Friend in need of a good role

Could Matthew Perry's new sitcom be The One Where He Finally Gets A Lucky Break? Sarah Hughes finds out

Sometimes it seems every season brings a new attempt by a former Friends star to recreate their glory days. This time it's Matthew Perry's turn again, as the man formerly known as Chandler Bing reunites with NBC, the network behind Friends, and Scott Silveri, a former writer and producer on that show, in a bid to rediscover some of the old magic.

So is Go On, a sitcom about a middle-aged sports presenter trying to deal with grief through group therapy, any good? NBC certainly thinks so – it ordered a full season on the strength of the pilot, and handed it a plum Tuesday night slot, airing after the network's ratings hit The Voice.

At the very least it has a great deal of potential. The pilot adeptly balances light and dark material, allowing Perry to be both funny and touching without simply falling back on Chandler-style one-liners, while Laura Benanti (the best thing about the swiftly cancelled The Playboy Club) has a scene-stealing turn as the inexperienced group leader.

Yet for all Go On's slick scenes and some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, questions remain as to whether it can catapult both Perry, 42, and struggling NBC back to the big time.

Silveri, the show's writer, remains pragmatic. "Obviously TV has changed so much in the last couple of years, so we're looking for quality. We're not looking to match the Friends numbers," he told Entertainment Weekly recently. "For me the joy has been in watching Perry work on the project. We have such an easy collaboration and energy and synergy we fell back into." Sceptics have yet to be convinced. While NBC has some of the smartest comedies on air at the moment – Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock – they are also some of the lowest rated and many maintain the network will never again hit the heights of Friends, which ran from 1994-2004, unless it drops the deadpan and returns to that show's populist, multi-camera format. The offbeat Go On, at its strongest when exploring the quirky group dynamic in the therapy sessions, looks unlikely to change that.

Then there's Perry himself. The post-Friends world hasn't been easy for him. While cast mate Jennifer Aniston became a bona fide movie star, albeit better known as America's most lovelorn sweetheart than for any of the endless rom-coms she churns out, Perry, the youngest and arguably the most talented member of the Friends cast, has struggled to find the right part on television or in film.

His failure to hit the starry heights can be attributed in part to a long-standing struggle with drink and drugs. In 1997, with Friends at its zenith, he checked into rehab citing addiction to the painkiller Vicodin. In 2001 he checked in again, this time for addiction to methadone, amphetamines and alcohol. In 2002, he admitted to drinking a bottle of vodka a day, saying he had been "going through a very dark time". Last year he underwent a further stint in order to prevent a relapse, remarking wryly to the US press: "I'm making plans to go away for a month to focus on my sobriety and to continue my life in recovery. Please enjoy making fun of me on the worldwide web." He has also been unusually unlucky where his post-Friends TV roles are concerned. His much-heralded 2006 return to television in Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip failed largely because of script flaws rather than Perry's nuanced turn as the conflicted producer Matt Albie.

Similarly, he was the best thing in last year's swiftly cancelled comedy Mr Sunshine, in which he played a self-loathing sports arena manager with a world-weary weight that gave a slight show more gravitas than it deserved.

While there's no doubting his talent, Perry has always seemed much more comfortable stealing the show from the sidelines: his best post-Friends turns have been in guest roles: he's produced eye-catching turns in everything from The West Wing to, most recently, The Good Wife.

And for all that he was good in Mr Sunshine, it was a curiously understated performance, one that raised doubts as to whether Perry has the charisma for a starring role. While the Boston Herald commented that he "made angst look easy", USA Today questioned whether he could hold the centre of a show – and a damning review in the Washington Post argued that he was overshadowed by Allison Janney's assured supporting performance.

Like many actors before him, Perry has struggled to move on from the role that defined him. For a generation raised first on Friends and then on the endless reruns, Perry is Chandler Bing. We have no interest in watching him do anything other than snap out a quick one-liner or present the perfectly timed double take. It takes a special role to move out from the shadow of that cast. Courteney Cox only truly settled into playing ditzy Jules on Cougar Town in the second season, while Matt LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for Episodes, in which he sends up his finest hour.

Can Go On do the same for Perry? It's worth noting that Friends started slowly, only finding a wider audience after reruns at the end of the first season. And while the jury remains out on whether Perry can make the jump into leading man status, his performance in Go On is one of his most agile in years. It's hard not to hope that this latest sitcom represents a new beginning rather than the likeable actor's last chance.

 

Go On will air in the autumn

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