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After his other TV characters flop, Matthew Perry tries ‘a nicer guy’

Go On - SeasPilot

Go On - Season Pilot

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‘GO ON’ ★★

Commercial-free sneak peek 10 p.m. Wednesday on WMAQ-Channel 5; series premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 11.

Updated: August 5, 2013 8:07PM

After several failed attempts at a small-screen comeback, former “Friends” star Matthew Perry thinks he’s finally figured out what audiences want.

They want him to be nice. A guy who’s well-intentioned but struggling. A guy you can root for. A guy like Ryan King, the recently widowed sports talk radio host Perry plays in “Go On.” NBC is capitalizing on its Olympics audience to air a commercial-free sneak peek of its new fall sitcom at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WMAQ-Channel 5.

In “Go On,” Perry’s character is eager to get back to work after his wife’s death. He reluctantly agrees to follow his boss’ orders and join a support group for people going through “life change.”

“I relate to it in real life, this journey of sort of a bent or broken person who’s trying to be better,” Perry said. “Those are the most interesting people.”

Since “Friends” ended its uber-successful run in 2004, Perry has dabbled in both comedy and drama, including a recurring role this year on “The Good Wife.” He starred in Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived dramedy “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” His low-rated sitcom “Mr. Sunshine” went dark after one season. His Showtime series “The End of Steve” didn’t even make it on the air.

“In my efforts to have a TV show and come back, the characters have progressively gotten nicer,” Perry said. “The Showtime show was about a terrible guy. I thought it was genius and everybody went, ‘Hee-hee, I don’t want to watch that.’ And then, ‘Mr. Sunshine,’ he was sort of down and out. Now this guy, he’s a nicer, more well-intended guy.”

Perry’s persona in “Go On,” a show from “Friends” writer-producer Scott Silveri, has the strongest echoes of Chandler Bing and his trademark sarcasm.

Trying to avoid the pain of his loss, Perry’s character is jonesing to get back in the radio studio and talk sports. His concerned boss, “Harold & Kumar’s” John Cho, tells him he can only return after attending 10 group therapy sessions.

The group, led by a woman who’s bound to be Perry’s love interest (Laura Benanti, “The Playboy Club”), is populated with a predictable and somewhat cartoonish assortment of odd balls and misfits. One lady has lost her cat; another, her same-sex partner. A man’s brother languishes in a coma. In the funniest scene in the pilot, Perry’s sports-minded character ranks their respective plights and assigns them to brackets, a la March Sadness.

The therapy group includes former Chicagoan Suzy Nakamura (“Dodgeball”) as Yolanda, a socially awkward Type-A personality.

“It really feels like an ensemble,” said Nakamura, who began her career in Second City’s touring company before moving to L.A. “That’s a word thrown around a lot in Chicago, but it’s kind of rare out here.”

We’re not sure why Highland Park native Brett Gelman’s character, resident weirdo Mr. K, is in the group. He’s so strange, no one wants to ask.

Gelman said “Go On” is “more moving” than your typical TV comedy.

“A lot of people are going through hard times right now,” he said. “It’s great to see a bunch of people comedically deal with real-life issues like loss and struggle.”

It takes a deft hand to turn Debby Downer subjects like death and divorce into laughs, and “Go On” fails as often as it succeeds. The pilot suffers from an identity crisis, straddling the fence between poignant comedy and eye-rolling farce. That same unevenness can be said of the widowed Ryan King, who’s shaping up to be more likable than credible.

“I’m back and better than ever!” Perry’s character triumphantly declares at the top of the show.

Wouldn’t that be nice? But at this point, only half of that sentence is true.

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