This fall, NBC is hoping to prove to viewers that a grief and loss comedy is no oxymoron. But the pilot episode of Go On, a half-hour comedy-drama series featuring funnyman Matthew Perry, has already caused more than a few jaws to drop within the counseling profession.
Perry plays Ryan King, a self-absorbed sports radio host with a sense of humor unmistakably reminiscent of Perry’s character on the hit show Friends. When King is unable to cope with the sudden death of his wife, corporate entities at the radio station demand his attendance at 10 group therapy sessions to confront his grief and, perhaps less nobly, eliminate their own liability in his job performance.
Mirroring the perceptions of many of those mandated to counseling, King arrives reluctantly at the local community center for the Life Transitions therapy group. “In addition, he is entering an already-existing group where the norms and rules are already agreed upon by the group members and a group dynamic has been established among the group membership,” explains Alicia Homrich, president-elect of the Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW), a division of the American Counseling Association.
Despite his skepticism, King remains ready to engage his quick-witted sarcasm as a defense against the culturally stereotyped and socially awkward group members who are there to greet him. “I think this is kind of dumb,” King admits, echoing the opinion of many skeptics. “The talking, the wallowing. It keeps you from getting on with your life.”
Also eager to divert attention from his own loss, King proceeds to hijack his very first group session. “His distracting technique is to create a game show contest,” Homrich says, “where members tell their stories and are rewarded with ranking by virtue of brevity and severity — he being the only judge. In doing so, he negates the universality of the group members’ experiences, a critical component in a topic-focused group.”
Though hardly a model of the grief and the group processes, Go On certainly provides a bit of fodder for the counseling ethics classroom. “I had my students critique the show, and we had a very lively discussion in our group class,” says Niloufer Merchant, professor at St. Cloud State University and former ASGW president. “The show, while attempting to demonstrate group therapy for those dealing with ‘transition’ issues, unfortunately violates many of the basic standards and ethical practices for conducting effective groups.”
Confidentiality, multicultural sensitivity and client-counselor boundaries are just a few of the ethical standards that are abandoned for a few laughs as group members fail to communicate but succeed quite well in illustrating their own absurdities. “Because counseling and therapy, and particularly groups, are often shown in the media in such a misleading, albeit humorous way that reinforces stereotypes, the public may be reluctant to utilize such services,” says Sheri Bauman, director of the University of Arizona’s counseling and mental health program. “This is a disservice to the many people who could [benefit] from counseling.”
Perhaps the most culpable member in the process is the group’s leader. Lauren Schneider, an attractive, Kübler-Ross quoting young woman, defends her lack of a therapeutic license with a decade’s worth of Weight Watchers experience and the self-proclaimed gift of “giving people what they need.”
“The viewer is left with the impression that anyone without appropriate training can lead groups, not to mention ‘therapy’ groups with members dealing with serious losses and issues in their lives,” Merchant says, referring to Schneider’s role in the show. Schneider’s nonverbal connections with King and willingness to abandon boundaries and to self-disclose leave the viewer wondering whether she might serve as a love interest. It also further complicates the show’s tenuous grasp on any sense of ethics.
Nevertheless, snippets of reality briefly emerge amid the show’s irreverence. Following his resistance to unmask the anger accompanying his grief, King suddenly finds himself hurling a fruit-filled condolence basket at an athlete who is texting and driving, which was the cause of King’s wife’s death. This explosion proves pivotal in his decision to open up to the group; yet, once again, the spark of a truly resonating moment is immediately snuffed out by comedic intent.
Possibly the truest representation of a group member can be found in Owen, a silent young man who conceals his loss until he opens up to King. “There is often a silent member, and it is not usual that another member, rather than the leader, is able to reach that person,” Bauman says. “That is one of the great benefits of group — the ability to connect with someone who understands your experience.”
The reality that many of the show’s viewers may struggle to tease apart therapeutic fact from fiction remains a concern to many counseling professionals, who say they hope to see the group process honored in upcoming episodes. “They didn’t overly attack group work as a legitimate form of helping,” Homrich says. “There seemed to be respect for the helping profession and/or the dynamics of group work as useful in helping instead of pathologizing the other characters. This was refreshing, and I hope it continues.”
NBC has ordered 13 episodes for the series this fall. Whether these subtle truths about grief will grow in duration and depth remains to be seen. It is safe to say, however, that professionals who wish to watch unscathed should leave their respective codes of ethics at the door.
Go On will air on NBC on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 9 p.m. EST. The pilot episode is available for viewers on nbc.com.
Kathleen Smith is a doctoral student in counseling at George Washington University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.