You have to hand it to Go On creator Scott Silveri—he’s certainly ambitious. Sadness isn’t the easiest concept on which to erect a sitcom. And sadness is the driving force here, even if the show is also every bit as quippy and quick as some of Silveri’s other TV outings, most famously, Friends, most recently, Perfect Couples.
The premiere episode—which aired first in August and is re-airing on 10 September, before the second episode on Tuesday, the series’ regular time—introduces Ryan King (Matthew Perry), who has a reason to be devastated. His wife—the only woman he ever loved, we’re told—died following a car crash, the result of texting while driving. While Ryan wants nothing more that to put his tragedy behind him and delve back into his career as a sports talk-radio host, his boss, Steven (John Cho), demands he attend therapy before returning to the work.
Ryan joins a group for people “in transition.” While so many new sitcoms in the wake of Modern Family‘s success are offering different permutations of “the family,” this one sets up early to showcase people learning to cope without theirs. But this deviation from the current trend doesn’t mean that Go On is devoid of all sitcom tropes. Ryan is all too familiar in a couple of aspects. First, he’s a diehard sports fan who can’t talk about his “feelings.” As the typical alpha male, he cracks jokes about his own tragedy and denies that he needs to grieve: “If I go see a shrink,” he says, “My dad would roll around in his grave. At last I think he’s dead. We don’t talk about that kind of thing.” He’s also conventional in his need for help. Like Will in Good Will Hunting and pretty much every reluctant-patient-in-therapy TV show or movie except One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ryan finds the group helpful.
The healing comes courtesy of Lauren (Laura Benanti). Per her position as group leader, Lauren fully believes in self-help, she’s read the books and can quote the experts. And while Ryan doesn’t exactly buy into her methods, he happens to be the perfect complement for them. She has the group thinking and feeling; he commands them into action.
Like Ryan, Lauren seems awfully familiar, and so do the rest of the characters who round out the therapy group. There’s the angry one (Julie White) and the quiet one (Tyler James Williams), the creepy guy (Brett Gelman) and the cat lady (Sarah Baker). As of the series premiere, they don’t’ do much to distinguish themselves beyond their types.
But if Go On isn’t breaking new ground, it does manage to find humor, even among the most dour of premises. This is largely on the strength of Matthew Perry. Sure, the deck is stacked in his favor—who could root against the guy who just lost his one true love?—but he brings his usual sarcastic charm. Lauren accuses Ryan of using humor as a kind of armor, but such complaints are just an excuse for Perry to solicit sympathy while seeming not to: asked to describe his wife, Ryan says, “About yay high, completed me, doesn’t come around here anymore.”
In other hands, lines like that or the “March Sadness” bracket—in which the group members tried to outdo each other to determine who has the worst circumstances—would seem heartless or cruel. Ryan just shrugs it off with an affable, “Humans compete. We like rankings.” The episode offers moments of genuine feeling, too. During the “March Sadness” scene, the various tragedies are played for laughs. Later, a quick montage visits each character home alone, and it’s a different story. Even though the cat lady is the ultimate single-woman trope, seeing a person reach over to pet a cat that isn’t there causes a twinge in the heart.
It’s possible that Go On will find an effective balance between humor and sadness and, making smart use of Perry’s particular talents, become a sitcom that is somehow both snappy and grounded. To do so, though, it’ll have to work to ensure that it doesn’t lean to heavily on its most clichéd elements—the wackiness of the characters in therapy, the seemingly at odds but perfectly compatible back-and-forth between Ryan and Lauren. If it doesn’t, we’d all have a reason to be sad.