Photo Credit: Cliff Lipson/Showtime
I don’t know if I can do what I do anymore,” says the psychiatrist to the lawyer in the first of thirteen winsome episodes of Huff. And worse yet: “I’m tired of listening.” The frazzled, 42-year-old shrink Dr. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt is played by Hank Azaria, a shrewd bit of casting. Most of us would probably like a Hank Azaria around to confide in, if not as a psychiatrist then maybe as an older brother, or an Army buddy, or a Little League coach. He is guileless, so sincere that he’s practically transparent, and what you see is what you get—intelligence, decency, exasperation, bewilderment, and pain. His problem is that all of a sudden he can’t stand to be around himself.
Some of this is played for laughs, as Huff tiptoes between pitfalls and punch lines. What we have here is a standard-issue midlife crisis, vocational rather than marital, in standard-issue upper-income Los Angeles, an oversafe place where the tops are always down on the convertibles. Huff has a party-planner wife (Paget Brewster), a nerdy teenage son (Anton Yelchin), an interfering live-in mother (Blythe Danner), and a best-friend attorney (Oliver Platt) who picks up hookers at liquor stores so that they can tie him down. Outside such a picture window, wisecracks grow on walnut trees. “What’s the worst he’s going to do?” asks Huff when his son wants to go to a party. “Fix somebody’s computer?” And when a drama-queen patient threatens to sue him, he responds in kind and threatens to commit her. While this can’t be what Buddhists mean by reciprocity, it is funny.
But the midlife crisis isn’t. Executive producer Bob Lowry is obviously interested in the moral imagination. He cut his teeth on series like NBC’s Profiler, where Ally Walker went home to a little girl after reading the minds of serial killers, and Lifetime’s Any Day Now, where Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint tried one-on-one to repair American race relations. He asks us to live for a bit in Joan Didion’s mall culture of migraines, Mansons, and bloody butter on a crust of dread. At Huff’s encouragement, a troubled young patient comes out of the closet to his father, who then tells him he’d be better off dead. And so, in Huff’s office, the boy shoots himself, after which his parents sue for malpractice. And while Huff is indignant, he also feels guilty. It’s not his fault, but someone somewhere must assume responsibility for something. Welcome to the abyss.
What makes the several hours of Huff I’ve seen so absorbing, besides the fact that accountability is genuinely worth worrying about, is that almost everybody tries hard and means well. Brewster’s Beth is not only screwball-supportive but bubble-bath-sexy. Yelchin’s Byrd loves his father, sure, but also respects him, which is unheard of on TV. Platt’s Russell may be a train wreck of substance abuses and libidinal cathexes, but he comes through when sober. Even Danner’s Izzy, an ice queen of malice living over the garage, has an alibi for some of the messy past. Pay close attention too to Jack Laufer as the homeless Mad Hungarian and Andy Comeau as Huff’s brother, Teddy, a violent offender locked up in a mental home, whom Huff consults at the end of every hour as if to confess to a priest or beseech a sage.
I am struck again by how much kinder television is to shrinks than films and novels are, from Bob Newhart’s therapy group to Allan Arbus on M*A*S*H to Elliott Gould in Sessions to Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, Kelsey Grammer as Frasier, and Dr. Katz in Squigglevision. Briefly, with Peter Strauss as Moloney on CBS, I thought a series might really try to solve social problems with creative nonviolence. Just as briefly, Wonderland came and went on ABC—a handheld inquiry into the nature of madness and mercy and the politics of justice in a big-city psych ward. It’s an intimate medium, the small screen, and so maybe predisposed to believe, like a Freudian, that most of our ogres live at home, under the bed, instead of outside in the awful weathers of politics and history. But where else does anyone these days feel guilty about anything?
Showtime is marketing the heck out of Huff—smart move, considering that the cable channel signed on for a second season months before the pilot even aired. In ads, Hank Azaria is buck naked on a busy street (tagline: “Life. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of it”). It’s part of Showtime’s bid for HBO-ish cred, with projects in the pipeline from Hate (about a hate-crimes unit, starring Marcia Gay Harden) to The Cell (a terrorists’-eye drama) to a series starring indie New York writer Jonathan Ames. Still, there’s a limit to edge, at least typographically: The series was originally titled—no typo—!Huff.
Sunday, November 7, 10 P.M.