In Lisa Kudrow’s best roles, her face expresses with exquisite exactness the predicament of the high-functioning narcissist. Self-love makes her extremely attentive to her position vis-à-vis other people, and she operates in two basic modes, her face acting like a tuning fork that registers the shifts between them: cosseted and self-satisfied (her expression restful) when her interactions appear to verify her self-image, and affronted and alarmed (her features in perpetual motion) when they don’t. In other words, Kudrow does what we all do, but at a much higher pitch.
Web Therapy’s scenario—composed of Skype chats between Kudrow’s Fiona Wallice, an upper-middle-class therapist in her mid 40s, and the people who populate her world—performs a purifying function. We’re not distracted by wide-panning shots of a city or people walking, or by skillful cuts between scenes; instead we get 28 minutes of straight conversations, which allows us to measure, and to watch Kudrow measuring, Fiona’s changing position.
What makes the series so engaging is that, aside from the overstated self-references and yuppie tics, Fiona’s essentially relatable. She’s intelligent, selectively aware, and assiduous in pursuit of her own interests. This is more than can be said for the people she interacts with, most of whom have spun perilously out of mainstream society’s orbit and are operating based on the internal logic of their selective domains. Nonetheless, and this is the funny part, they exert a powerful effect on Fiona based on whether they’re succeeding or failing in the world. She’s mostly able to outmaneuver these personalities, avoiding romantic rejection, professional disloyalty, and even criminal charges by playing on their egos and insecurities. When matters tend to go wrong for her is when her schemes end up benefiting someone else in a ludicrously overstated way. Then her face twists in discomfort and unhappiness as she realizes that somehow, though she’s not quite sure, someone less intrinsically deserving than her has struck gold.
Season three provides a frequently amusing but cursorily developed spectrum of characters for Fiona to rebound off of, as she sorts through the detritus created by various implosions at the end of the second season. Her husband, Kip (Victor Garber), a Republican politician, has run off with his male campaign manager, Ben (Michael McDonald). More interesting is Jackson Pickett (Steve Carell), a new-age spiritual healer/salesman who has a one-night tryst with Fiona and then pursues her, serenely matching her aloof rejections with diagnoses that she’s emotionally damaged. Jackson seems kookily solicitous, but by the time he’s quietly recommending to Fiona that she solve her emotional problems with a mood-changing machine, the smile seems a little more unhinged: Suddenly a techno-utopian loon surfaces beneath the beard.
Rather than evolving into the startlingly warped personalities the characters sketches suggest, Kip and Jackson are ultimately obvious and dismissible quantities (Kip is henpecked, Jackson’s a fraud). Of more immediate concern to Fiona is Franny Marshall (Megan Mullally), a perpetually drunk Broadway lyricist/composer who writes inane, unavoidably memorable pieces, and who’s crafting a musical in which the villainous main character is based on Fiona. (Franny’s favorite song so far has the refrain, “Fiona, Fiona, why are you so fat?”) But Franny’s too extreme to escape from caricature.
Season three remains a successful one, however, because Kudrow’s sallies and responses are where the payoff lies. When things go well for her, she feels comfortable that the world has affirmed her rightful place in it; when they go wrong, she’s fully aware that things are amiss, even if she’s hazy as to the reason; and when she sees an opportunity to set things right for herself, she does so instinctively and without remorse. Fiona’s not one to analyze situations too intensely; hers are Pavlovian reactions, deployed in a bare-knuckle fight for self-image waged from a posh New York office over the Skype waves. If she subjected herself to more analysis of the type she’s supposed to be doling out, Fiona might be more stable, less moody, and possibly happier. But she’d also probably be a less effective, and much less funny, character.