Sunday, October 14, 2012

It’s Mourning in America (Part 2): Matthew Perry’s Go On

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 14, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Matthew Perry stars in Go On, a new comedy series on NBC

“It was a car accident. She was texting. Janie …. was driving – not fast – but at that moment, and it couldn’t wait, she needed to tell me to buy a bag of coffee. So at least it was important.”
             – Ryan King (Matthew Perry), describing his wife’s death in the pilot episode of Go On

Last spring, NBC aired Awake, a fantasy-crime drama with a protagonist struggling with an almost unimaginable loss. As I wrote at the time, Awake’s rich ambitions and complicated narrative technique came as close to anything I’d ever seen on television to telling a sustained story from a mourner’s perspective. One reason was that the fantasy situation itself (its conceit that Det. Britten would effectively alternate one day to the next between two separate realities – one in which his wife had died, and another in which his teenage son had) gave weight and reality to the resistance one often feels in ‘moving on’ after suffering a comparable loss. Though Awake was unfortunately not renewed for a second season, its 13-episode first season still succeeds in telling a powerful, if prematurely abbreviated, story, and it is well worth seeking out.

What was so unique about Awake was that surviving the death of his family member wasn’t simply the situation that set the larger story in motion: it was essentially the substance of the story itself. Though Awake didn’t survive into this new season, it has a surprisingly inheritor in a new series on NBC, in of all things the new Matthew Perry comic vehicle, Go On. In Go On, Perry plays Ryan King, a minor local celebrity with his own sports radio talk show forced against his will into group therapy after the death of his wife Janie, where he finds a mismatched collection of others also trying to live on and survive their own stories of pain and loss. In character-driven sitcoms it is often the details that matter most, and even so early in the season, Go On has exhibited a knack for getting them precisely right. Among the otherwise underwhelming batch of new network comedies this fall, NBC’s Go On is one of the few bright spots.

Matthew Perry and Bill Cobbs in a scene from Go On
In 2011, Matthew Perry had a brief run with Mr. Sunshine, an ABC mid-season replacement series that I seemed alone in enjoying, and which was summarily cancelled by the network with four unaired episodes. Short as its run was, Perry’s comedic chops were well on display in that series, marshalling once again the post-Friends persona that remains equally charismatic and engaging in broad situational comedy like Mr. Sunshine and in dramatic roles like Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. (Whatever the deficits of Studio 60, both stars – Perry and Bradley Whitford – continue to bring their A-game to whatever they decide to do.) Now Perry is back with Go On. Still the lovable narcissist, Go On’s Ryan King comes with additional baggage which puts the new character squarely in the middle between Mr. Sunshine’s cluelessly self-absorbed Ben Donovan and Studio 60’s recovering addict/comedy writer Matt Albie. Created by writer/producer Joel Silveri (who worked with Perry on Friends), Go On is also more than The Matthew Perry Show, boasting a wide, and diverse, ensemble cast.

In the standard office comedy, mismatched characters of different backgrounds, age, and personalities are thrown together by a relatively arbitrary factor, in the case of Mr. Sunshine, their place of employment. In Go On, the situation is also fairly straightforward: a therapy group devoted to people experiencing "life transitions" – each with unique ways of dealing with different kinds of losses. That group includes: Sonia (Sarah Baker), the sad single woman whose cat died; Owen (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris), the withdrawn young man whose brother is in coma after a skiing accident; George (Bill Cobbs), the elderly man suffering blindness and the general infirmity of old age; Danny (comedian Seth Morris), the returning veteran who came back from the field to find his wife pregnant by another man; Yolanda (Suzy Nakamura), a grown woman dealing with her parents’ divorce; Fausta (Tonita Castro), an Hispanic woman from an unnamed South American country whose has been separated from her husband and son, either by deportation or a still unrevealed social or political tragedy; and Anne (Julie White), the only other member of the support group explicitly dealing with a dead spouse, in this case her wife who she lost to illness. But for all the emotional heft of each of their stories, the healthy irreverence that characterizes their group sessions keeps Go On delightfully breezy and refreshingly human. True to familiar sitcom norms, the details of their lives are often played for laughs, but the experience of pain and upheaval that each suffers has a reality that belies these broad comic tropes. Even group leader Lauren (Laura Benanti, The Playboy Club), is herself eventually revealed to be on a journey of transition, and though her clumsy, and sometimes cloying New-Agey tactics are poked at, the impact she has on their lives is never dismissed out of hand. 

