Maybe you've heard lately — possibly in these last two weeks of Olympics force-feeding — that NBC has some new shows coming this fall. One of them starring an old Friend who's fallen on hard sitcom times. (Remember Mr. Sunshine? No?)
Not content to merely barrage us with endless promos and teasers during the Olympics, NBC has now decided to sneak-peek entire pilots of two of its new comedies, commercial-free, beginning tonight with Go On (11/10c), an uneasy collision of snark and sentiment that feels like Community rebooted as a Dear John clone. (Helps if you have a long memory for NBC sitcomedy.)
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"I'm back and better than ever!" With that hubristic opening line — which might invite a cynical spectator to think, "Let me be the judge of that" — Matthew Perry bursts back onto the comedy scene as brash sports-radio host Ryan King, who's been off the air a month to mourn his wife (the circumstances of whose tragic sudden passing will be revealed in good time). Perry lays on the mannered shtick with a thick trowel in his opening patter with his skeptical boss (John Cho), and it only escalates when he reluctantly agrees to attend some community-center (sound familiar?) group therapy.
The pilot episode's high point is the set piece of Ryan's first encounter with his fellow misfits in "Transitions," described in a pamphlet as a "group for mindful life change and renewal." Ryan's sarcastic eye-rolling aside, check out the splendid and admirably diverse supporting cast, which includes Julie White as a tightly wound lesbian widow, Everybody Hates Chris' Tyler James Williams as a young man struck mute with grief (until Ryan works his magic, of course), Suzy Nakamura as a control-freak suck-up, and (while not listed among the cast regulars) Bill Cobbs as a curmudgeonly old blind man milking his infirmities for sympathy. Ryan gets one look at this crew one-upping each other with their sob stories, and he pits them against each other in a ranking game of "Who can bottom who?" which one of them dubs "March Sadness."
It's a terrific sketch, the sort of scene that could easily sell a show in a pitch meeting. But is there a series here? Are these wretches the sort of company we want to keep on a weekly basis — especially when it goes into its regular time period on Tuesdays (9/8c), opposite better established comedies on Fox (New Girl) and ABC (Happy Endings).
Thankfully, Perry gets a terrific sparring partner in the lovely Laura Benanti (a Tony-winning talent ill-used in The Playboy Club last season) as the group's dubiously qualified therapist, whose patronizing platitudes can't entirely mask a prickly impatience with her clients, especially the new guy. Their wary cat-and-mouse game doesn't exactly break new comic ground, but it temporarily lifts Go On from its jarring tonal shifts between mockery and mawkishness.
NBC's new entertainment chief has stated a desire for the network's comedies to go broader and funnier, and this cast certainly has the chops to accomplish that goal. But is a show about "good grief" (not to be confused with the short-lived Fox sitcom about a funeral parlor) the right vehicle? We'll see next month, when Go On premieres on Sept. 11, by which time I hope to have seen beyond the pilot to make a less ambivalent judgment call.
BACK IN TEXAS: While the new fall season gets off to an unofficial start tonight, the summer's highest-profile TV revival bows out with some game-changing twists — if something short of a classic "Who Shot J.R."-style cliffhanger — as TNT's updated Dallas (9/8c) ends its first season in the aftermath of a bang.
The gunshot not-even-heard-round-the-corner went off last week in the penultimate episode, as the mysterious Rebecca struggled over a gun with Tommy, her partner-in-murky-crime-who's-not-really-her-brother, and blood splatter went all over the cute stuffed monkeys she and Christopher had bought earlier for their unborn twins. Meanwhile, literally back at the ranch, Bobby had succumbed to a brain aneurysm seizure shortly after the wily J.R. (Larry Hagman) signed Southfork back over to his brother. (The deed is still tangled up with those dastardly Venezuelans, who could yet make things messy for J.R. and namesake John Ross.) There's other stuff going on, but some of the plot mechanics are so creaky — especially anything involving Sue Ellen's political ambitions, or the love stories embroiling the bland-as-dust young 'uns — that you might wish they could apply some of that fabled Ewing Oil to the scripts.
This episode doesn't so much leave things hanging as it resets the basic conflicts between and within families, revealing some surprising (and a few not-so-shocking) new allegiances along the way. The most satisfying showdown doesn't involve the usual suspects, instead reminding us how kickass the new Dallas women can be. (Special kudos to Brenda Strong as Ann Ewing, who always deserves to be given more to do than just fret over Bobby.) And the best scene, as always, belongs to that gnarled old buzzard J.R. (the remarkable Larry Hagman), who says to his brother and longtime nemesis, "I don't know who I'd be without you."
I do know where Dallas, original or 2.0, would be without Hagman and J.R.: Nowhere.