Analyzing the stuff of 'Huff'

Times Staff Writer

It's immediately apparent that the Huffstodts of "Huff," the richly curious new Sunday night series on the pay-cable network Showtime, live somewhere on the Westside of Los Angeles. You don't know where, exactly, but based on asides from various characters, the home's location is convenient to Shutters in Santa Monica but also far enough from Century City that you can't hope to get there in seven minutes.

Brentwood? The Palisades? Finally a character clears it up: Brentwood. By then, I was dwelling on this issue of the home's location because it seemed to reflect something about the show as a whole, which also doesn't know exactly where it is. If the most overly praised TV dramas hit you over the head with their stiff coherence, "Huff" goes the other way, sketching in a world that is suggestively there but not quite, and swinging at big "Angels in America"-type themes more often than nailing them.

This amounts to high praise compared with most of television. "Huff" can be affecting, and to its credit it aims to observe the broken qualities of contemporary life without smothering you with dark neurosis, like HBO's brittle "Six Feet Under," a show to which "Huff" is bound to earn comparisons.

The series, created by Bob Lowry, his first such credit after working on the Lifetime drama "Any Day Now," stars Hank Azaria as Dr. Craig Huffstodt, or "Huff," as he's called by everyone who isn't paying him by the hour. Huff's a psychiatrist (this means he can prescribe medications, as opposed to a psychotherapist, who cannot).

At home, he has a party-planner wife, Beth (Paget Brewster, wearing an ever-changing wardrobe of little nightie get-ups), a tender, brainy son, Byrd (Anton Yelchin), and a haughty, passive-aggressive mother, Izzy (Blythe Danner), who, moved into the guesthouse from the old-money family home in Pasadena after the breakup of her marriage to Huff's father.

Huff's house is big, pretty and Craftsman-like, but the wealth here, and the abundance of good taste, is barely there as a suggestion. He is never caught in traffic or in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf line or subject to any of the other vagaries of life on the Westside of Los Angeles. In this way, "Huff" is both exceedingly pleasing to look at and hard to place. Mostly, I find myself trying to figure out its milieu. Huff and his wife seem not to be part of a social circle. Huff is a shrink, but he moves about the city like an agent, talking on his cellphone and ogling women and eating in restaurants where you know, if the menu features a burger, it's made of Kobe beef.

I'm not saying shrinks don't eat expensive hamburgers or ogle women or for that matter don't have nice houses or wives who wear different things to bed each night. I'm saying "Huff" doesn't lock you into a world whose internal rules are immediately coherent. Having watched eight hours of it, eagerly sometimes, I still don't know quite what it's about or, more important, where it's about, in the way that "The Sopranos" so convincingly conveys its sense of place and people -- mobsters and nouveau riche Italians in suburban New Jersey.

The tagline for the series -- "Life. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of it" -- suggests that it's about a midlife crisis. Azaria, an actor best known for comedic voices on "The Simpsons" and character parts in movies including "Shattered Glass," is a great comedian, but like other great comedians there's no discernible center when he lacks a mask. Azaria wears Huff's midlife malaise with subtlety, but he doesn't really make this part pop.

It's Oliver Platt as Huff's power lawyer and friend, Russell Tupper, who steals the show repeatedly, providing comic -- and dramatic -- relief. He's the show's anarchic life force, what can make it special.

When first we see him, he's having lunch with Huff, ordering a second martini and explaining how a client's sexual-harassment case is based on the fact that she wasn't harassed in the workplace and should have been. Unlike Huff's midlife crisis, Russell's involves a lot of drugs, booze and sex -- with hookers, with waitresses, with the chicks who deliver his new plasma TV. Really, it's a pretty enlightened potpourri.

Platt is an actor who's long seemed better than the material he gets. On "Huff," it feels a bit like he's wandered in from another movie, but then Platt has always had the barrel-chested look and malleable facial qualities of a comedic actor from the 1940s. He's easily the best thing about the series' initial episodes, repeatedly hoisting the show on his shoulders and taking it to truly risky places.

Movies and TV about shrinks often go for black comedy, and Huff has some of that. How could it not? Huff has a client list that begins at a gay suicidal teenager and ends at a guy wearing a colostomy bag, with a psycho stalker in between. The psycho stalker is played by Lara Flynn Boyle. That's the good news. The bad news, for Huff, is that she's a sex object in his fantasy life, which is also varied enough to include a homeless Hungarian composer who appears to Huff in public places, doing a number on his liberal guilt.

"Huff," the show, posits that helping other people is the right thing to do, but it also shows that too often that just means having the will to live sucked out of you. It also challenges the current secular religion that insists exploring your feelings is some unerring path to enlightenment. In the pilot, the gay suicidal teen blows his brains out in Huff's office after following Huff's suggestion that he come out to his parents. Huff goes into a functional tailspin, continuing to see clients, continuing to live his life -- continuing, in other words, to allow the people in his life to bleed him dry.

"I don't know if I can do what I do anymore," Huff tells his schizophrenic brother Teddy (Andy Comeau) in the final scene of the pilot. To change things, he knows, would mean to hurt the people closest to him. Visits to Teddy provide codas to various episodes -- the mentally ill sibling as the shrink's ultimate confessor. "Here I am," Huff tells him, "I've lived at least half my life probably, and everything leading up to this just feels like nothing now."

It's not easy to base a series on this feeling, particularly when it can look so much like rich-guy's ennui; on this score "Huff" succeeds where others have failed. There's something to the show, something novelistic, in fact. The show gives you big, often universal themes -- the messiness of family bonds, the muddled transactions between a therapist and his patients, the difficulty of navigating moral obligation -- along with the small, telling gestures of daily life. Now it just needs that middle thing: a sense of place, a way to tell us where we are, even when we don't know who we are.

*

'Huff'

Where: Showtime

When: 10-11 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-VL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for violence and coarse language)

Hank Azaria...Dr. Craig Huffstodt

Blythe Danner...Izzy Huffstodt

Oliver Platt...Russell Tupper

Paget Brewster...Beth Huffstodt

Anton Yelchin...Byrd Huffstodt

Andy Comeau...Teddy Huffstodt

Executive producer and director Scott Winant. Executive producers Bob Lowry, Mike Newell. Writer Bob Lowry.

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