As an actor, Matthew Perry was nominated for four Emmys. He was a regular in the generation-defining ensemble smash Friends and, as a guest star, seamlessly integrated into the spectacular ensemble on shows like The West Wing and The Good Wife.
The show that best understood Perry’s sensibility and, more than that, the essence of what he projected best onscreen may not have been one of his signature successes, and may not be one of the first half-dozen shows that heartbroken fans look back on as we reflect on Perry, who died this weekend at 54. Empirically, it wasn’t a success at all.
Go On ran for 22 episodes on NBC between 2012 and 2013 and was canceled after that lone season. It has fans — any show with an ensemble that included Tyler James Williams, Laura Benanti, Brett Gelman, Sarah Baker, John Cho and more is going to find fans — but only a small audience. It’s been hard to find streaming, though I think it’s on Roku at the moment, so check it out.
Go On was, especially for broadcast television, a brave show. And it was definitely a brave performance for an actor who, after the phenomenon that was Friends, clearly enjoyed testing how far he could take the built-in audience whose affection he brought to each new role.
In Go On, Perry played a sports talk radio host grieving the death of his wife. Eager to avoid his feelings, the character returns to work too soon and, after a meltdown, begins to find his way to a new normal with the help of a support group, each member damaged in their own way. With Go On, Perry brought all the sublimated pain and sadness and insecurity that functioned as undercurrents in previous roles and inverted the archetype.
In many of his earlier performances, Perry gravitated toward characters who used humor as a defense mechanism and, for the most part, those characters succeeded. Sometimes they succeeded so rousingly that most viewers didn’t even recognize that the sarcasm and snark were masking anything at all. In his post-Friends roles, though, Perry gravitated toward parts that weren’t sarcastic, but were cynical and even nihilistic, characters trying to find their way back to something as light as “sarcasm.” Viewers could happily pretend Chandler Bing on Friends was a happy guy, except for the moments he wasn’t, but you couldn’t say the same about Matt Albie on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or Ben on Mr. Sunshine, who were maybe 50-50 between “hurt” and “funny” and were all the more complicated for that.
But in Go On, Perry played a man who everybody thought of as funny, who everybody treated as entertaining, who remembered HIMSELF as funny and entertaining, but somehow couldn’t find his way back, who wondered if he would ever be that person again. The show had broad supporting characters and ample doses of wacky comic relief, but there were episodes in which Perry’s Ryan King just wasn’t amusing at all, because he couldn’t be. He was prickly and antisocial and struggling in a way that would have been right in the tonal wheelhouse of countless prestige cable shows, and if Go On had been on cable, it might have had a robust three-to-five-season run and it might have added to Perry’s Emmy nomination haul. He was that good. It was that right for his strengths and maybe that’s why it wasn’t right for mainstream viewers.
Viewers were accustomed to feeling protective of Perry. He was public about his struggles with addiction while on Friends and, because the show was at the center of such a nonstop cultural maelstrom, audiences were unable to fully divorce concerns about Perry’s weight or his onscreen energy from concerns about Chandler Bing and vice versa, which contributed to the dramatic satisfaction that came from the show putting Chandler in its best and most stable romantic relationships.
I think we — or maybe I — worried about Chandler ending up with happiness more than any other character. Ross and Rachel were on a collision course for “happiness” whether we bought it or not. Phoebe had faced so much darkness that her tendency was always toward light. If Joey could be satisfied with Rachel’s ill-fated trifle, his standards were such that he’d end up OK. Once Monica had Tom Selleck to fall back on, she was going to be fine.
But Chandler? He had issues with his parents that would have required a season’s arc on In Treatment to unpack. He had a job that nobody remembered and that gave him no satisfaction, but which clearly paid too well for him to leave. He torpedoed relationships in favor of friendship in a way that was noble, but not healthy. He kept going back to Janice, and that couldn’t have spoken well for his sense of self-worth. When Chandler found Monica, though, she recognized all his flaws and loved them, much to her surprise and much to our relief. She brought out sincerity in him, not that the snark ever vanished. And Perry made us believe and embrace all of what was flawed about Chandler and made us laugh along with those flaws. In retrospect, it’s because of Perry that we now realize that Chandler was always just a work-in-progress and that Ross was the pathologically damaged one. That’s a different column, though.
It’s easy to say that Chandler gave viewers a protective instinct for Perry and that Perry’s real life gave viewers a protective instinct toward Chandler and all his subsequent characters, but that’s probably conflating things too much and probably detracts from what a great TV star Matthew Perry was and how good he was at playing characters masking pain before anybody knew anything at all about the actor behind those characters.
Go back even to something like Beverly Hills, 90210, where Perry’s Roger Azarian gave the impression of affluent perfection. He was popular, smart and headed for such clear success that he broke up with Kelly Taylor because she wasn’t good enough for him, or so his father said. But Roger was shattered inside. He was crushed by his dad’s expectations, crushed by the expectations of Beverly Hills. Roger was, on some level, the embodiment of everything Darren Star wanted to say in those early seasons of the show, about how what we saw on the surface, however ideal, was often a mask. And Roger was a blueprint for many Perry roles to follow.
Like anybody who uses sarcasm as a weapon against sadness and happiness, I’m a Chandler and I rooted for that character through the run of Friends and I rooted for Perry through all his subsequent roles. I wished that Ben on Mr. Sunshine had had enough seasons to work his way past his narcissism and midlife crisis. I wished that Ryan on Go On had had enough seasons to see his path through mourning and into the next stage of his life.
And I wish that Matthew Perry had had decades more opportunities to work that uncomfortable sweet spot between mirth and melancholy that he played so well.