With NBC's comedy brand, there is the past, the present, and the hoped-for future.
In the past, NBC churned out sitcoms — "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends," to name just a few — that managed to simultaneously be smart and incredibly popular.
In the present, NBC is home to a collection of very smart comedies that almost nobody watches, whether it's a defiantly niche oddity like "Community" or something with hypothetically broader appeal like "Parks and Recreation," which hasn't been able to find traction on a network where almost nothing does anymore.
In the hoped-for future — which the heads of NBC recently discussed at the just-completed TV critics press tour — NBC will find a way to rekindle the magic of the past, with sitcoms that will bring in larger audiences while still fitting that sophisticated comedy brand.
Our first test case in this experiment is "Go On," which is getting a commercial-free sneak preview tonight at 11:04 after NBC's Olympics coverage before returning on Tuesday nights at 9 in early September.
By casting "Friends" alum Matthew Perry in the lead, it hearkens back to NBC's glorious past. And the executives at NBC, who have been promoting it relentlessly during the Olympics, clearly hope it's the first step in a path that takes them away from being a network beloved by TV critics and almost no one else.
But at least in pilot form, "Go On" seems less like an exciting future direction for the once-proud Peacock than a continuation of the present course. It's "Community" with Chandler Bing instead of the guy from "The Soup."
Structurally, the "Go On" and "Community" pilots are eerily similar. Again we have a sarcastic, high-powered professional (Perry plays hit sportstalk radio host Ryan King) cast out of his job for reasons confounding him (his boss's desire for Ryan to properly grieve the death of his wife) and forced to spend time among a collection of ethnically-diverse weirdoes (a support group for people going through "life change"). He snickers at the very idea of the group, develops a love-hate relationship with the group's leader (who, like Britta, talks big but has a small resume), and eventually (as in, by the end of a 24-minute pilot episode) comes to see that the group and its members have real value to him.
Of course, saying a show is like the "Community" pilot isn't necessarily a nightmare scenario for NBC. The "Community" pilot is among that series' saner, more down-to-earth outings. It wasn't until later that Greendale Community College turned into a surreal, self-aware place that in any given week could be host to an action movie, a zombie thriller or a claymation Christmas. Based on the recent comments by the heads of NBC, and the track record of "Go On" creator Scott Silveri (a longtime "Friends" writer, co-creator of "Joey" and co-creator of "Perfect Couples"), my guess is that we will not be getting an "Apocalypse Now" tribute episode anytime soon.
Again, this is a comedy about grief. Ryan has lost his wife. Other members of the group have suffered similar losses (if not worse). Almost any subject can be fodder for comedy with the right approach, but this subject has to be approached with the utmost delicacy.
In the case of the "Go On" pilot, the approach is to largely avoid jokes about it, save for Ryan's introduction to the group — which is by far the episode's highlight. With group leader Lauren (Laura Benanti) running late, Ryan takes over the meeting by taking a page from his radio gig and suggesting they have a contest to rank everyone's misfortunes to determine who's had the roughest go of it.
"Be honest: when you sit here listening to someone else's problems, you may smile and nod," he insists, but "a part of you is thinking, 'My thing is worse than your thing.'"
For the six minutes it takes to play what the group's youngest member Owen (Tyler James Williams from "Everybody Hates Chris") dubs "March Sadness," "Go On" is lively, it is energetic, and it finds a way to wring laughs out of tragedy without making light of the tragedies themselves. (It helps that a couple of lower seeds advance on technicalities.) It highlights a supporting cast full of comedy pros including Julie White (an imposing woman grieving the loss of her partner), Bill Cobbs (an aging blind man who laments that he has to take others' word for it on Megan Fox being pretty), Seth Morris (an Iraq War vet whose problems happened on the home front) and Brett Gelman (who seems to have no reason for being in the group other than a complete lack of social skills). And Perry even gets to do a Chandler-esque dance at the end of it for added nostalgia's sake.
Outside of that sequence, though, "Go On" doesn't seem entirely sure of how to wring laughs out of this material. Ryan makes quips under his breath about the silliness of the group, he and Lauren spar in that way suggesting they'll hook up (as any combination of attractive male and female sitcom leads must) after an appropriate mourning period has passed, and at one point he starts throwing fruit at Terrell Owens.(*)
(*) Perry is a sports fan, and the show's hope is to fill the radio show within the show with real athletes. One of the dangers of that approach, though, is the real world overtaking the material on the show, as happens here when Owens — who just returned to the NFL with the Seahawks — keeps talking about his time playing indoor football in the minor leagues. Not a crippling blow, but something "Go On" will need to be careful about with its stunt casting.
Mostly, it's a quieter show. It doesn't quite know how to tell jokes about its characters' losses, but nor does it make fun of (most of) them. The tragedies that should be taken seriously are treated as such, and this doesn't feel like a series that's going to start ignoring the existence of Ryan's wife after three or four episodes because it's a downer. Though Perry's best known for "Friends," he was outstanding straddling the line between comedy and drama on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (his performance was often the only reason to watch that mess), and "Go On" does a better job of tapping into that skill than his last sitcom, ABC's short-lived "Mr. Sunshine" (Yay).
When "Mr. Sunshine" premiered a couple of seasons ago, I noted that it also had amassed a good collection of comic talent around Perry, but didn't know what kind of show it wanted to be when it grew up. It never got the chance to figure that out, as the lower-profile (and more overtly "Friends"-esque) "Happy Endings" edged it out for renewal. "Go On" should at least have more time, since it's debuting in the fall rather than mid-season, and since NBC needs it to be successful much more than ABC needed Perry's previous show to be.
Few comedies come out of the gate fully-formed, and there's much more guesswork involved in figuring out what they might become than with drama pilots. (Again, if you were to extrapolate what "Community" would turn into based solely on the pilot, you wouldn't likely have seen the fake clip show or video game episodes coming.) All I have to go on is these 24 minutes, and in 6 of those 24, "Go On" made me laugh. That's a start — even if it's not instantly the exciting new future NBC might have hoped for.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org