Of all the “Friends” alumni, Lisa Kudrow has certainly had the most interesting career. In the seven years since the show ended, Kudrow had done film roles, a star turn in the fabulous and tragically short-lived series “The Comeback,” and executive produced the American version of the popular British show “Who Do You Think You Are?” Three years ago, she even ventured into the brave new world of webisodes, with” Web Therapy,” a semi-improvised series in which Fiona Wallice (Kudrow), Wharton grad turned “therapist,” sees her patients via three-minute video chats. Because who needs to sit through a 50-minute hour listening to patients natter on about their dreams and feelings?
Innovative and hilarious, “Web Therapy” was clearly a labor of love by creators Kudrow, Don Roos and Dan Bucatinsky. Kudrow has worked with writer/director Roos and partner Bucatinsky (who also stars in “Web Therapy”) on several films and they all share the same fine ear, and eye, for the absurd, as well as the nerves of steel required by improv. Running from four to 11 minutes, each episode provided a perfect showcase for Kudrow’s deadpan talents and drew a panoply of characters played by stars including Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Alan Cumming, Phylicia Rashad, Meryl Streep and (of course) Courteney Cox.
Now Showtime has scooped up the series and stitched the episodes together into a half-hour comedy of the same name. Though hamstrung by its format as most early hybrids of any sort tend to be, “Web Therapy” retains much of its sting and most of its comedy. The small-screen format remains — we only see the characters as they interact with Fiona through computer screens — but Fiona’s back story is more clearly drawn. Though he is only referred to in the Web series, Fiona’s husband Kip (Victor Garber) is introduced early on, as is her nightmarish mother, played, because the gods were smiling that day, by Lily Tomlin.
The notion of a therapist who is clearly more troubled than his or her patients is as old as talk therapy itself, and has been mined repeatedly on the large screen and small, with both comedic and dramatic result — HBO’s “In Treatment” and Starz’s “Head Case” are the two most recent. Though “Web Therapy” owes a lot to “Head Case,” which featured Alexandra Wentworth as Dr. Elizabeth Goode, another narcissistic, insensitive shrink, “Web Therapy” takes the premise one step further — Fiona is much more interested in leveraging her new “modality” than even pretending to be a therapist. She is all medium and no message.
Although there are many laughs to be had in the new format — watching Kudrow and Lynch go head to head works in any genre — in making the move to TV, the creators had to choose between the lesser of the two evils. A more traditional, and less interesting, show would follow Fiona through her daily life, which would include but not be defined by her Web therapy practice.
This might have cut down on some of the airlessness caused by bringing a Web show to TV, but it would have been a sellout. As it is, some of the sharpness, the performance-art humor of the Web series is lost in translation, but even in the new form, it remains something remarkable, if not revolutionary, anchored by Kudrow, who is not so much inhabiting a character but an ethos — the self-help movement by way of Merrill Lynch and YouTube, with outtakes thrown in at the end for good measure.
Not surprisingly, the outtakes are just as funny as the show.