‘Go On’: Can America Embrace a Sitcom This Sad?

I cried twice while watching the Go On pilot. This doesn’t mean two tears; I’m talking about two distinct cries. Sure, yes, I’m prone to crying at things (I’m still not sure what the cast of Friday Night Lights looks like, as they were always water-blurred and left looking like Matisse paintings) but, regardless of my proclivities, these two moments would generally be considered honestly felt and honestly sad. Tonight, at 11:04pm, on NBC, Go On is set to make its debut to the American public. It won’t offer a respite from the overly weepy Olympic games, what with its plethora of personal interest stories; no, it will continue to ride the salty wave of tears. This is not the lighter fare that NBC promised so effusively – that will come this weekend in the form of Animal Practice and its monkey star – this is television that demands you be present. NBC is gambling here: gambling that people will be comfortable with a sitcom about grieving; gambling that people will be comfortable laughing about death; gambling that a large audience wants a comedy this sad.

Go On is not a perfect pilot by any stretch of the imagination. The most frustrating problem is that Matthew Perry plays a hotshot radio host, despite the fact there hasn’t been a hotshot in that field since the Clinton administration. Radio host is one of the most tired writer surrogates; every show can’t be about sitcom writers, so we have architects and ad men and radio hosts. As a result, almost everything Perry does in that portion of the show falls flat. The upshot is Perry plays the roll of a widower with an appreciated realness. There’s a noticeable tension, discomfort to his seemingly ever-cool Ryan King. (One small detail worth noting is how the makeup people don’t cover the bags under Perry’s eyes, which implies a not so well hidden sleeplessness.) And a good amount of humor is able to come from how uncomfortable he is in the situation and his lame attempt at denial. Accordingly, the show shines more during the group therapy sessions than it does with John Cho at the radio station. It helps that Seth Morris and Brett Gelman are in the group, playing two distinct, hilarious weirdoes; however, primarily, the therapy scenes work better because they’re more genuine (truth in comedy yada yada, you know). Too often the rest of the pilot tries to pass off slickness as comedy.

Ultimately, so far the show is much better at sad moments than funny ones. There’s an Iron & Wine-scored montage midway through the episode that was really impressive. Too often comedies are afraid to fly too close to the sad sun, so they will dip a toe in the pool, only to quickly cut to a pratfall or a fart noise. (Sorry to mix metaphors on that one but at least they’re both summery ones.) As Marc Maron famously said, “Sometimes it’s not about the funny; sometimes it’s about the sad,” and this scene was confident enough in itself to let a moment be a moment. And, yeah, so I cried.

However, can Go On succeed if the immediate reaction to the pilot is: “It was only kinda funny but, hey, the sad moments were real sad?” There’s a reason there hasn’t been a ton of sad sitcoms: sad is not happy and sitcoms are generally supposed to be happy fun times.* Community has some darkness and some emotional honesty, but it falls short of unadulterated sadness, save moments here and there, like the end of the episode when Pierce’s mom dies. The Office, at its peak, is maybe as sad as it has gotten and that just has a lot to do with Steve Carell and his terribly sad eyes. (Look at this guy – woof.) Most often the show would make sure to balance a sadder arc with some silly Jim and Dwight stuff or if Jim and Pam had something sad going on, then Michael would be broader. This strategy of balancing tone is exactly what Go On needs to do and did an OK-ish job doing in the pilot.

Go On will have an added level of difficulty to its balancing act because not only is it sad but also it’s fundamentally a show about grieving. The American public might have difficulty accepting a show this sad but that’s nothing compared to our culture’s aversion to talking about death. More than any country, we have the reputation for failing to discuss and accept death. Psychologist Dr. Steven Fox (my dad) explained to me via e-mail why this is: “Traditionally, Americans have felt that they can control mortality more than other cultures and with their ingenuity and riches ward it off more easily.” He continued: “Americans have that pioneer, king of the world, notion that make them think that they can conquer and win, even when it comes to death.” It’s why, despite being seen as a good thing, most people do not complete advance directives, the document that lays out one’s end of life desires. There’s a culture uncomfortable with dealing with death in real terms. This is surely not the case with everyone but it’s a lot of people, if not most, and if NBC’s desire is in fact to be more big tent, then it can be a problem.

If the people running Go On are smart, they’ll try to turn this potential weakness into its biggest strength. The show is about Ryan King, who, like most Americans, has a very hard time admitting how he’s feeling. Very early in the episode he counters a suggestion for therapy by saying “his dad would roll around in his grave.” “It is the inane assumption that feelings make us weaker,” Dr. Fox argued. He elaborated: “I would say that typical American culture fosters this. It’s all carry on, stiff upper lip and do not show you are weak.” Go On, at its best, is a show about when this ethos just can’t cut it anymore. The pilot ends, and I don’t want to give too much away, with the tension between denial and acceptance coming to head. Something touching happens and I cried. Then something silly and quite broad happens and I laughed, partially in spite of myself, partially because of Brett Gelman.

* There have been a few sadder comedy films like Funny People and 50/50. However, Funny People was a relative box office disappointment and the harsh shifts in tone took much of the blame.

Jesse David Fox is a freelance writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. Knowing these things, no one should be surprised by his crying frequency. 

‘Go On’: Can America Embrace a Sitcom This Sad?