The worst piece of advice I ever received was from a well-intentioned but utterly misguided friend, who, in her effort to comfort me when I was down, told me that “feelings are just chemicals.” It’s the kind of thing you might expect to hear from Fiona Wallice, the pathologically insecure, slightly racist, and completely narcissistic psychotherapist played by Lisa Kudrow in the web-series-turned-Showtime-sitcom Web Therapy, which revolves around Fiona’s patented “new treatment modality” (upon hearing the phrase for the nth time, Fiona’s husband—played with admirable commitment by Victor Garber—begs her not to explain it again), where she treats patients via webcam in grueling three-minute sessions. Sadly, Kudrow is now responsible for not one, but two of the most gratingly unfunny TV characters ever.
Like The Comeback‘s Valerie Cherish, Fiona is shrill and robotic, only she seems even less human, with a bizarre affectation that’s like a cross between Estelle Parsons and Audrey Hepburn. Worse is that these traits, which might have worked in one supporting character (think Karen from Will & Grace or Susie Green from Curb Your Enthusiasm), bleed over to the rest of the cast; almost everyone is inexplicably shallow, competitive, and arrogant, the worst offender so far being Julie Claire’s Robin Griner, who signs up for therapy for no apparent reason other than to belittle Fiona. Lily Tomlin is forgettable as Fiona’s mother, Putsy Hodge; Jane Lynch is completely wasted, and not in the good way; and Bob Balaban manages to make an already unfunny joke about sexual abuse even more cringe-inducing. (It will be admittedly fascinating to see if Meryl Streep reprises her role from her online segments from last year, in which she and Kudrow engaged in an epic battle of wits—and mannerisms.)
Given that the show’s format doesn’t allow for very much in the way of cinematography or art direction, the often painful Web Therapy is almost completely reliant on its dialogue and acting, both of which frequently border on the kind of awkward improv and sophomoric humor that might induce chuckles in a drama class, but which has no business being broadcast on national television without some refinement. Mildly amusing in small doses online, the TV version of the show feels half-baked, a mishmash of previously seen segments from as early as 2008 and newly taped scenes pieced together in an attempt to create half-hour-long narrative arcs. Rather than fleshing out the concept and constructing a three-dimensional world for the characters, the writers are forced to rely on tricks to create a cohesive storyline outside of the web-chat format, like Fiona messaging her husband from downstairs or leaving her webcam on to keep herself company while she works.
There are, of course, moments in which Kudrow truly shines, like when her character compulsively denies a patient’s accusations that she tried to seduce him when they were colleagues at a law firm (never mind that she’s treating someone she knows—stratums of unethical behavior abound!). Web Therapy might have the potential to evolve into something genuinely funny, even interesting, if only the producers ditched the restrictive format, and if only Fiona developed into something more than a caricature. But by the sixth episode, it’s clear neither of those things is likely to happen. It’s not just that Kudrow has failed to find a vehicle for her comedic talents since Friends; it’s that the two-dimensional, often insufferable characters she’s created are largely to blame for the failure of those projects in the first place.