By Caryn James | James on Screens July 19, 2011 at 5:00AM
This is therapy as it ought to be: three minutes long, by web-cam so you don’t have to leave your house, dispensing with all that dead-end foolishness about “dreams and feelings.” Voila. You have what Fiona Wallice (created to perfection by Lisa Kudrow) calls in her mincingly precise voice “a new treatment modality.” If only it worked.
Web Therapy may not cure your damaged psyche, but the original series worked brilliantly on-line. Most on-line shows are content just be to alive, so it may seem trivial to call this the best web series yet, but it really is an ambitious, many-faceted gem. Now the show, which Kudrow and director Don Roos created in 2008, has been expanded and arrives on Showtime tonight.
I hate to say so, but more is less here. Expanded to a half hour from 10 minutes or so online, the television version can still be shrewdly funny, but the early episodes feel padded and the series is a less comfortable fit for TV.
Part of the inspired idea behind Web Therapy is the way it mocks both therapists and the its own web-based form. Fiona, who is entirely untrained in psychology, simply sets herself up as an expert on-line, with a close enough approximation of therapeutic babble to pass. (You may never look at In Treatment the same way again.) She is thoroughly self-deluded about her abilities, a near-relative of the egotistical Valerie Cherish in Kudrow’s now-cult one-season HBO series The Comeback.
The style was perfect for the web. We see only what a webcam does, sometimes with multiple windows on screen – as in Fiona’s video chat in the photo above, with Courtney Cox. And because each episode was short and unfussy, it was easy to bring in great guests to improvise from an outline by Kudrow, Roos and producer Dan Bucatinsky, often playing patients with outrageous problems that Fiona makes worse.
Bob Balaban plays a ringer sent to evaluate Fiona, who ends up having a major meltdown. Jane Lynch is a no-nonsense business manager who ends up trashing her own office and trying to blackmail Fiona. Courtney Cox is a psychic who has a lost her special powers. And Meryl Streep has a wickedly droll story arc as a sex therapist trying to straighten out Fiona’s ambiguously gay husband, Kip. Some guests run through several episodes, but the feeling is as quick and breezy as Fiona’s bubble-headed theories – and the satire and acting rich enough to sustain many viewings.
Many of those webisodes (including some with Balaban, Lynch and Cox) are repurposed in the 10-part Showtime version, with Fiona’s backstory built around them. But episodes 1 and 2 feel especially pedestrian as we learn about her background in the financial world, her marriage to Kip (Victor Garber) and her family history. Lily Tomlin is terrific as Fiona’s pearl-laden Boston Brahmin mother, who responds to her daughter’s claim that she never felt neglected as a child by saying, “You’re not perceptive and you never have been.” This explains a lot but the backstory feels crammed in; we didn’t really need an explanation. And the faux-computer screen that’s so natural on-line looks more gimmicky on TV.
The Showtime version becomes looser and easier in episodes 3 and 4 (nothing more was available in advance), but there’s still the feeling that a non-narrative structure is being stretched and flattened into a straight line. (One of the smart moves Rob Corddry made in taking Children's Hospital from the web to TV was expanding from 5 minutes to only 15, but then Adult Swim may be more flexible than Showtime.)
The best parts of Web Therapy are still those borrowed from the original series, and fortunately those episodes, and many more, are available on several sites, including YouTube, Hulu and LStudio.com where it originated. It turns out you can see the best of Web Therapy without TV.
Here's Showtime's short, entertaining trailer.
And here's one of the Streep webisodes you won't see during the Showtime season.