The new Matthew Perry sitcom Go On, about a sports-radio host coping with the recent death of his wife, plays like a forgettable, innocuous-seeming network comedy. It certainly isn't trying to provoke or offend. And yet it holds the distinction of being the first TV show I've ever wished that I could punch in the crotch.
Our tale (which sneak previews tonight at 11 PM Eastern, then moves to a regular slot on Tuesday at 9 in September) begins when Ryan King (Perry) returns to his job one month after his wife's sudden death. Ryan's boss (John Cho, a wonderful actor misused yet again) tells him he can't resume work until he produces a signed document proving that he attended ten counseling sessions. He enrolls in a therapy group of a type I've never seen before and that I am not convinced has ever existed outside of hack Hollywood comedies: a sort of potluck meeting of the bereaved. Recent widows and widowers sit alongside a young man who lost his brother in a ski accident, a woman whose cat died, and an elderly gentleman who lost his sight (the great Bill Cobbs, drawing a paycheck, God bless him). The group leader, Lauren (Laura Benanti), is your standard-issue, rules-and-regulations-minded foil, Nurse Ratched to Perry's Randle Patrick McMurphy. You know it's only a matter of time before Ryan presses Lauren on her credentials and finds out they're bogus. Sure enough, she eventually reveals that she has never suffered great loss herself and that her main professional qualification is leading Weight Watchers' meetings. Busted!
Go On takes the universal experience of catastrophic loss and shellacks it with counterfeit raucousness, poignancy, and uplift. Like those mostly putrid eighties and nineties comedies starring Robin Williams — the worst of which, Patch Adams, this show resembles — Go On seems to think that human resources administrators, therapists, grief counselors, and other professionals who deal with mental-health issues are stuffed shirts regurgitating fancy book learnin' that they're probably just faking anyhow, and that what their charges really need is a dose of comic anarchy: say, cutting a session short so that the group can run down the street in medieval costumes while chasing a Google Maps car.
Nestled within the self-justifying obnoxiousness are nuggets of authenticity, such as the moment when Lauren tells Ryan that he's denying his own anger and will probably explode someday, and a later scene in which he snaps. But the show doesn't have the emotional intelligence to treat such scenes with the complexity and tenderness they deserve. And it's too invested in the idea of Ryan as smart-ass liberator to really question anything he says or does, much less make him maudlin, pathetic, unhinged, or scary, as grieving people sometimes are in reality, being human and all. We're supposed to think that even though Ryan is an emotional wreck, maybe he's on to something — that what his fellow mourners really need isn't listening, empathy, patience, and understanding, but contrarianism and sitcom shenanigans.
When Lauren is late to Ryan's first meeting, he gets impatient with the personal testimonies and devises a grief contest, drawing NCAA-style brackets on the board, urging people to summarize their tale of woe in five seconds, timing them with a stopwatch, and barking at them when they don't talk fast enough. When the game is over, everyone seems grateful to Ryan for making their meetings interesting again. Right after Lauren warns Ryan that he's headed for a meltdown, then endures his ignorant rambling about why her work is useless, she politely tells him they'll have to finish some other time, then gets in her car; Ryan startles her by slipping into the passenger seat to continue the conversation. In life — or on an honest TV comedy such as Louie or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Enlightened — Ryan's intrusion would be charged with menace and nobody would blame Lauren for macing him. Go On presents it as just another bit of comic business: Our Lovable Hero cutting through the crap. He's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl's male counterpart, the Manic Life-Affirming Douchebag.