The Internet on television is a swamp of accidental emails and ridiculous viruses, so it’s all the more special to see a show that gets life on the web right. Awkward. moves at the pace of Twitter and, um, Gossip Girl at the very least derives from the lack of privacy cultivated by the Internet. Beyond that, there’s Web Therapy, a show with a short attention span and a low-budget conceit that might be revolutionary. The split-screen of the webcam chat windows comes from its web-show origins, but it's fascinating for how it refuses to tell the audience where to look. This isn’t just a single image containing two or more people. It’s multiple images containing multiple people all looking directly at the camera, at the audience. Jumping from speaker to reaction and back is like toggling between instant messages or browser tabs. The scene where Fiona describes pictures she was going to send to Austen, who can’t see her in person this weekend, emphasizes the distancing of the medium with comedy. The very look of Web Therapy, a multi-screen world that contains the “real world,” rather than vice versa, is closer to capturing How We Live (with the obvious caveats) than many realist shows.
“Getting It Straight” is heavy on plot with an extra dose of catch-up exposition for the newbies seduced by the good buzz and new guest stars, most notably Meryl Streep. It’s disappointing to hear Rosie O’Donnell’s Maxine lay bare Fiona’s narcissism, which anyone could take away from a three-minute therapy session with her, but Alan Cumming probing the Wallices’ recent history is an excusable plot recap outside of the adoption retcon (i.e. last season’s finale suggested adoption is something Fiona and Kip had always talked about, but now it’s something that has seemingly never been on the table).
Like The Comeback before it, Web Therapy has always been more about shameless self-promotion than the therapy itself, so of course Web Therapy would return in an episode with no web therapy. Instead “Getting It Straight” starts with captain of industry Austen Clarke playing one-man exploratory committee for Kip’s senate campaign, sending him off to gay reparative therapy down South. Then Rosie O’Donnell shows up as Austen’s right-hand woman Maxine, eventually greenlighting Fiona’s book when she realizes Fiona is married, thinking Austen agreed to publish the book as a favor to Kip. Somewhere in there is an awful fly-by about Jerome packing for Fiona’s flight to New York. And finally Meryl Streep pops up to tell Fiona how poorly Kip is responding to the electrode treatment. “He’s actually broken our machine with his non-response.” So much happens that the episode doesn’t have as much time to sit and see what surprises form out of the electric improv atmosphere. “Getting It Straight” is lighter on the laughs than usual, but it does namecheck a book called No One Said You Have To Like It: Sex Tips For Ex-Gays, so you can’t complain too much.
It’s surprising to see Web Therapy dig into the religious right. The first segment is about a Republican candidate for Senate needing to appear straight to win a district that is handily red, the second features a woman who holds a rosary and shoehorns Catholicism into an unrelated chat, and the final sees a Young-Earth madam who caters to would-be ex-gays. It doesn’t remind me of season one so much as an episode of Mr. Show called “What To Think,” featuring an old-fashioned Dixiecrat senator and David Cross’ memorable turn as a lapsed ex-gay. Now that was steely television. “Getting It Straight” is more loony with its conservatives.
Web Therapy saves its savagery for its center, because on top of everything else, it’s one hell of a character study. Fiona Wallice picks up where Valerie Cherish left off in Lisa Kudrow’s continued exploration of shamelessness in the age of reality TV and Internet branding. Her voice is annoyingly affected, her eyes say you’re not worth the pretense of politeness, her words obliterate the reputation she’s trying to establish. That throwaway line about meeting Kip through her sister, whom he was dating at the time, is funny in that the story would not help a political campaign but it also gets right to the heart of the show with more subtlety than Maxine’s breakdown. Another crystallizing moment: When Camilla asks Fiona if she can recommend something and Fiona says, “You can try.” Good luck getting through. The complicating factor is Fiona’s competency. She immediately pinpoints when Camilla is being passive-aggressive. And when Maxine delivers her unspoken ultimatum, a juicy little dilemma that encapsulates Fiona—say that the book deal is a favor for Kip and she’ll approve it; say it’s all about you and she won’t—Fiona wrestles with herself so vividly you can almost hear Gollum creeping in. Television is full of hilarious narcissists, but where the narrator of Girls is soft on the ostensible target of her satire—privilege—and where the narrator of Enlightened is genuinely and refreshingly caught between self-improvement and regression, Fiona’s perspicacity doesn’t keep her from being a bad-hair day away from begging for retweets.
As for the newcomers, Meryl Streep is invitingly odd and Rosie O’Donnell is Rosie O’Donnell. Maxine feels so much thinner than the rest of the cast, less confident a performance than the others, though her delivery enshrines at least one line: “The book is really horrid.” Streep feels a little off, too, maybe, but that could have something to do with Camilla’s sneaky intelligence. She plays a spacey Tammy Faye Bakker type, only every now and then she pulls out a really crafty moment. I can’t wait to find out more about Camilla. What she does with a “sexular” malapropism demands repeat viewing.
So much is going on that even a getting-up-to-speed episode is dizzyingly fun. Maxine’s no-moral-center charge is pretty damning by extension, and it’s telling that Fiona’s other contacts steal her roles, Austen playing promoter and Camilla therapist. Austen, by the way, allegedly has a pattern of exchanging power for sex, and he in turn fits into Fiona’s pattern of exchanging sex (or the desire for sex) for status. And Camilla leaves on a nail-biter, the correct yet challenging assertion that Kip and Fiona would both be better off with a divorce. Luckily there’s a whole season to explore the ins and outs of Web Therapy. For now, it’s just nice to have it back.
- Meryl Streep’s character is gloriously named Camilla Bowner, but it’s pronounced “Bonner.”
- Maxine calls Fiona a Mary Magdalene figure. “She was the whore? I don’t know that I’d go that far.”
- Another perfect throwaway: Maxine says all she knows of Freud could fit between her two fingers, and Fiona says, “Well, that’s really all you need to know.” Like a good therapist.
- One more Camilla gem: “You were dressed in a way that looked so sad.”