balancing, act

I like Matthew Perry. Not, as many people of my generation might, because of his role on Friends, but rather because of his guest spots on The West Wing followed by his starring role in the sadly short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. (If you love musical theater and good comedy, look up their second episode, The Cold Open. I still smile when I think of the number that is the namesake of the episode, the one they are working to the whole time. But maybe it's just me. Likely, even.) So it is not entirely surprising that even though I usually try to watch what I can in DVR delay so that I can fast forward all the commercials, I stopped and watched the ones NBC kept running for Perry's new show, Go On. The show premiers tonight, but the pilot episode has been sitting On Demand since Olympics, when they started running the relentless promotion.

Do I sound like the TV Guide up there? Sorry... I think I got that all out of my system now. So let's get on with the main event-- the show and what we think of it. Well, what I think of it for now. Though I am hoping that (provided my description doesn't make you want to destroy the TV rather than watch the show, which I hope it does not) you watch it at some point and chime in. Or vote early, vote often-- comment before you watch, comment after you watch. Heck, comment instead of watching.

Why, you ask, am I darkening your screen with a post about a TV show? For one, the main character, Perry's character, is grieving. We learn in the very first scene that his wife is dead and that he shows up back at work way before anyone is expecting him to be there. Shortly after that, he is told to get his loudly protesting self to group therapy. Grief sitcom, then? Why, yes, and I am not telling you this to forewarn you from ever going near the thing. Because when I began watching the pilot, I rather expected to end up disappointed if not outright hating the thing. What I got instead is a heaping bowl of recognition, with a side order of wait, are they going THERE? And yes, yes they did. As suggested by one of the promos you might or might not have seen, Perry's character really does stage a March Madness style head to head Pain Olympics tournament. No, really! What's even crazier, for me? It works.

If you know anything at all about the grieving me, you know that I hate Pain Olympics with a passion. In fact, I caught myself playing Reverse Pain Olympics. In the four plus years since I wrote that post, in this particular area of my world view, nothing changed. I still hate Pain Olympics, and I still think that nobody but each individual grieving person is allowed to say to themselves that it could have been worse. So how is it possible that given this world view, I am on board with the Go On's treatment of the subject?

I think that in a strange and completely unexpected way for me, what they do is actually affirming, not dismissive of each person's pain. First of all, they all agree. They all sign up, and they all accept the rules. Second, there seems to be an underlying and thick layer of good will. Those who fall in the earlier rounds are shown getting into the cheering on of their group mates. Even in "losing" a face-off, there can be recognition of the depth of pain. The character who is so distraught over the death of her partner that she can't pull out salient details to tell the story in brief to fit in the amount of time allotted is told that she is losing the bout "on technicality." That seems validating. And? they manage to do that without completely dismissing the dead pet character who "wins" on that selfsame technicality.

What was really profound to me, what sang to me with piercing clarity of a single string going on after all the rest of the instruments have faded, what I appreciated both as honest depiction and as a fearless move by the show's creators, were the brief vignettes of the characters in their own spaces, on their own time. I dare you to remain composed through the whole sequence, especially when they show us where the Pain Olympics winner's crown comes to rest. And may I remind you now that this is supposedly a half hour sitcom?  

So if, against my every intuition, this works on a sitcom, does it mean I just changed my mind about Pain Olympics in general? Does it mean I am about to offer sign ups for the blog cage tournament of doom? Hell, NO! What I now think is that the show creators have managed to find one of a fairly small set of circumstances where something like this might work. Which is why, I suppose, they are getting the big bucks.  I think that it works partially because the characters have suffered different losses, not all of them losses of people, and not even all of them losses of another being. As such, when they are showing off their wounds, they are presenting the general outlines of the wound, not measuring, if you will, the depth and circumference of the wound. In contrast, it seems to me that doing a thing like this in a community of people whose wounds are all the same general shape is a very bad idea. Mostly because comparing details of losses where the relationship between the lost and the bereaved is the same takes us perilously close to deciding whose lost loved one mattered more. And that is still something I can't abide.

The other reason why I think it works on the show, is that the "tournament" takes place within a defined period of time, in a small real-life community. In other words, it happens in defined space within a defined period of time. Live people interacting, in competitive spirit, yes, but also with compassion and humor and understanding, with other live people, most of whom they have known for some time. This is not something that is easy to ensure happening on the internet. People wonder by, reading the posts they stumble on. When we as readers react to an entry on a blog, something written in a particular time and influenced by particular events and emotions, perhaps even in response to particular events, for us what is said is very immediate, right now. But the person who said it may have changed their mind, may have even changed some as a person, and certainly may simply not be in a headspace to "go there," to engage the topic again. Which, if the post in question is of the Pain Olympics variety, might just leave a late comer reader feeling belittled in their loss instead of supported in good humor.

So I am still a firm "no" on unleashing Pain Olympics into the wild, but a cautious "yes, for now" on the new show. I hope, for their sake and for ours (because wouldn't it be nice to have a popular culture education on grief?) that they can sustain the tight-rope balancing act of being authentic and entertaining at the same time. And I really hope the weird guy's alone vignette doesn't mean he's a bereaved father. Not because we don't need to be represented, and not because bad things don't happen to weird people, but because if I had my druthers, I'd wish for us to be represented by someone painfully "normal" and average.


So what do you think? Have you seen the show? Will you? Are there other popular culture representations of grief in general or perinatal bereavement in particular that you find either particularly authentic or particularly offensively cartoonish?