Let’s face it, we don’t watch a pilot without attaching bias to the actors. (Except when we do. See my forthcoming post on Pramface.) So nobody but nobody is going to watch Go On without at least one prior Matthew Perry role in mind. And yes, his characters are all strikingly similar. If you’ve taken any notice of this show, you’re probably acquainted with its premise, so I won’t rehash it. So let’s talk about how casting choices influence our enjoyment of a pilot.
The opening scene is lightening quick, letting us know that Ryan has lost his wife but is eager to return to work. Just a couple of quick brush strokes paint him for us. We’re already used to seeing Matthew Perry as the guy who uses humor to mask his despair.
In addition to Perry’s character Ryan, I was drawn straight to Owen, played by Tyler James Williams, who everybody hated as Chris from 2005-2009. Of course, just as I looked at Ryan and saw Chandler Bing/Matt Albie, I looked at Owen and saw little Chris Rock. (And thought, “Aw, he’s all grown up.”) In this ensemble cast comprising a bunch of grief stricken therapy group members, each one has a “thing.” Owen’s thing is that he doesn’t talk.
Once the schtick of the opening is out of the way — the stuff that was in all the previews about a March Madness-like competition to see who is the saddest — what we’re left with is a bunch of characters who truly are sad. One lost her life partner, another his dream of being a singer, etc. The thing is, the pilot didn’t make me care about any of these people, except Owen. Maybe it’s the mystique of his silence. Maybe it’s that Ryan, our protagonist, connects with him immediately. “Owen, I love ya,” he declares. “I just fell in love with ya.” But I’m sure that my immediate fondness is informed by preconceptions based on Everybody Hates Chris. Is this what the show’s creators intended? Dunno.
The pilot also introduces a foil to the protagonist and probable love interest, the group leader, Lauren (Laura Benanti). Laura Benanti looks an awful lot like Courteney Cox. Lauren’s kind of shrill and uptight. And her back story? She used to be fat. This can’t be a coincidence. But despite the sense that the creators were desperate for me to think about Friends, I didn’t like Lauren. At all. But then, Monica was never my favorite.
The best scene of the pilot is the one in which Ryan and Owen are assigned to work together on a therapy exercise, which they ignore in favor of a casual chat about the Google car. This interaction flows naturally into Owen’s admission of his reason for being in therapy. We learn later that no one, including Lauren, previously knew why he was there.
Snippets of sadness and outbursts of anger eventually lead us to an unexpectedly joyous ending; it’s silly, but silliness performed by people suffering emotional pain is — for lack of a less cheesy term — life-affirming. I actually laughed and cried simultaneously, something I can’t remember doing since seeing Little Miss Sunshine. To have that kind of emotional response to characters I’d only known for 23 minutes is surprising. Is that because I feel like I’ve known Ryan and Owen much longer? The scene is one in which I can easily envision Chandler and Chris taking part. So I’d have to say yes to my own question. Watch it and see what you think.
If you didn’t see the show when it aired after the Olympics last week you can still catch it on Hulu before it officially debuts in September.