NBC's Go On Is Touchy, Feely, Funny

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Go On S01E02: "He Got Game, She Got Cats"

It's a good sign for an infant comedy if viewers can pick their favorites from an ensemble of characters after just two episodes, and NBC's Go On, two episodes old as of last night, already features a handful. That means that there's some emotional depth to these people, and if we're going to tune in each week, they'd better be more than stereotypes and cut-outs regurgitating zingers and setting up the star to (sports analogy!) knock a joke out of the park.

Go On approaches comedy almost exclusively from an emotional angle, a route that's been obscured by overgrown weeds since that kid from Two and a Half Men substituted farts for punchlines and mockumentaries decided that "funny" was that goddamn smirk on Jim Halpert's face. Go On bonds its characters through loss and tragedy and uses humor to both accentuate and alleviate those feelings, resulting in a comedy that's surprisingly daring. It took a brave (or stoned on cleaning products) network executive to greenlight a show about a bunch of people whose lives are in the shitter, but the result is one of the best new comedies of the season.

One way to tell that a comedy is headed in the right direction is the quality of its second episode (an Olympics-boosted preview meant that Go On's pilot aired way back in August, but my first impression of the series was strong even before that point). Last night's "He Got Game, She Got Cats" improved on a solid pilot in all the right ways. In order for us to believe that Ryan (a perfectly tolerable Matthew Perry) is not only going to ATTEND these therapy sessions but NEED them too was to put him in his place and restore a bit of authority to Lauren, the leader of his support group, whose authority was undermined when we learned in the pilot that her only previous experience helping others was with Weight Watchers. So when Ryan interfered with therapy mate Sonia's personal progress by encouraging her to dump her boyfriend and she responded ditching the guy and adopting several cats, it caused a greater problem not only for Ryan, but for Lauren as well. That not only checked Ryan's self before he wrecked himself, but also elevated Lauren to a place of respect in Ryan's mind, and he needs that sort of figure in his life if the show is going to be able to pull off the therapy side of things.

Compare the situation to that of Community's Jeff Winger, another fast-talking know-it-all thrown against his will into a group of weirdos. One of the problems Jeff had early on in Community was convincing us he a valid reason to be there. He was a selfish prick who only joined the study group to (justly) get into Britta's pants. If there was nothing in it for him, he didn't want to be there. It wasn't until later in the season that Jeff became besties with the rest of the group, and that's when Community took off and used a solid foundation to make great episodes about chicken fingers and the Beastmaster tripping on ecstasy.

In Ryan, we see similarities to Jeff except for one thing: Ryan is a people person, he just doesn't think he needs therapy. So in Episode 2, when Ryan longed to hang out with Carrie (Allison Miller, who had enough material in this single episode to fill 13 seasons of what she got on Terra Nova) or wanted to help out blind George or give advice to Sonia, it was believable; this should reduce Go On's early sitcom growing pains. This show is all about helping people, and most of the time the decision would be made to have the lead character take the journey from misanthrope to selfless saint because writers are taught that characters should go through as much change as possible. But so far, Ryan not only doesn't hate the people he's stuck with, he enjoys the company of others and helping them. His real journey will take him from a man who's crippled by grief to a man who is moving on by helping both himself. But early in the series' life, the week-to-week stories will come from him helping others. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

And now that I've put way too much thought into THAT, let's get down to the real important stuff: Was it funny? Well, I laughed out loud more than once (a rare thing for someone as jaded and beaten down as me), so it passed that litmus test. But it all comes from caring comedy. So many other comedies on TV right now rely on mean-spirited putdown comedy, so it's refreshing to see laughs come from a positive place. And I know Go On is only two episodes in, but there isn't a single antagonist in sight. Everyone in the group gets along well, and *shocker* Ryan has a GREAT relationship with his boss. When you're a comedy that on the surface is about people going through the worst times of their lives, keeping things upbeat is the best way to balance things out.

The challenge for Go On will be to convince its audience that this isn't a surface-level show about people going through bad times, it's a show about people going through the beautiful process of healing. Pessimists might have a tough time with that concept, but those of us used to putting up a fight and striving for better won't. It's a strong start for Go On, a rare comedy that won't just make you laugh, but also make you feel truly happy.



NOTES

– I love the ethnic diversity of the show and how it's used. It's barely even mentioned, except in the hilarious gag about George maybe thinking Steven is black. It's also great to see John Cho back on television.

– I'm a huge Brett Gelman fan from his days on Eagleheart, and his shtick of being the weirdo (in this case, beardy Mr. K) never gets old. "What cats?" should be printed on a T-shirt ASAP.

– Nice touching moment between Carrie and Ryan outside the salon. Go On will need to show progress in Ryan as it moves on, and that was just the right amount.

– Also a surprising moment at the end there, when George told Ryan to close his eyes and "see" the game the way he does. Slightly cheesy, yes, but effective!

– I really appreciated the second episode going a little lighter on its "sad" moments and more realistic with its "happy" moments. In the pilot, there was one montage that was pretty depressing (but necessary), and the final shot of everyone chasing a Google Maps car in chainmail was a bit ridiculous. I'm not saying the show should stay away from reminding us of the pain these characters are going through, I'm just saying that too much too early could put people off.