Earlier this fall, NBC premiered “Go On,” a new sitcom featuring Matthew Perry (of “Friends” megafame) as a young widowed man. There’s been a low buzz in my communities about our being “represented” in prime time, but I don’t watch much TV and never liked “Friends.” I tried to sit out “doing something” to engage widowed people on the show. But the din grew too loud, and much of it was from outside: “What do widowed people think of Go On? Is this a realistic look into what your life is like? And are community-run grief groups really full of nuts?”
I had to get involved. My weekly peer-led support group saved my life, after all. Reviewing the show would at least be a great opportunity to discharge more of the myths about grief and grieving people in the world. And I could engage my communities to review it and discuss it (in Chat) and you know what… it would be fun.
So I announced a blog hop a few days ago. That post, with the list of participants and links, will be published tomorrow, Thursday 10/4. I’m sure there will be people posting reviews after the deadline, too, so please check back.
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We’re a small minority, we people who lose a partner to death during our productive years. For the most part, young widowed people don’t “belong.” Our world doesn’t have room for us: our friends and family wish to rush us along into happiness, often out of genuine concern and love; our old friends are often frightened by us; most of us don’t belong to churches or communities that are cohesive or do belong to ones that respond inappropriately; and our cohorts in loss are overwhelmingly people who’ve been through divorce.
So the news that a major network was debuting a prime time show about “one of us” caught our attention. That the show is a sitcom added provocation… could “our” humor be funny? (We know death can be funny…. “Civilians” must have found the announcement of a “funny show about a grief group” even stranger than we did). And the fact that the show starred popular favorite Matthew Perry of Friends said that the network felt (likely) that the show was a worthwhile investment.
Very, very curious. I think a lot of us expect to be disappointed and alienated yet again. After all, it’s TV.
I have watched the five episodes of the show so far, and there’s no question that the show is “TV-like.” When I saw that Ryan King, the young widower (an abrasive radio sports personality), attends a general grief group (one for all kinds of losses, including pets and abilities!) I figured things would go false right away. The cast of characters is a “bomber crew” of lovable oddballs: one latina, one lesbian, one old guy, one blind guy, one nut. Yeah, there are stereotypes, and I think, “Wow, how awesome to have two black guys in a group. I wish I could do that.” (Not my topic today.) As I watched, I kept wanting the two with spousal losses — Ryan and Ann (the lesbian) — to go off and talk on their own. I felt, those two would hit it off. (Sure enough, a later episode has them attending a wedding on a “friend date” and providing real support to each other in that “peer but not best friend” way I know so well.) In “Go On,” of course, the group’s diversity becomes a strength and they each learn to support each other in their own ways. Maybe that’s a “TV” part. Loss does unify people and I suppose somewhere in the world there’s a grief group where the widower didn’t quit right after hearing that one member is there because her cat died. But I’m not going to complain that a TV comedy is too much like a TV comedy. Did they look like my grief group? No. Did they work like my grief group? Absolutely.
The oddest things about Go On are what it doesn’t get wrong. * In “Go On,” the light is in the details. A sequence in the first show shows each of our grief group “characters” coping, alone: facing an empty bed, swinging an idle cat toy, flinging flowers at a headstone in rage. This sequence is touching and real without being maudlin. It can’t be easy, in a 24 minute show, to tell the small quiet stories that are so important in life, but “Go On” manages to include them without too much disrupting the overall sitcom tone and goal.
“Go On” manages to illustrate some real ways that grieving people ask and work through real questions in their life. An entire show revolves around Ryan giving away his wife’s sewing machine. Is this a way of making his space more his own, or is he refusing to cope? When is one “ready” to date? Does having sex again “fix” your loss? What is the “new me” like and can it compete with the “old me,” when my life’s plan is blown? These are typical and non-trivial questions and it’s sweet to see the characters coping with them in their own unique ways. Maybe being a “character” is not so constraining after all.
The show generates a certain humor and satisfaction from Ryan’s “manly” way of coping: he focuses on action. Yet he also admits he has feelings, and “plays along” with the grief orthodoxy of “share it and face it to get better.” Perry’s face, its paroxysms in focus, shows the kind of elasticity you expect from a sitcom player, but he’s also capable of displaying some understated moments like admitting that “a baby bird alone, a hat flying off an old man’s head” are among the many things that made him cry. It’s not a cartoon, and it could be.
One thing I absolutely admire about the show is that they have been willing to make jokes about some of the more unacceptable behaviors of grieving people. For example, the “grief olympics.” It’s not acceptable to “compare” losses, but it’s also not possible (being real here) to avoid comparisons. Ryan notes this at this first session and brings it to a loud and real competition, tracking semifinals on a whiteboard. In this game of “March Sadness” (verrry clever), because each player gets just 5 seconds to make their case, the lady who lost her cat wins over the lesbian widow. It’s the show’s best line: “On a technicality… feline death beats human one,” and it’s pathetic, but damn, it’s fair.
Other real tendencies the show captures include our desire to showcase our special status without actually wearing Victorian weeds (the show's version is DED WYF vanity license plates... and variations... another very funny touch) and our navigating new worlds (Ryan's first attempt to negotiate a grocery store as part of "taking care of himself"). Not to mention, that general sense of being different, out of place, and half in a another world (signs and visitations, anyone?) that most widowed people live with.
I’m not sure the show is really that funny. It can’t possibly be as funny as the humor widowed people engage in with each other. I would argue that it’s hard to actually be more funny than real life, lived fully and in a very particular context. Should it even be a “black humor” show? Does death have to only be the subject of black humor and maudlin sentimentality? Maybe life is really a cast of oddball characters and quick lessons. As long as Go On keeps including quiet moments, real questions, and signs of growth, I'll keep watching.
Should I extrapolate a larger meaning? (Would I be me if I didn’t?) If humor is really a way of deflecting pain, as the show’s facilitator character insists, the show should not succeed. But I don’t think that’s true — we, the widowed, are hilarious. “Go On” manages to be both funny and — a little — illuminating.
What do I think overall? I wonder if people earlier in their grief will find the show “validating.” (Part of the reason I’m encouraging others to review it). I think it’s interesting and more than a little brave to tackle death with humor in prime time. TV comedy is not known for being insightful. I think the creation of “Go On” indicates that death and loss are gaining in consciousness in our culture today… they’re emerging as necessary, acceptable topics. “Go On” is a sign of the times.
Whether it will be popular, or result in any greater understanding of what our experience is like, will depend on the quality of the writers and on what non-widowed people think of the show. Will “Go On” scare people away from grief groups? (I’d do anything to avoid Mr. K, the nutty one). It seems at this point like the in-person support groups are dying out while sites like my WidowedVillage.org and scores of Facebook groups are growing every day (but that’s for another post). It’s probably not in the power of a TV show to change where, when, or how we find each other.
Because while we may be a small group, we learn when we “discuss among ourselves.”
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