the group, who manages to be simultaneously creepy and sympathetic. And Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) is particularly appealing as the reticent teenager Owen, who after weeks of silence shares something both funny and heartbreaking with Ryan (which leads to a truly hilarious and satisfying final scene in the pilot episode).
With only a half hour to set up the premise and introduce a large cast of characters, Go On’s pilot episode had parts that felt (understandably) a bit incomplete, most noticeably during the scenes at the radio station. John Cho is a fine actor, but had almost no lines as Ryan’s boss Steven; and Allison Miller was equally underused as Ryan’s assistant Carrie. I expect that we’ll see these characters developed in upcoming episodes, when the writers can spend more time fleshing them out. And with any luck, the show will fulfill its potential and give the talented cast a chance to shine throughout this season and more.
Go On premieres Tuesday, September 11 at 9 PM ET/PT on NBC.