‘Go On,” Matthew Perry’s promising new NBC sitcom, has one of my favorite scenes from all the new fall comedies. Perry plays Ryan King, a sardonic sports-radio personality whose wife died a month ago. The station will only let him return to the air if he’s willing to attend group therapy. He rolls his eyes — how else would you know it was Matthew Perry? — and he agrees.
During his first “Transitions” meeting, when the group leader is out of the room, Ryan mockingly transforms the session into a misery-off, a competition for who has the best reason to be unhappy. He’s the McMurphy in this “Cuckoo’s Nest.” The ensemble of eccentrics — from a kid whose brother is in a coma to a woman whose cat died — fall into a raucous game of Pity Queen for a Day, complete with chalkboard brackets and fierce debate.
It’s a fantastic little set piece sending up our culture of victimization and those who cling to self-pity rather than move forward — going on, in the parlance of the show.
But “Go On,” tonight at 11:05 on Channel 7, isn’t really a cynical comedy or an easy slam on the usefulness of group healing. It’s better than that. Ryan is certainly a cynic, using ridicule to tamp down his troubled emotions about the loss of his wife. And there are moments — the group leader telling everyone to hug themselves — when the show does satirize the talking cure. But the writers, including creator Scott Silveri from “Friends,” clearly honor true grief and depression. Everyone knows Ryan truly needs to be in that room — he still can’t sleep in the bed he shared with his wife. And that gives the series a dramatic undertone, so that it can toggle between “Community”-like romping and some honest poignancy.
Since “Friends” ended in 2004, Perry hasn’t had a lot of series success. Both “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “Mr. Sunshine” lasted only one season, and Showtime rejected a pilot he shot called “The End of Steve.” I’m hoping “Go On” will fare better, at least based on the pilot, which NBC is airing tonight to benefit from the Olympics lead-in (the series returns on Sept. 11). Perry is still playing a version of Chandler Bing, but with more of the darker edge he brought out on “Studio 60.” He doesn’t reflexively fall into Chandler intonations anymore, which is a plus. If there is industry pressure on him to be the character America loved for so many years, he isn’t succumbing.
It also helps Perry that Silveri has surrounded him with a large ensemble filled with potential. Perry is best utilized when he gets plenty of opportunities to react to other people, rather than stew in a narcissistic haze as he did in the unbearable “Mr. Sunshine.” The group — like the groups on “The Bob Newhart Show” and Ted Danson’s failed “Help Me Help You” — are the predictable comic misfits, but the writing may be sharp enough to distinguish them. When the writing is good — see “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family” — even possibly stock characters can come to life. As the by-the-book group leader Lauren, Laura Benanti is an appealing blend of brittleness and warmth. Julie White is crazy fun as an abrasive woman whose partner died, and Brett Gelman is a kooky kinky creep on the order of Creed on “The Office.”
And Tyler James Williams, from “Everybody Hates Chris,” is a welcome addition as a kid who needs to talk but can’t. Good thing he has a radio host at his disposal.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.