Why ‘Community’ and ‘Go On’ Look So Similar But Feel So Different

When Go On – NBC’s new sitcom about a community of misfits – aired its pilot this season, it brought comparisons with, well, Community. Todd VanDerWerff and Alyssa Rosenberg were two of many TV writers who noted the similarity from the start. Go On and Community involve ensemble casts, and both ensembles contain a mishmash of outsiders. Where Community had a community college study group, Go On featured a therapy group (that meets, it seems, at some sort of community center). These two comedies play on outsiders that never really fit in, until now. They’re not so odd when brought together, as we come to discover. Together, they even one another out. Go On and Community are predominantly character-driven sitcoms, asking viewers to care about the communities they portray, and prompting viewers, even, to join them.

Now ten episodes in, Go On has been doing relatively well this season (it’s certainly faring better than NBC’s Guys with Kids). It’s been picked up for a full 22-episode season, and while it hasn’t retained the 16-something million viewers that tuned in for its pilot, it still consistently bats a better average than NBC’s other Tuesday-night sitcom, The New Normal. Hovering just above six million viewers per episode, Go On is still reaching about two million more than its so-called predecessor Community. So, could Go On be the next Community? It doesn’t look like it. But it could be, in a sense, the more popular (populist?) Community.

While Community is a critic’s darling, Go On has not been received with the same enthusiasm. Community is frenetic and creative – but its jokes and storylines always finally come together, and therein lies so much of the payoff. Go On has its moments of frenzy, too, but it’s not nearly as experimental, and certainly not as tightly woven – each episode comes off as a spilling mess. Why do none of these plots tie together? Why are they so insistent on cramming so many plotlines into each episode? Where’s the character motivation in the scene? What exactly is the purpose of that scene? It can get confusing, and there will never be enough good jokes (of which Go On contains a fair amount) to maintain a show’s momentum, especially when the human relationships underwriting it don’t ultimately hold together.

While Community is a carefully woven system of self-referential narratives, Go On is a tangled mess that runs around in circles and unravels to dead ends. The latter is a therapy session of free association and no psychoanalytical resolution; the former is a video game.

Even if the premise of Go On and Community resemble one another, execution is wholly different. The two shows are more similar in theory than in actual practice. For both, the basic premise is this: you find a reason to bring a group of strange strangers together, and then you make these strange individuals connect with one another. The more heartfelt and meaningful these connections seem, the better. Your audience grows invested, and these characters drive the story forward and, hopefully, ratings up. For both, the goal is this: make your audience feel for these strange, often unappealing, characters, as much as these characters grow to feel for one another. As much as such logic applies to both Go On and Community, the two shows have different methods of tugging on audience heartstrings.

The emotional core of Community is, by a long shot, Abed, who in a way has become metonymic for how the show works as a whole. Each episode of Community cites different genres and tropes (from film, television, video games, music videos) as a way of emphasizing the superficial fabric of so much culture. Similarly, Abed – a lover of film and video games – exemplifies how all characters begin empty, and are only so real as the cultural references they are able to emulate and conjure up. While what viewers might expect, at first, is all surface and no depth, what we find are gaps and silences (moments when we’re not sure what is being cited, if anything) where we seek to imbue characters, and the show as a whole, with meaning. Community, by emphasizing an overall lack of depth, brings out viewer’s desire to project massive amounts of interiority upon its characters. It might be Harmon’s initially cynical way of showing us our world, but it works to draw out a sincere way of relating to what can feel like the only world we know.

Go On functions quite the opposite. In its world, there is no question about the amount of genuine sorrow and emotions held within each character. Everyone has a story – and the residual emotional baggage that comes with each story is definitely there, even if just really, really deep down in there. When individuals brush off talking about their personal tragedies (a dead spouse, a cheating spouse, blindness), there is no question that, eventually, there will come a reckoning. We’ve already seen the consequences of such repression emerge in almost textbook fashion – from eating one’s feelings to buying cats, and then more cats. Yet even these moments, while sometimes offering a spate of jokes, don’t feel like resolutions. They still adhere to the mob mentality that seems to drive Go On. It might be what makes the show, as yet, so popular with viewers.

If you peel away all the hugging and fuzzy feelings, it becomes clearer that Go On isn’t heralding weirdness so much as it’s trying to dissipate it. If anything, the show is able to ignore its messy ball of mentalities – and storylines – because of this drive toward perfunctory acceptance. When the therapy group gathers to eat their feelings away together, or to celebrate Thanksgiving as a cast of lonely hearts, it might give viewers a momentarily sense of peace and resolve – but that doesn’t mean this is how anyone actually goes about healing from mental illness or depression. As I continue to watch Go On, I sense, if anything, the opposite, as the show seeks to normalize and recuperate these odd characters into a mass of syrupy sweetness. Where the show succeeds is when it treats its characters as individuals – such as Anne’s (Julie White) lesbianism, which isn’t played up for homophobic laughs, but is taken as part and parcel of the fabric of her personality. Other times, though, the show can be classist or racist, and it – as shown by how characters relate to Brett Gelman’s Mr. K – ultimately does not tolerate creepiness. Even misfits have their limits.

Go On and Community exhibit groups that are, in some sense, stalled or even seemingly regressing. Will the study group ever graduate from community college? Will anyone from the therapy group ever “graduate” and leave? So far, both shows only work if these characters are kept in limbo. Yet, even while keeping them there, Community has displayed true insight into the inner lives of characters we once saw as one-note, such as financially struggling Annie and alcoholic Shirley. Such reveals took time, but they’re worth it. What’s more, they made sense. Ultimately, though, completion would mean growth, i.e. true character development – and so we might ask another nudge from Go On to do as its title says.