TV flags are flying at half-staff today, with the news that Matthew Perry died on Saturday. The influence and persistence of “Friends” is hard to overstate, and Perry’s nimble, endearing performance as Chandler Bing is tattooed on the hearts and brains of anyone who watched TV in the 1990s.
The show’s continuing ubiquity makes Perry’s death more galling somehow — don’t certain stars achieve immortality through streaming and syndication? How disorienting and unjust for time to spin forward, especially when one can encounter a debate about Ross’s inadequacies or a Lego tribute to the Central Perk coffee shop as easily today as 25 years ago. More easily, probably.
Perry was not the kind of actor who disappeared into a role but rather where the role disappeared into him. His characters are charming, with a bite; fast, eager. And what comes through most strongly in his comic and dramatic performances alike is that he was a sparring partner par excellence — practically bouncing on his tiptoes, brought in to firm up and sharpen everyone’s game.
This is never more clear than in “The West Wing,” where Perry appears in three episodes as Joe Quincy, a clever lawyer. His arc on “West Wing” aired right around the same time as the final few episodes of “Friends,” and it modeled the kind of role we’d frequently see him in after Chandler: a fascinating, intelligent, perhaps lovable adversary.
Perry tightens Chandler’s amiable glibness into a prickly antagonism, going toe-to-toe with the combative and insecure hero, Josh (Bradley Whitford). Joe is not just smart, he’s tricky — but ethical, which in an Aaron Sorkin story makes him a holy figure. “The West Wing” is a rhythmic show, and its banter has a reliable, specific cadence. Perry slyly breaks that tempo: As Josh volleys awkward small-talk questions, Joe takes his time returning the ball, offering only a few terse “yes”es. This tilts the power toward him in the conversation — like he’s tripping us and catching us in the same gesture.
Indeed, the whole dramatic climax of Season 4 hinges on Joe’s palpable intelligence. It’s Joe who realizes that the vice president, John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), has been leaking information to his mistress, Joe who orchestrates proof of that transgression, Joe who gravely advises him that the next step is to talk to his family. There are many smart regular characters on “The West Wing,” and much is made of everyone’s deductive reasoning — but it is Perry who is brought in for this blow, to one-up our regular crew.
“Pinch hitting” is sometimes misunderstood to just mean “substitute,” but that misses a key aspect of baseball: You don’t just swap for swapping’s sake. You put someone in to pinch hit because they will do a better job than the starting batter in a given situation. Perry was a pinch-hitter in “The West Wing.” He’s also a pinch-hitter in “The Good Wife,” where again he plays a clever lawyer.
But in “The Good Wife,” and later as the same character in “The Good Fight,” Perry’s character is more of a villain — untrustworthy, vicious, unpredictable. Again, there are lots of characters that describes on “The Good Wife,” but it is Perry’s Mike Kresteva whose aggressive political tactics send Alicia (Julianna Margulies) back to her estranged husband. We know that husband, Peter (Chris Noth), runs hot — but it’s Kresteva he punches in the face.
Perry’s bobbing and weaving on “The Good Wife” is charged with spectacular little choices. When he badgers Alicia, Mike blinks and blinks and blinks, a subtle but effective lure. Is that aggression or fear? With Diane (Christine Baranski), that’s dialed way back; with Peter, there is animal kingdom-level chest puffery. (I’ll just throw in here that if you have never watched “The Good Wife” or “Fight,” they are very good shows! Man oh man.)
Perry’s push-pull is not always hostile and mean, though. In “Go On,” an underrated grief-support-group comedy that aired its one season in 2012-13, it’s hostile and comedic — blustery posturing, not dangerous scheming. And it’s distinct from Chandler’s playful sarcasm; in “Go On,” Perry’s Ryan is a high-status sports radio host and recent widower who believes he’s kind of better than everyone, as opposed to Chandler, who believes he’s kind of worse.
In “Go On,” Ryan’s dynamic with Lauren (Laura Benanti), the leader of the therapy group, is defined by sharp, resentful bickering as he resists delving into his grief. But over the course of the season, we see him slowing and softening with Anne (Julie White). Again, it’s Perry’s tiny toying with pace that perks up your ears, the conductor calling for a ritardando as a way to refocus the musicians who aren’t watching him.
I have not seen a single spider since 1997 and not heard in my head Perry’s voice saying “Phil Spiderman,” nor have I shaken a bracelet on my wrist without picturing an agitated Chandler doing the same. There’s only one Chandler. But there were many Matthew Perry performances, and the fact that there won’t be more is a real loss.