The cast members of Friends have an interesting challenge: to transcend a massively successful, but middle-of-the-road sitcom, and to continue with a viable career. For David Schwimmer, that meant largely leaving TV and film for theater; for Jennifer Aniston, the most successful friend of the group, it meant remaking herself as a rom-com queen to take Meg Ryan’s place (and fulfilling the promise that the appealing Katherine Heigel failed to live up to); Courtney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and Lisa Kudrow all turned to television with mixed results (LeBlanc, in particular, unable to shake off the ghost of Joey Tribianni, tried his hand at spin-off fame with the woeful Joey, which was supposed to be Frasier, but ended up being Joanie Loves Chachi). So where does Kudrow fit in? Well, she was always arguably the most talented actor of the bunch – the strongest comedian, and the most resourceful thespian, boasting a background with the Grouldings, and almost landing Saturday Night Live. I suspect she also might be the smartest of the group, with a BA in biology from Vassar in her back pocket, which may sometimes come in handy when she’s putting together the stories for her Showtime show Web Therapy, a brilliant, biting sitcom based on Kudrow’s Internet show of the same name.
The premise of Web Therapy is pretty simple: Fiona Wallice (Kudrow) is a self-proclaimed therapist who creates a format in which she has sessions with clients for three minutes, claiming that she can get to the root of the issue in that short amount of time. Only someone with a perverse sense of entitlement and self-delusion would think such a thing: and Fiona is that someone. She’s an acrid mixture of an inflated ego, impatience with others, a mile-wide cruel streak, and an abominable ruthlessness that she unleashes on her victims if she needs to move forward.
The Web-based original is solely the 3-minute sessions, but the sitcom expands the story lines – in the last season, Fiona found out her husband, Kip (Victor Garber) was a closeted homosexual. She was going to leave him for a mogul (Alan Cummings), who promised her a thriving media career as well as a dizzying romantic life, but their plans were scuttled when Kip announced he was running for Congress, asking Fiona to be his political wife.
This season’s main arc concerns itself with Kip’s political ambitions. Fiona tries to balance her therapy work with being a dutiful, supportive wife, while still nursing feelings for Cummings’ fabulously rich Austin. Jerome (Kudrow’s business partner Dan Bucatinsky, who is married to the show’s director, Don Roos) is back from the last season, as Fiona’s much-abused assistant. Lily Tomlin also appears as Fiona’s abusive and possibly demented mother, and the wonderful Jennifer Elise Cox returns as the deliriously ditzy Gina, who has a slavish devotion to Fiona. Kudrow also brings on some famous friends to guest star, including Schwimmer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Minnie Driver, Selma Blair, Rashida Jones, Rosie O’Donnell, Michael McDonald, and her fellow Vassar alumna, Meryl Streep. The level of skill each performer brings to the improvised show varies – Streep and Louis-Dreyfus are predictably excellent, while pop star Natasha Bedingfield doesn’t make as strong an impression.
Those who’ve followed the first season will know to expect that the comedy of Web Therapy is very mean. Fiona’s a monster, stepping over everyone to get her way. She has very little sympathy for her clients – a great episode that illustrates Fiona’s meanness is her cold-hearted and completely dismissive degradation of Conan O’Brien, who is reduced to explaining who he is to an oblivious Fiona, trying to convince her that he is, in fact, a famous and funny person. And she only becomes interested in him after she Googles him, and realizes she could reach a wide audience if she guests on his show. That’s how Fiona operates – she carefully dissects each person in her life, trying to see if there is anything beneficial for her if she chooses to pursue a relationship with that person.
The main plot line has Kip running for Congress, while trying to hid his homosexuality; a neat skewering of all those conservative, anti-gay Republicans who are found out to be gay. Streep has a multi-episode arc as an ex-gay therapist. In light of Exodus closing its doors, it’s interesting to see ex-gay therapy lampooned. On Web Therapy ex-gay therapy isn’t so much dangerous or damaging, but just a big ole racket.
But it’s the savage treatment of proponents (and clients) of ex-gay therapy that makes Web Therapy such an interesting show. There’s very little sentiment in this show – and no one is sympathetic, least of all the anti-heroine of the show (and actually, I hesitate calling her an anti-heroine, as her behavior is often villain-like). All of this could make for some unpleasant TV viewing – and a lot of the show is very cringe-inducing. But the cruelty is also what makes Web Therapy such an entertaining show. Like the UK version of The Office, Web Therapy mines its humor from uncomfortable and disastrous situations – it gives audiences permission to laugh at horrible people who do terrible things to each other. It’s a testament to Lisa Kudrow that she seems uninterested in being likable and lovable – it shows just how brave of a comedienne she is.