Well, it’s that time again: pilot season, the time of year when networks shovel out their new crop of crap and/or quality programming. So, as the critical bastard I am, I’m going to continue my tradition of grading these new shows. Well, most of them. I won’t be watching ABC’s The Neighbors, just out of principle, and because, you know, I don’t want my eyeballs to bleed.
So, first up, it’s NBC and their two newest comedies, Go On and The New Normal. Now, NBC is in desperate need of hit comedies: with the final seasons of The Office and 30 Rock looming, and Community most definitely and unfairly on the channel’s shit list (Fridays? Really? With Whitney? I hate), the once “Must See TV” network is going to be seriously lacking in Friends and Seinfeld-caliber laughers. So that’s probably why they’re going with somewhat ambitious concepts and trying them out on Tuesdays before they decide if they fit in with their Thursday night lineup.
With Go On, there’s a definite Community-esque vibe happening here, only with a darker subject matter. We’ve got a group of quirky, eccentric and downright bizarre characters who would never in a million years spend time with one another brought together under surprising circumstances, only here, instead of a study group, we have a support group dealing with personal loss, like death. This certainly opens up the series to trek some dramatic ground, as they did at the end of the pilot, but as long as the quirk-factor is around, it won’t become too dismal.
However, the quirk-factor can be a problem, something Community learned as its first season went along. The writers need to be careful they don’t steer into caricature land where the people become less and less like regular human beings and more and more like cartoon characters—just look at Brett Gelman’s character, who seems to just be weird and creepy for the sheer hell of it.
Another problem for me so far is Matthew Perry. I love Matthew Perry. I think he’s a great performer and comedic talent that also has some great dramatic chops within him, too. However, he keeps picking roles, or maybe even portraying them, that are too much like Chandler Bing, and Ryan King is no different. He plays this role with great aplomb and gets me smiling most times, but without five other people of varying personality types around him to share the top billing, he just comes off like an egocentric asshole, cloying and absent of relatability. That end of the pilot I spoke of showed depth, as did his overall performance in the episode, but episode #2, “He Got Game, She Got Cats,” showed devolution, and if the show continues to start him at square one at the beginning of each episode without having learned a thing from the previous one, then there’s going to be a problem.
Go On has the basis of a good ensemble show, and it probably realizes it, only its clueless as to how to execute it. While I enjoyed the pilot immensely, the second episode resorted to dull and cliche story choices while rendering the supporting characters less than real, save Allison Miller as Ryan’s long-suffering assistant, but that role’s been done more times than I can count already, so boo. I hope the show doesn’t continue on this path of inaccessibility, because I believe Matthew Perry deserves better (man, how I was rooting for Mr. Sunshine to be good; alas, only its theme song was memorable). If there are more moments like the end of episode #2, with Ryan and George (the great Bill Cobbs) listening to the Lakers game, moments that show poignancy and dimension, then there could be something here. I’m rooting for it.
Onto The New Normal. I have some qualms with Ryan Murphy. I enjoy American Horror Story a lot for its sheer audacity, but I acknowledge it can be over the top without truly going places or telling a complete story. He also seems to value sensationalism over content, like he believes offensive, controversial dialogue and moments are enough to qualify as entertainment when they’re actually just akin to a small child banging on pots and pans and singing, “Look at me! Look at me!” Just look at Glee. What are the stakes? Someone’s leaving the glee club? Fuck, who’s gonna harmonize on the auto-tuned cover of Neon Tree’s “Everybody Talks” (oh, jeez, I just vomited in my mouth a little from that hypothetical). But as long as there are popular songs being covered by more and more beautiful people and as long as Sue Sylvester is being borderline racist yet still continuing to have a job in the education system, the American people will be entertained. Fuck true storytelling, am I right?!
Normal fits into that category of stirring everybody up just because. I mean, a whole city ridiculously refused to air the show! But in its whole, the show is less about moments (or song and dance numbers, for that matter, thankfully) and more about its characters, which I really appreciate.
The breakout here is going to be Andrew Rannells. Fresh off The Book of Mormon, he dives right into the role of Bryan and nails every beat. He’s funny, he has an ability to express a lot with a little and his chemistry with Justin Bartha’s David is impeccable. Bartha, himself, is great, too, though his character could use a little work; it feels like they haven’t quite nailed him down yet. The same can be said for Georgia King’s Goldie, who so far merits barely a blip on the “give a shit” scale despite the fact she’s meant to be the audience’s surrogate (hey, look at that parallel; Ryan Murphy is so smart), not to mention Bebe Wood’s Shania, who I fear will be dealing with a different eccentricity each week, something that will make her never fully-formed, but she’s weird and precocious, so it’s okay! (Ugh.)
The biggest problem is Ellen Barkin. She does fine in the role of Jane, Goldie’s grandmother, but there’s only so much bigotry I can take. It’s not that she’s a mega-offensive person (she is, though). It’s that she seems to only be offensive to fill that sensationalist quota I spoke of three paragraphs ago. A person as racist and homophobic as her in real life would, of course, use less elegant and clever language to express their hatred, but this is TV, so she gets to have lines that stick out like a sore thumb and therefore seem pretentious. Every show needs a villain, but like Sue Sylvester, mildly funny and insulting dialogue can only go so far before the audience realizes this is just a television character that lacks true personality.
Like Go On, the show is not without its glitches. The pilot had a few great moments and funny lines, but it felt too fast paced: David apparently has a moment of personal growth over the course of the half hour that doesn’t seem to happen fluidly. He has a moment with Goldie where she has some words of wisdom, but it didn’t seem like enough for me to hit the mark it was going for. The second episode, “Sofa’s Choice,” managed to slow things down, but followed a few sitcom tropes. If Ryan Murphy wants this show to stand out and be more than just “seen,” he needs to find better ways to differentiate it from the stuff its competing against. However, unlike its time slot partner, its leads are instantly memorable and lovable. Just work out a few kinks in Bartha’s role to make him more interesting and we’re golden.
So, while these shows just began and it’s impossible to know where they’ll be headed, both in terms of content and ratings, these first two episodes, for me, don’t represent the kind of comedies NBC’s become famous for. But there’s time, loads of time. For now, I give the slight edge to The New Normal, but we’ll see where the coming weeks take us.
Go On: C+
The New Normal: B
Dean Pelton and Kip from Orange County are now Oscar winners. Life is good.