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A Hit-Or-Miss Improv: Showtime Transforms A Successful Web Series Into A Full Fledged Sitcom
on April 20, 2012
Post-"Friends," Lisa Kudrow has made a career out of playing unlikable, narcissistic women who are oblivious to anything that doesn't directly involve them. I guess everyone needs a specialty, and no one is better at mining the humor out of an awkward situation than the fearless Kudrow. Her talent seems to be to place her character in the most uncomfortable situation possible and then leave her there, suffering and unable to extricate herself with any dignity intact. Admittedly this type of humor is not for everyone, but some will know exactly what I mean. When Kudrow appeared in the cutting HBO series "The Comeback," viewers didn't know exactly what to make of it and it didn't survive past the first season. At the time, I chose not to watch it--but last year, I gave it another try and found it a brilliantly incisive satire. So I wasn't going to miss her Showtime series "Web Therapy." Originally created with her pal Dan Bucatinsky, the idea came to life as a number of short webisodes (and has aired for four seasons in that format). The Showtime series takes the same premise, with the same central character, and expands it into a full 30 minute program.
Kudrow plays Fiona Wallice, a psychotherapist experimenting with a new form of treatment. Instead of 50 minute traditional encounters, she's boiled down her sessions to three minute exchanges via the Internet. That way, she figures, they can cut out all the extraneous nonsense and quickly get to the heart of the matter. As expected, Kudrow is both dismissive and self-involved when dealing with both her patients and her loved ones. Each of the ten episodes within Season One has 3-4 computer interactions (few of the actors share actual scenes together in person). Some of these sequences are straightforward therapy, some involve her family, some involve her efforts to fund the new business, and some are more personal in nature. There is a continuing storyline throughout the season, but much of the material can stand alone.
Part of the show's hook is that it is improvisational in nature. The actors are coming to their roles without set scripts and that keeps things lively. Kudrow has backed herself with plenty of familiar faces including Bucatinsky (as an illicit romantic interest), Rashida Jones (his new fiancee), Victor Garber (Kudrow's husband), Lily Tomlin (her mother), Jennifer Elise Cox (a daffy co-conspirator) and guest stars like Jane Lynch, Courteney Cox, and Steven Weber. Everyone seems game to spar with Kudrow, but some are definitely more successful at the experiment than others. At times, I don't know that the expanded time format has added much to the show. The webisodes were so quick and lively that when something stalled, it was quickly over.
In truth, I'd classify "Web Therapy" as distinctly hit-or-miss. Some episodes, I laughed more at the outtakes than I did at the actual program. But when it hits, it really scores. Kudrow has fashioned Fiona Wallice into another terrific character, one that I definitely want to follow. It is coming back for a second season, so hopefully the kinks will get worked out a bit. "Web Therapy" may not be for everyone, but its painful brand of awkward humor may well be irresistible to some (myself included). A lot of promise, but not entirely cooked quite yet. KGHarris, 4/12.