I know that I’ve been a little hard on Go On in the past few weeks. Maybe its Community-esque fumes have addled my expectations for an average NBC comedy starring Matthew Perry. But “Videogame, Set, Match” was by far the most disappointing episode of the season to date. For all of my criticisms of last week’s “Any Given Birthday,” at least that one had a plot that made sense, and characters who interacted with each other for legitimate reasons. By contrast, “Videogame, Set, Match” is pure contrivance. It demonstrated to me how poorly written Go On is, and how that is its most persistent flaw.
Because the cast is great. The jokes aren’t terrible. The premise isn’t even bad. But week-to-week, major issues about structure, character development, and narrative (both short-and-long term) become more and more obvious. I am beginning to fear that NBC did some kind of sitcom market research and combined all of their findings into the conception for Go On—a bland-ish ensemble comedy headed up by a jokey everyman with enough sports and cute girls to draw the more elusive male viewers. And it seems like it’s working for the network—Go On is doing well in the ratings, probably because the show is so casually watchable. You don’t have to know what’s going on in order to be able to tune in.
I can’t do much about television economics—if this is the type of thing that sells ad space, then fine—but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
In “Videogame, Set, Match,” Owen and Ryan discover that they both enjoy playing Halo, and team up to… continue playing Halo for most of the episode, including at Ryan’s work and overnight on Owen’s couch. Yolanda feels ready to graduate from the support group, but obviously, she isn’t, really. And the radio station hires a pretty girl to stand around to be pretty. (Plot: Everyone thinks she’s pretty. Even Carrie!) Through the process of gaming with Owen, Ryan convinces his young friend to go see his unconscious brother in the hospital (a few hijinks ensue along the way, all in the service of manly bonding). The pretty girl continues to stand around and be pretty. And Yolanda gets mad at everyone in the group for pretending to be her friends, but forgives them when they show up at her house dressed in absurdly elaborate costumes from Alice in Wonderland (“Oh right, it’s Halloween,” some writer remembered, scrawling that into the margins of the teleplay).
There are so many things wrong with this tangled-up mess that I almost don’t know where to start. But the primary issue is a significant lack of critical thinking about why these plots were jumbled together in the same episode. Along with my sneaky market-research theory, I have a feeling that each character of Go On has a set of plots assigned to them that the writers pick out and mix-and-match at (almost) random. That’s not necessarily a flaw, but it’s nice when there’s a bit of integration between stories or even across tones. So Yolanda’s attempts to break away from the group are desperate, histrionic, and create a lot of friction between her and other members of the group, while the office plot is light, bro-y, and calls attention to the immaturity of the guys involved. Each half of the episode doesn't know what the other half is doing.
Owen’s budding friendship with Ryan is, theoretically, the most emotionally solid element of “Videogame, Set, Match,” and the subplot that justifies tying together the office and the support group this week. And, theoretically, I should like it. Ryan and Owen are the two members of the group that had the most authentic connection in the pilot. It’s logical that two dudes dealing with loss would have some common ground, such as bottling up their feelings by playing video games. And, I love that Go On is interested in exploring these alternative methods of dealing with grief that the world gives us—blowing up people in Halo and buying Porsches, for example.
But the execution of the subplot is horribly contrived. Owen is a good character, and he’s played well by Tyler James Williams, but the writing throughout his interactions with Ryan is just bad. The first head-scratching offense is that Ryan’s interest in Halo is purely coincidental—it’s literally a texting-related plot device that pops up in the second scene of the episode. And then that Owen’s feelings and needs are expressed not by him, but rather his mother (?!), an uncomfortably stereotypical angry black woman. And then that Owen would randomly enter the outside world for the first time and cope with it by asking out the pretty girl with no personality. And then that Owen’s mom would blame Ryan for this? And then somehow that disappointment—of the girl rejecting “the coma guy”—would lead to Ryan reaching out to Owen about his brother? And then Owen and Ryan sort of make up over XBox Live because Owen likes having a brother to mess with. It might have worked if the contrived external plot devices (mother, pretty girl, “Lean On Me,” etc.) had been kept to a minimum (the video game) so the characters could just bounce off of each other, but no, hijinks had to ensue, they must always ensue. So Ryan, who is essentially a blank character, goes through the motions once again of doing the right thing for a complex person and ends up grinning, in a Tweedle Dee costume, with said friend, who is wearing a Tweedle Dum costume, pretending that everything has been resolved after a disorganized, muddled plot that tells us nothing about the characters we didn’t know already and this is all supposed to be funny??
Okay. [Takes deep breath.] Okay.
As I was watching, I found myself thinking of all of these alternative scenarios using the video games that might have been more interesting, or perhaps more human. And definitely more funny. That quick moment with Carrie and Owen playing the video games together was really fun, for example. More of that would have made for an interesting dynamic, and potentially one that created a bond like Sonia and Steven’s from last week. What if the Halo plot was extended to the whole ensemble? Comedy is at least in part a subversion of expectations, and that type of development would’ve been hard to see coming.
What’s mysterious is that Go On occasionally shows us what it can be good at. The parking subplot (which constitutes about five lines) is my favorite part of this week’s episode. Every line in it is not only funny, but also establishes character (on both ends of the joke) and plays with conflict in a real way. Outside of Mr. K’s absurdism, which is always funny, the only other funny moment is when Ryan and Steven pounce on Owen’s new suede jacket, teasing him for it in a funny, but loving way, that again, shows character as much as it delivers a punchline. Compare this to the Chris Bosh gag a few moments before. What was the point of that, except to show that Ryan is still Matthew Perry and Chris Bosh is tall?
I’m beginning to fear that, much like Yolanda, Go On is never going to get better.
- This is a nitpick, but it’s important to me, as a professional television ’shipper: The Owen romance plotline was played the wrong way. It would have been more interesting, anyway, if Steven and Ryan assumed that Owen wanted to ask out the hot blonde girl and instead he wanted to ask out Carrie. As it is, the subplot served to do nothing for the long-term arc of the show, unless hot girl is going to become an additional cast member on an already overstuffed ensemble. That potential Owen/Carrie tension would have connected to the video game moment earlier in the episode and provided something to come back to. But I don't know, I just watch TV.
- This episode proves without question that the office is just not as interesting or funny as the support group. The opening was flat and had uncomfortable misogynist overtones, coupled with the T-shirt gun used as a substitute for Ryan’s erection. It was boring before it even started—and well before the appalling stripper/Statue Of Liberty/community college joke.
- Lauren’s masturbation joke was neither funny nor in-character.
- Surprisingly, Fausta was one of the funniest characters in this week’s episode.