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TV Tonight: Go On

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Jordin Althaus/NBC

When he pitched NBC’s new fall season to TV critics a few weeks ago, network president Robert Greenblatt said that the network was aiming for sitcoms more “broad” than its current crop of critics’ favorites like 30 Rock and Community. That led some cynical writers–oh, that would be me–to ask whether we could expect a lot more new shows with monkeys in them.

Animal Practice, which NBC previews in a few days, is… well, it’s not a great pilot but also not nearly the cheesefest conjured up by the phrase “TV show with a monkey in it.” The more interesting test case for what NBC means by “broad” new comedy is Matthew Perry’s Go On, which moves away from shows like Community by the curious strategy of having a premise that is as much as possible like Community’s without actually being Community.

Consider: Perry plays Ryan King, a cynical professional (here, a sports-radio jock) who signs up for a class in a public institution (here, grief therapy) because he needs a document to get back to work (here, not a diploma but verification that he’s finished  counseling). Like Community’s Jeff Winger, Ryan nurses a secret hurt (here, his wife recently died), and despite his snarky front, he finds–well, Community–in the motley group of broken people from various demographics that are thrown together here.

Go On (previewing tonight, with its regular debut in September) is not as funny as Community, though in fairness neither was Community at the get-go, though its pilot was promising enough. Go On’s laughs come in bursts, in particular a great set piece–which you may have already seen in promos–in which Ryan organizes his classmates into a “March Sadness” bracket to see whose suffering is the worst. This is promising, but also concerning, in a pilot; sometimes, it’s a sign of good things to come, and sometimes it’s a sign that the pilot got made on the strength of one good idea that it never replicates.

Ryan’s role is well enough fit to Perry, who since Friends has played a string of sarcastic characters reACT!ing to the abSUR!dity of life with idiosyncratic SYLL!able stresses. But the pilot is aiming for a balance of dark humor, heart and flat-out funny that it doesn’t quite manage. Maybe for fear of bumming the audience out, the pilot tells us about Ryan’s sense of loss more than makes us feel it. There’s a potentially interesting cast of supporting characters–including an acerbic lesbian woman (Julie White) whose partner recently died and an introverted young man (Tyler James Williams), but they haven’t yet had time to get fleshed out. As a result, the pilot builds to a final scene that’s obviously meant to be uplifting and cathartic, but doesn’t quite feel that way.

That said, I’ll stick with Go On for a while, because it at least has the pieces to eventually become a successful comedy you can invest in—a smart, idiosyncratic sitcom with a real emotional core.

Then again, that pretty much describes Community. Does “more grieving, less paintball” equal “broad”?