For reasons that don’t make an awful lot of sense, many people remain concerned about the fate of Friends cast members who are not Jennifer Aniston. We applaud the comedic elasticity of Lisa Kudrow, pulled for Courteney Cox to overcome the initial premise of Cougar Town, cheer when Matt LeBlanc parodies himself on Episodes and wonder whatever happened to David Schwimmer.
This fond, familial (and most certainly nonreciprocal) fretting reaches its zenith around Matthew Perry, who played the admittedly endearing Chandler Bing. Perry, who, over the years, has yo-yoed in weight, health and sobriety, seems to embody our collective hopes and fears regarding TV stardom — that it doesn’t guarantee anything but headlines every time you enter rehab.
We rooted for him when, post- Friends, he starred in the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and again when, last year, he created and starred in ABC’s short-lived Mr. Sunshine. And we’re rooting for him still, with the premiere of his new comedy, NBC’s Go On, which reunites him with Friends writer Scott Silveri to chronicle a sports radio host who reluctantly enters a support group after the tragic death of his wife. (The network is airing the sitcom’s premiere early in order to capitalise on its huge Olympics audiences.)
Therapy, like oddball roommate situations and wacky workplaces, has been a popular comedic go-to ever since Bob Newhart practically invented the genre. Frasier took it to the radio, Kudrow to the internet on Web Therapy, the now defunct (and still missed) “Head Case” got celebrities involved, and Charlie Sheen was resurrecting his career playing a therapist-heal-thyself on Anger Management.
Sheen’s show bears an eerie resemblance to Go On, in structure and intent, if not tone. Where fury, unbridled ego and the potential of true madness fuel Anger Management, Go On has a kinder, gentler power source. Perry no doubt knows the complicated tripwires of “recovery,” but here he is taking a surprisingly simplistic, almost retro route, with a character who might have wandered into Newhart’s office, who cannot speak about the healing process without the aid of verbal quotation marks.
He plays Ryan King, an acerbic, rapid fire, Type A sports talk radio host who does not think much of having feelings, much less sharing them. Instead, Perry’s character believes that work is the panacea for all ills. His boss (John Cho) disagrees, and for reasons that are strangely unclear (and possibly actionable), tells King that he must seek help — 10 sessions worth to be precise — before he will be allowed back into the studio.
The best thing about Go On is, not surprisingly, Perry, who, like Sheen over at Anger Management, knows what he does best on TV. If Chandler Bing had lost Monica, he would be Ryan King, instantly light and dark, funny and sad, a comedic version of a thousand Broken Men who have followed the gimpy footsteps and acidic mutterings of Hugh Laurie’s House.
Within minutes of entering his first support group session, King has instigated a bracket-structured grief face-off — March Sadness — that allows him to show just how fast-thinking and tough-talking he is. It is shut down by the appearance of group leader Lauren (Laura Benanti) who, as luck and the demands of the genre would have it, is young and lovely and just as feisty in her beliefs as King is sardonic in his. They play off each other well enough and will no doubt make a lovely couple someday.
No one will be surprised to learn that by the end of the pilot, King has conceded the value of facing his pain, which leaves one wondering what the show will actually be about. If it simply follows King’s smart-mouth journey to self-realisation then, frankly, I’m not interested. How many well-employed, reasonably attractive, witty and over-dialogued white men do we have to watch come to terms with the realities of possessing a human heart?
If, however, Silveri and Perry use their easy-fit, patter-friendly main character to create a true collective, slowly deepening each character until a fuller portrait of survival emerges, well, that might be worth watching. The supporting cast is up to the task, so the question becomes: Is Perry the engine for a new ensemble comedy or is Go On just his latest post-Friends vehicle?