The Thinker

In Huff, Showtime’s new drama, Hank Azaria plays an overly introspective shrink.

Huff: To be or not to be

The gold standard of television is currently a dark, psychologically complex, profanity-laced drama, usually airing Sunday nights on HBO. For the past five years, shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood, with their A-list casts and literate scripts, have been siphoning off audiences (and Emmys) from the broadcast networks. Showtime, that other premium cable network, understandably wants a piece of the action; last year’s The L Word caught a wave of favorable publicity out of the gate, but it’s never become a water-cooler show. So it’s no surprise that Showtime is promoting the hell out of Huff, its newest one-hour drama about a depressed psychiatrist played by Hank Azaria (premiering Sunday, 10 p.m. ET). The show has already been picked up for a second season, and images of a buff and near-naked Azaria are ubiquitous on bus stops and in magazines everywhere.

Azaria plays Dr. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt, an L.A. psychiatrist with a problem you don’t often see in a TV hero: He thinks way too much. Huff is overeducated and guilt-ridden, given to introspection and Hamlet-like paralysis. When a tortured teenage patient commits suicide in Huff’s office, the doctor’s painstakingly arranged world begins to cave in on him. Not that Huff’s life wasn’t already complicated. His imperious mother, Izzy (played by Blythe Danner), who lives in a converted apartment above Huff’s garage, maintains an unhealthy closeness with her son: “I held him in my arms before you ever did,” she smugly reminds Huff’s wife, Beth, a sexy event planner (Paget Brewster). Beth’s version is blunter: “You never took your tit out of his mouth.” Huff’s 14-year-old son, Byrd (wonderfully played by young Anton Yelchin), is a sweet, sensitive kid, but he’s getting into some questionable hijinks with his school friends. (Episode 3 is titled “Lipstick on Your Panties.”) Finally, Huff’s best friend and attorney, Russell (Oliver Platt), is a charming basket case, addicted to drugs, booze, sex, food, pretty much anything in sight—during a “liver-cleansing” detox weekend, he even gets hooked on wheat-grass shakes.

Even when he’s off-duty, Huff is one of those born nurturing types, someone who can’t help but offer a sympathetic ear to anyone in need. He’s racked with guilt over his patient’s suicide, and, if that weren’t enough, the dead boy’s parents are now suing him for malpractice. The episode ends with a visit to Huff’s brother, Teddy (Andy Comeau), a schizophrenic who lives on a locked ward and who, ironically, is the one person Huff can relax and open up with.

Hank Azaria is an actor with talent to burn: His voice characterizations on The Simpsons (Apu, Moe the bartender, Chief Wiggum, Comic Book Guy), like his former role as Nat the nerdy dog-walker on Mad About You, are masterpieces of comic exaggeration. But stripped of his funny tics, Azaria seems as naked as his character on the promotional poster. He’s a quiet, inwardly focused actor, and while his performance grows on you (as does the show itself), I’m not sure whether he radiates the necessary magnetism to draw viewers in.

But at least one actor does. Oliver Platt’s Russell is to this series what Jeremy Piven’s Ari is to Entourage—the id-driven wild card, the shameless wheeler-dealer who bursts onto the screen in a whirlwind of comic energy, the one whose scenes you find yourself looking forward to. Platt’s lines aren’t any funnier than anyone else’s; it’s his whole being that’s funny. He’s a loveable tub of needs and cravings. In one subplot, Russell, unable to convince Huff to go out drinking on a Friday night, stays home and throws an impromptu Ecstasy-fueled party with the technicians who arrive to install his new TV. This sequence, in which we see both Russell’s fear of being alone and his boundless appetite for life, is as good as anything you could find on HBO. Alas, the other performances—and the writing—in Huff do not consistently rise to that level.

In the end, this show’s introspective bent may be too abstracted for some viewers. A depressed Mafia don is one thing, but how many people want to escape thoughts of the upcoming work week (the purpose, as far as I can tell, of Sunday night TV) by sharing the struggles of a depressed psychiatrist? Huff is no Sopranos or Six Feet Under, but it’s ambitious and quietly smart. I hope that, like Dr. Huffstodt’s patients, this show can find an audience that’s willing to lend a sympathetic ear.