Matthew Perry and Julie White in Go On

Notable, perhaps precisely for its understatement, is Julie White’s portrayal of Anne. Described by Ryan in the pilot episode as “a cool, very angry lady,” the developing kinship between the two is one of the stronger undercurrents of the series. Though her reaction to her wife’s death often almost opposite from Ryan’s – where he uses humour to deflect others, she uses anger – Anne is further along in a process that Ryan has barely begun, and she can see things in him and say things to him that no-one else can. Though the series has so far centred primarily on the developing relationship between Ryan and Lauren, who is struggling to keep control of the group now that Ryan’s larger-than-life personality is in the mix, the bonds forming between Ryan and Anne are the richest and most intriguing.

Shows that take the realities of mourning seriously are as rare in comedy as they are in drama. In television situation comedies, death is often the “situation” but is rarely the subject matter of a series. An untimely death may be the reason why the big city lawyer moves back home with their parents, or why her parents move in with her and her young kids, or the event that opens the door to that new romance. The fact of death may prompt the stories those shows tell, but it isn’t what those stories are about. The problem with this storytelling tactic – as helpful as it may be narratively – is that does a profound injustice to the situation of living on after that kind of loss. Grief takes time, and surviving a death is more than about filling the spaces left by an absence: it is just as much about dealing with that absence as such.

In the pilot episode of Go On, Ryan tells a lie that is clearly easier to live with than the truth, implying that his wife died after a long heroic struggle with a rare disease. When the truth behind her death comes out (that Janie died in a completely avoidable texting-while-driving accident), the pointlessness of his loss comes right to the fore, and a lot about what living on after death and loss means is the struggle with that fact. Death – whether it comes from accident, or illness, or old age – doesn’t have a right time, and never arrives with the certainty that it ‘had to be’. It might seen to be a heady topic for a comedy series, but Go On so seamlessly integrates these kinds of details – large and small, existential and mundane – with amazing ease.

John Cho and Matthew Perry
Also refreshing in fact is the surprising lack of dark comedy in the series. Go On demonstrates a delightful irreverence for the tropes of grief, but irreverence is itself par for the course in mourning. An early episode reveals that Ryan has been lying to his gardener for weeks, making almost ridiculous excuses for his wife’s continuing absence, rather than go through once again having to tell the story of her death and enduring the reaction the story always engenders. He jokes with the other members of his therapy group that he should just get a t-shirt that says “Janie Died” or maybe vanity plates for his car that reads D3D WIFE. The group vamps on this for a few minutes, but these forays into gallows humour are actually a large part of what makes the show so very poignant and affecting. The safe place of the group – unlike the outside world where friends and co-workers tip-toe around you for fear of reminding you of your loss (as if a recent widow or widower could actually forget that?) – is really what the show is at its heart. The contrast between the group moments and the outside world, and the interesting ways in which the series has enthusiastically begun to blur those lines with every episode, does a really good job of painting a full, albeit comic, picture of mourning’s reality.

These small but substantial social moments – e.g. Ryan’s best friend Steven (John Cho, Harold of the Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle duo) who’s been unwilling to tell Ryan that he’s broken up with his girlfriend, either because ‘dead wife’ trumps all other problems, or because the very idea of having any relationship issues at all would be somehow insensitive to the pain of one who has lost their partner – are also part of surviving a death. Go On is just as sensitive to the friends’ dilemmas as Ryan’s: when someone close to you suffers a loss, there is a natural (albeit counterproductive) tendency to back away. It seems like you aren’t allowed to be either happy or sad – one flaunts good fortune and the other seems to take it for granted. (Of course the most ironic aspect of this pronounced sensitivity to the other’s loss is that it often serves to exaggerate the feelings of isolation a mourner is already suffering.)

These often small, but profoundly real details are the biggest part of the day for someone surviving loss, the things that lift you up and the things that drag you down. (A passing moment at the end of a recent episode where Ryan reveals that his wife died without ever telling him their iTunes password can reveal so much more about the absurd reality of grief than a 2-hour disease-of-the-week Lifetime movie.)

Whereas Awake’s broad metaphysical scenario played with the bigger questions of life and death, mourning and loss, reality and fantasy, Go On works with the mundane details – painting an altogether human, poignant, and even at times delightful portrait of life lived with loss.

Go On airs on Tuesdays on NBC (U.S.) and Global (Canada). It has already been renewed for a full first season.