Eons after “Friends,” Lisa Kudrow remains loyal to a crinkly-nosed style of deadpan irony that can be devastatingly funny. It can also be an acquired taste.
It’s been six years since Kudrow co-conceived and starred in HBO’s “The Comeback,” a meta-layered comedy built from the raw (fictional) footage of a reality show about a fading 1990s sitcom star named Valerie Cherish who gets a chance to star in a terrible new sitcom. In a world of too many self-indulgent shows about the TV business, “The Comeback” was a brief, golden achievement in awkwardness and managed to both deplore and celebrate Hollywood in a sharp way. I still miss it.
“Web Therapy,” which premieres Tuesday on Showtime, in many ways recaptures some of the same manipulative personality disorder that made “The Comeback” so rich. Here, Kudrow plays Fiona Wallice, a counselor who offers disastrously inappropriate talk therapy to her patients via live video Webcam.
With nary a credential to her name or degree on her wall, Fiona, who formerly worked at an investment firm, began accepting clients who came to her with various emotional crises. But she was bored by the standard one-hour session.
“They end up going on and on, about dreams and feelings and memories and past experiences that add up to a whole lot of nothing,” Fiona fumes. “I found the bulk of the help was done in three minutes.”
Thus is born what Fiona confidently markets as a “new treatment modality” — modality being a word she only just Googled. Now she’s a therapist who won’t listen in sessions that are finished in three minutes. Her put-upon husband, Kip (Victor Garber), sits still for a hypothetical trial session, in which he talks to the camera on his laptop and she responds to him via hers: “ [My wife] is needy, sexually,” he tells her.
“In that she’d like to try it out?” Fiona icily replies.
Awkwardness is everything to a show like this, designed to push the improvisational scenarios between Fiona and the unlucky people on the other end of the Skype exchange, until the viewer almost cannot bear to watch. That same awkwardness was what fueled “The Comeback”; both Valerie Cherish and Fiona Wallice exhibit the same resolute, grandiose and yet potentially fragile sense of self.
But while “Web Therapy” is certainly clever and occasionally funny, it lacks both the nerve and verve of “The Comeback.” With Fiona, Kudrow is playing a stupid, despicable person who is ruthless in her need to verbally abuse the people on her computer screen.
Directed by Don Roos (whose films include “The Opposite of Sex” and “Happy Endings”) and co-written by Kudrow, Roos and Dan Bucatinsky, the show is creatively constructed only around Webcam conversations — mostly through Fiona’s counseling sessions, but also in her encounters with other people.
Through these conversations, we learn that Fiona burned bridges at her investment banking job, yet continues a flirtatious affair with a former colleague. We learn that her marriage is a quiet disaster and that nobody really likes her. Everything that happens on “Web Therapy” must happen within the Webcam format, which takes some getting used to.
Many people are already used to it. “Web Therapy” has been showing for a couple of years in online webisodes — those niche and often vanguard little programs that everyone talks about and yet only a scattershot of fans ever collectively see.
“Web Therapy’s” transition to a half-hour TV show is fairly seamless, but also a little stiff. Sometimes, the only laugh-out-loud parts come during blooper outtakes at the credits. Kudrow and her co-stars cracking up is more funny than Fiona’s unpleasant therapy sessions.
Things noticeably improve a few episodes in, with an inviting array of cameo appearances. The ubiquitous Bob Balaban is delightful as a psychoanalyst hired to investigate Fiona’s shoddy qualifications; Lily Tomlin steals the show as Fiona’s cruel mother. Viewers should be willing to log on (or tune in) for a little more “Web Therapy” and see what it stirs up.
Future anthropologists may puzzle over our culture’s unending affection for awkwardness as a narrative ploy, whether it’s the blunt social awkwardness employed in a “Three’s Company” rerun or in the painfully awkward, post-modern misadventures of Larry David-esque Schlemiels.
Or there’s the ultimate in awkwardness: teenage girls. Following the well-trod path of Molly Ringwald’s “Sixteen Candles” and Claire Danes’s “My So-Called Life,” Ashley Rickards effortlessly manages to elevate the unfresh premise of MTV’s new Tuesday night comedy series, “Awkward,” to something that is tawdry yet honest. It’s even funny, which is a pleasant surprise from MTV, the maker of so many lame teen comedies that I’ve lost count.
As Jenna Hamilton, Rickards owes a bit of debt to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance 30 million years ago in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: Unromantically deflowered at summer camp by an indifferent popular boy (Beau Mirchoff) who refuses to speak to her in public, Jenna nevertheless has high hopes for sophomore year — until she slips and falls and winds up with her torso and arm in a cast (and her neck in a brace).
The rumor around school is that Jenna tried to kill herself, which, now owing a slight debt to Emma Stone in “Easy A,” gives Jenna a perverse sense of confidence and sarcasm that will remind viewers of Ellen Page’s “Juno.”
Gosh, that’s a lot of derivative teen-movie influences for a half-hour show. Yet the swift pacing and simplicity of “Awkward” remind us that awkwardness can still be freshly painful and funny material, so long as there are still teenagers and high schools.
(30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. on Showtime.
(30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. on MTV.