TV Picks: ‘Web Therapy,’ ‘NTSF:SD:SUV:,’ ‘Sinbad,’ Chinese blogs
“Web Therapy” (Showtime, Tuesdays). Lisa Kudrow’s Skype-framed talking-heads comedy, which began on the Web in 2008, embarks upon its third Showtime season this week. Created by Kudrow -- who plays online therapist Fiona Wallice, a character as far from Phoebe Buffay as might be imagined -- with Don Roos, who directs, and Dan Bucatinsky, who plays Fiona’s assistant, it’s a testament to what can be made from a low-overhead idea in able hands. There is a coherent ongoing narrative (crafted by the three creators, and improvised upon by the actors) that this year finds a manuscript Fiona has written being turned into a Broadway musical, while her mother -- played by Lily Tomlin, born to splash around in this pool -- is setting up a rival service, Net Therapy. The new season will include appearances by Steve Carell, Billy Crystal, Chelsea Handler, Megan Mullally, Sara Gilbert, Meg Ryan and Matt LeBlanc, who appears as an online gambling addict, bringing to three the number of “Friends” co-stars that have appeared on Kudrow’s show. (It’s up to you now, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston.) There is a sense of celebrity playtime (a growing modality in modern comedy) that recalls Alexandra Wentworth’s “Head Case” or, for that matter, “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” though in those shrink-coms the celebrities played themselves (or “themselves”). As Fiona, more distracted by her own problems than interested in those of her clients (or friends or relatives), Kudrow draws herself up and inward, pinching herself into a sort of tower of haughteur -- with whom we nevertheless sympathize: Those people are crazy.
“NTSF:SD:SUV::” and “Childrens Hospital” (Adult Swim, Thursdays). Mock-heroic cousin comedies split a TV half-hour with episodes that last roughly 11 minutes, or about the length of a cartoon. (Brevity = soul of wit.) Created by Paul Scheer (“Human Giant”), who also stars, “NTSF:SD:SUV::” (for “National Terrorist Strike Force: San Diego: Sport Utility Vehicle::”) parodies TV procedurals and action films; its roots are in “Get Smart!,” “The Naked Gun” and “Sledge Hammer,” but its heroes-as-idiots approach is completely consonant with the Adult Swim brand. In this third season, Karen Gillan, who was Amy Pond on “Doctor Who,” joins the cast (which already includes Martin Starr and Kate Mulgrew, barking orders like, “I want you to find everyone in the United States with the initials V.B.!”) as a tech expert. (Ed Helms plays the helpless “Robocop"-cyborg she amusedly tortures in at least one episode this season, possibly under the impression that he “can’t feel pain,” or possibly not.) In tonight’s premiere, “Comic-Con Air,” deadly conventioneers (one played by Summer Glau, “Firefly” fans, wearing glasses) get loose on a plane, occasioning lines such as “Get ready for your complimentary beat-down.” Rob Corddry’s “Childrens Hospital,” now in its fifth season, does the same thing to medical dramas, although in a weird framing device the actors also play actors who play the doctors. Its cast includes Lake Bell, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally -- weren’t we just talking about her? (we were) -- Henry Winkler, who is becoming the Fred Willard of his generation, and creator Corddry as a pediatrician in scary clown makeup, though that character might be dead. Maybe. Or maybe not. Or maybe a little of each. There will be a trip to Japan.
“High Tech, Low Life” (PBS, Monday). Steve Maing’s documentary film concerns two Chinese bloggers, working from disparate points of view to the same end. His heroes are the twentysomething Zhou Shuguang, who calls himself Zola, and the 57-year-old Zhang Shihe, a.k.a. Tiger Temple. Maing sets their tales on parallel tracks, as Zola on his motorbike and Tiger Temple on his bicycle travel the country, meeting people and recording them, posting stories that contradict the official picture and finally earn the wrath of the authorities. (Each manages surreptitiously to film their harassment.) But where Beijing resident Tiger Temple is a bit of an old hippie, dedicated to improving the lot of country people -- he is a believer in real, not enforced, community -- small-town kid Zola begins as an incidental muckraker, more interested in Internet celebrity as a way out of the conventional future his parents see for him; censorship is something that gets in his own way. It all connects, though, and in the course of the film he gains a little wisdom (and meets Tiger Trap). (In one scene, he watches a “Simpsons” cartoon, in which the family visits China, on his laptop: a sign in Tiananmen Square reads, “On This Site in 1989, Nothing Happened.”) All the while, Maing’s own camera captures the busy, rich and revealing life around them, with interested openness and visual intelligence -- a consistent quality of the films presented by “POV,” which has been rocking my summer weekly.
“Sinbad” (Syfy, Saturdays). In the good old Saturday spirit (and, indeed, scheduling) of Sam Raimi’s 20th-century “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena, Warrior Princess” and more lately of his “Legend of the Seeker” and the 2006 BBC “Robin Hood,” comes this British import about the well-known Arabian (or possibly Persian) sailor. He was the subject as well of a mid-'90s Canadian series, the “Hercules"-inspired “The Adventures of Sinbad,” whose take on the character and the milieu might be termed “excessively Caucasian”; our sense of racial aptness has evolved since then, along with the special effects. I make no claims of brilliance, but it doesn’t need them; neither cheap nor especially cheesy, it is just as diverting as it needs to be, with a (mostly) young, hot and multiracial cast, traveling about facing this challenge and that, like a medieval supernatural “Road Rules,” on a boat. The series was not a success, I might add; a second season was not commissioned. But we laugh at such trivial matters.
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