The television season gets an early start this summer, thanks to the Olympics, which NBC is using to launch the two most promising new comedies it developed this year, Go On late tonight after Olympics coverage ends, and Animal Practice, which it will air at the same time on Sunday (both will be available online the next day).
Go On which features Matthew Perry as Ryan King, a sports radio host whose wife recently died, and who is required by his boss Steven, played by John Cho, to attend a support group before he can return to work, reminds me a bit of the early days of Community before the show became a wildly creative exploration of pop culture tropes with dismal ratings. Ryan is snarky and resistant about the gongs and self-affirmation exercises employed by Lauren (Laura Benanti, freed from servitude in The Playboy Club), the group leader. But as in Community, he can’t help but be drawn to the other members of the group including Owen (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris), a withdrawn young man whose brother is in a coma after an accident, George (Bill Cobbs), an older man who has gone blind, and Anne (a wonderful Julie White), a widowed lesbian whose partner died after being cavalier about taking her heart medication.
The show’s goofy, at least through the pilot, operates on a less intense level than Community‘s did, where exploring the trope was the way you accessed emotion (in a sense, the show was an enormous, continuously operating video game). Ryan sets up a March Sadness competition to get the members of his group talking about the tragedies that have befallen them, and there’s a weirdly joyful bit involving equipment stolen from a LARPing group, but the characters don’t need them to express what they’re feeling, just as aides to start accessing joy and humor again. And while Jeff’s former lawyer colleagues have played a decidedly minor role in Community, the biggest problem with the Go On pilot is the time it spends on Ryan’s job, which is introduced as a relatively generic radio station with no character beats as good as those in the support group, unless Steven’s tendency to pat people on the ass counts as a personality trait.
But the characters in-group are very strong, and hopefully Go On will have the sense to devote the bulk of the show’s time to them. Anne, in particular, who Ryan describes as “a cool, very angry lady,” is one of the most quietly original characters of the new season. Unlike Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal about a gay couple seeking to have a baby via surrogate, which will debut in September, Anne conforms to no particular trope of gayness, and the death of her partner, mercifully, has nothing to do with their sexual orientation. Instead, it’s the mundanity of heart disease that felled her and has flattened Anne, who is furious at telemarketers who keep calling for her dead wife, and at Patricia, for leaving their children without one of their mothers. When I asked Julie White about Anne at the Television Critics Association, she surprised me by explaining that the character was initially written as straight, but that creators Scott Silveri and Todd Holland changed the role after White was cast.
“And as soon as he called he was kind of hemming and hawing and [Scott] said, ‘You know, I wondered if I might ask you to’ and I don’t know if I said it out loud, but in my mind I went, oh, she’s gay. Oh, she’s gay. OK. Yeah,” she said. “And I thought, well, how smart and, like you say, how fresh to talk about families from a different perspective and that the idea of losing your spouse or your partner is the same kind of grief for everyone. And in that way, Matthew and I kind of our characters are on sort of a very, very similar journey.”
“It was important for us to just sort of represent all different kinds of people in the show: ages, genders, all the genders,” Silveri said, and the show strikes an impressive balance in doing so. Both it and Animal Practice have black (Go On has three), Asian, and Latino characters, and women who aren’t extremely thin who are treated well. And Go On uses the characters’ diversity as source of interesting details about people, as opposed to the defining factor in their characters. In the pilot, Don (Khary Payton), a middle-aged African-American man devastated by the financial crisis, helps translate for Fausta, an older Latina who has been left alone by the deaths of many of her family members.
That’s a lot of rich territory to lay out in a pilot. And while Go On may be seen as a bad sign by people who are worried that NBC’s abandoning its brilliant, experimental comedies for broader concepts, it has the potential to be an emotionally affecting character-driven comedy. If NBC wants to remind everyone else in broadcast that even comedies that don’t stage Law & Order parodies and do 8-bit episodes that they should have ambitions higher than2 Broke Girls‘ substanceless racism, that’s a marker I’m happy to see laid down.