Lisa Kudrow’s “Web Therapy” is a bold, interesting TV experiment (that doesn’t quite work)

 
 


Kudrow, BuCantinsky

It’s hard not to be impressed by Lisa Kudrow. While Jennifer Aniston took the fame she earned from the sitcom Friends and tried to turn it into leading lady success (resulting in a string of generic, mostly horrible movies in the process), Kudrow went the exact opposite direction: churning out a string of quirky, labor-of-love projects, some of which are fantastic, especially her roles in the terrific indie movies Easy A and The Opposite of Sex, as well as the way-ahead-of-its-time reality TV satire, The Comeback, on HBO in 2005.

Many of these projects were done in association with her long-time collaborators writer-director Don Roos and actor Dan Bucatinsky, who happen to be partners. It’s a very talented triad that our own Rantasmo calls the Bukudroos Synergistic Triangle, and it almost always results in artistic success.

In 2008, Kudrow, Roos, and Bucatinsky premiered a grand online experiment called Web Therapy. In a series of short webisodes, the web series told the story of a deluded, self-important therapist named Fiona Wallice (Kudrow) who was pioneering a new form of therapy, “web therapy,” which claimed to solve people’s problems in three minutes — all done via web chat from the privacy of your own home computer.

The series was improvised, usually from a loose outline. And since most of the “patients” were played by famous guest stars (and friends of Kudrow) like Courteney Cox and Meryl Streep, the series did have something of a voyeuristic fascination: just how funny is Julie Louis-Dreyfus without a script? (Pretty funny, it turns out.)

The web series’ appeal was that it had a feeling that it was just a bunch of famous friends getting together and having a good time (and not really caring too much about the final product). Like all improvisation, the resulting webisodes were very hit-and-miss. And even the “hit” ones weren’t wholly satisfying: much of the banter ended up going nowhere (again, like all improvisation).

As a result, I was a little surprised when Showtime announced last year that they were turning the web series into a 30-minute sitcom. It’s not just that the show was so hit-and-miss; it was also that Web Therapy was so specifically suited to online, I had a hard time imagining how they could possibly turn it into an actual television series.

Turns out, they didn’t really try. Each of Showtime’s episodes, four of which were provided to AfterElton.com for review, is basically just a series of web therapy sessions — none of the “self-important blather than occupies a 50-minute session,” in the words of Fiona.

Yes, the show has more of a “story arc”: the show is a reboot — none of the events of the web series have happened (yet) — and Fiona is trying to get funding for her “new treatment modality” and new clients as well (Fiona charges $25 per three-minute session, and her business plan calls for her to be paid $150,000 a year). And there are hints that Fiona’s husband Kip may turn out to be gay (Spolier alert: as he does in the web series)

As before, Kudrow’s Fiona Wallice is an impressive character creation. Very much like Valerie Cherish on The Comeback (maybe too much), Fiona sees herself as a decent, honorable person who has an extremely high opinion of herself and her abilities, and she assumes that most men are madly in love with her. But the reoccurring joke of the show is that she’s really quite clueless, and everyone around her hates and ridicules her.

So how is the TV series? Once again, it feels very much like a group of famous friends getting together to have a fun time, and that’s both the series’ strength and its weakness.

On one hand, Kudrow and Roos have lined up an impressive array of series “regulars,” including Victor Garber (Alias), Maulik Pancholy (Weeds, 30 Rock), Jennifer Elise Cox (Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie), and Bucantinsky himself.

But frankly, a few chuckles aside, the sparks don’t really fly until the big-time guest stars show up. Jane Lynch (in the fourth episode) plays a business executive so busy she wears a colostomy bag, and she’s laugh-out-loud funny, as is Lily Tomlin (in the third episode, and also future episodes), guesting as Fiona’s mother, Putsy Hodge, ad-libbing droll one-liners like, “It’s not really your fault that you weren’t appealing [as a baby].”

Most of the rest of the time, the show once again has that meandering, hit-or-miss feel, with lots of awkward pauses as the actors try to decide where to go next, what to do with the lines they’re feeding each other. It’s like they’re throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. The problem might even be compounded here, because the episodes are longer.

I hate to criticize the show too strongly — it’s impossible to deny that it’s something truly different, and I love that huge stars are basically taking big risks in the goal of being funny.

But the best I can say about the final product is that it’s bold and interesting — and it doesn’t quite work.

Web Therapy premieres Tuesday, July 19 at 11 p.m. on Showtime.

 
 

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