It was definitely unwise of NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt to admit last summer that the network was going for “broad” comedies. Television is a business, and all of the really good, intelligent, critically acclaimed, New York and L.A. loving, genre defining/remixing/bending/ mocking/creating comedies that were/are on the channel had and continue to at times draw fewer eyeballs than — ugh — cable, so trying something different makes some sense. But “broad” is an awful word next to “comedy”, and in 2013, when we are closer than ever to discovering that the medium’s creativity is in fact limitless, the word immediately evokes images of clowns honking horns and the sounds of words attempting to catch more people in its net and never truly reaching anyone and canned laughter from the mouths of people that are literally dead.
It also didn’t help matters that the big new comedy NBC was selling was Go On, a show about a grieving widower attempting to move on after tragically losing his wife, the one individual on this revolving rock that his soul recognized as its counterpart. Ha? Depressed Matthew Perry befriending a group of fellow sad sacks dealing with loss as a concept sounds much more suited as a tragicomedy on HBO or Showtime or FX, and the fact that it never will be that is still kind of depressing.
Despite the inherit skepticism, the show premiered early in August to a huge audience that stuck around after a night of Summer Olympics fun, and it was…fine. Not incredibly offensive, but never hitting the big laughs or the big emotional moments it was going for. Early episodes kept a decent audience from its lead in The Voice and continued to awkwardly build its little universe. Each member of the support group maintained one singular character trait that refused to be elaborated upon even when the attention wouldn’t weigh too much on Matthew Perry: Yolanda — anal retentive suck up; Sonia — cat lady; Owen — young and bored; Mr. K — the harmless weirdo (the broad guy); Fausta — egotistical; Lauren — over her head counselor. But, like virtually every successful sitcom, the show by the middle of its inaugural season started to figure itself out and managed in a recent episode to be both funny and touching. Unfortunately, as soon as the calendar turned to 2013 and those Adam Levine and Blake Shelton witticisms disappeared from NBC, Go On dropped a third of its audience, and still find themselves third in comedy lover’s hearts behind New Girl and Happy Endings for its Tuesday at nine slot.
The over two million people who presumably were only around to see Chandler navigate a chillingly cold world because they were too busy talking about what Cee Lo was wearing that night to their friends to change the channel missed out on “Comeback Player of the Year,” the thirteenth episode of the series that featured a very funny C story running gag involving Brett Gelman’s character Mr. K seeking retribution on Ryan (Matthew Perry)’s behalf against Ryan’s radio program director and best friend Steven (John Cho). It began boringly enough with the classic smack across the face with a white glove. But then, Steven turned to find that his car was turned upside down. If that was not enough of an insult that would get you killed in some places, Gelman glared and blasted “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (that is the actual title of the song) on his phone. The episode tied together wonderfully with new friends K and Steven turning Ryan’s car upside down in the final scene. When Ryan looked back to find the culprits, he discovered that former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, a man he threw fruit at in a rage all the way back in the pilot and flat out ignored earlier in the episode, was hiding behind a car as well. Busted yet triumphant, the three unexpected teammates ran away to the familiar sounds of Angus Young and company. Legitimately funny!
The B story had Anne, a lesbian prosecutor who, like Ryan, lost a wife but refuses to suffer fools in an “I’m glad to be suffering you fools” fashion until her secret heart of gold is unlocked at the conclusions of some episodes, helping the pathetic Seth Morris character Danny with his divorce papers. Witnessing Anne play hardball and using her icy demeanor to the benefit of a member of the support group for once was fun, and in a surprising turn, she caught herself in a rage, realized she was actually seeking closure over losing the woman she lost and broke down. Legitimately emotional! And the A story, despite the predictability of Perry initially hating, then warming up to, and ultimately fornicating with the pretty three-episode-and-out guest star Piper Perabo, was a well enough constructed meet cute that helped elevate the pathos of Ryan sleeping with a woman for the first time since his wife’s death, rather than hinder it.
Go On, beginning roughly somewhere in their Thanksgiving episode, seemed to begin to understand where all of the comedy can come from, and focused more on the supporting cast. There are now running gags of Lauren drawing on her past experience dealing with weight and Fausta’s unjustified confidence. There are random playful chants. The group posed as The Brady Bunch for the hell of it, without a camera around. There are still challenges ahead for creator Scott Silveri and the writing staff, like how as long as the show lasts, the members of the support group are going to have to get a little bit better, otherwise Lauren would get her ass fired. And every week is a new opportunity to fall off the tight rope and start to feel too far removed from reality to be enjoyable. As it stands, a typical viewer will understand that if your significant other dies in a car accident you are unlikely to be friendly with everyone from a support group within a few weeks time, and you might not be ready to hop into bed with someone (despite the ghost of your dead wife haunting you) within a year of the incident, and she wont look like the lady from Coyote Ugly, and that those are contrivances to fit standard television storytelling. But it is already a little suspect that Lauren has little control as counselor and is openly antagonistic towards another, more successful grief counselor in front of Ryan (i.e. “suck on that!”), even though it humanizes her a little more and it’s fairly amusing.
Go On has become a good, funny sitcom, unless it is compared to some of NBC’s current and recently deceased comedies. In that case, the show comes off as more generic than is probably fair: there is no laugh track and continuity actually exists, after all. We are spoiled. It is hard to imagine that the show will venture off into a unique direction that they would go to if it were on a pay cable network, like they did in one huge tease of a story in “Big League Chew.” In that early episode (sixth in the production order), Danny revealed to Ryan that the reason why he takes his wife cheating on him with another man who lives in his house in stride is because he routinely travels to Harborville, a town that is described and we later see is a Pleasantville type small town in the 1940s. (By Pleasantville I mean the 1958 sitcom in the movie Pleasantville, before Reese Witherspoon and books about art ruined everything.) Brass band playing in the gazebo, Mayor Eustachius Q. Weatherwax presiding over pie eating contests, etc. The rub is Harborville and its seven hundred inhabitants only exist in Danny’s mind. This is, of course, completely insane. Ryan should have immediately told Lauren of this instead of not at all and indulging in the elaborate, unhealthy fantasy himself. It certainly was not funny. It was pretty, heartbreaking, scary, and really fucking weird all at once. It is an episode of television that will not soon be forgotten to those who saw it, but at the cost of questioning the sanity of one of the show’s characters, and comparing the originality and arresting imagery to all of which that will come from the show before and after.