If you’ve never seen Web Therapy, “Man-Cave Man” is an excellent starting point for one of television’s most vital series. The episode opens with a meta moment where David Schwimmer asks his Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow, “You don’t remember me?” Schwimmer is new to the show, and he’s only here so far to stoke speculation about why he’s here at all: Tune in next week! The other new character is Conan O’Brien, who takes the majority of “Man-Cave Man,” including the title, to deal with his anger. The only serialized plot thread is a minute-long snippet of Gina, who is having the time of her life in the Nome cannery Fiona sequestered her at. Around the margins are hints of the bigger picture: Fiona’s homepage is Kip’s campaign website, Jerome pops in, Fiona tries to pimp her “new treatment modality” to the up-and-coming Conan. But basically, “Man-Cave Man” acts like a season premiere, for better or worse, and a very funny one at that.
It’s almost a relief after the sustained tension of the first two-thirds of the season: Narcissist-therapist Fiona is nearly bested by religious traditionalists, then both she and her sister have breakdowns in place of breakthroughs, then Fiona’s future-senator husband Kip and his campaign manager Ben have breakdowns after half-repressing their feelings for each other. It’s exhausting all together. But by positioning this moment of relief here, with just two episodes to go for Kip’s election (or not) and Robin’s sure-to-be-embarrassing documentary (not to mention Schwimmer’s whatever-it-is), “Man-Cave Man” feels a little out of sync. The scenes with Schwimmer’s Newell (or Neville) and Conan are hilarious and pointed and everything they should be, but they mark a return to formula, more akin to season one’s focused format than season two’s more expansive universe. In both scenarios, Fiona’s happy to take new patients, which doesn’t quite jibe with the woman who keeps complaining about her allegedly busy schedule of press appearances and spa days. Maybe she’s worried that Kip’s wagon isn’t such a sure thing anymore, so she’s returned to making her own fame, but it’s a little distracting nonetheless.
I also have a quibble with the Conan story, which would be great in isolation. As the first actor to play himself on Web Therapy, Conan brings his mythology, for lack of a better word, with him. I don’t just mean the post-Leno, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop shading, though that certainly goes some way toward explaining a scenario where Conan O’Brien retreats to his man-cave to find an online therapist for a three-minute session. Conan keeps his issues relatively light, though: This isn’t about Leno or NBC or having to be on constantly. It’s about his jealousy of Andy Richter, which suits the Conan character beautifully. It even makes a weird sort of sense that the Conan band might have some guys willing to do illegal favors for him. Mythologically, I mean. That said, eventually “Man-Cave Man” starts to feel more like a couple sketches on Conan than a couple sketches on Web Therapy. Certainly, the Kudrow show is willing to go broad if the laughs are there, and roughing up a neighbor and starting a fire is unquestionably broad, but it’s broad in a way that fits the absurdism of Conan more than the parody of Web Therapy. I would almost buy it if Fiona had arranged to evict her neighbor given her monumental selfishness and bizarre conceptions of human relationships, but planting that business at Conan’s feet instead lets her off the hook and sets up a funny metaphor maze at the end. It’s entertaining, and it provides a nice counterbalance to Fiona’s spree a couple weeks ago, but the episode is a little lenient on Fiona.
Still, the only way “Man-Cave Man” could be funnier is if Ben showed up to discuss Fiona’s take on “legitimate rape.” That moment when Jerome bursts in is a great scene. Fiona and Conan are having this serious back-and-forth about how to properly deal with anger, and just when the low-key performances and observational editing draw you in, Jerome bursts into Fiona’s chat window like an alarm clock. It’s like a sudden horror-flick scare, a quick surprise and then a cathartic laugh (I had to pause, so I didn’t miss anything). It helps that Kudrow seamlessly transitions from her pleasant discussion with Conan into her loud disgust with Jerome, the scene slowly warping into this new scenario. In fact, I completely missed the “colossal idiot” line that Conan accuses Fiona of, but on re-watch, there it is, right where he said it would be. The whole sequence is predictably ridiculous, which is sitcom gold. All while Fiona offers mature advice on how to calmly express dissatisfaction without belittling subordinates, Jerome is the elephant in the room, and then he barges in to illustrate Fiona’s hypocrisy. On top of the basic self-help stuff, the scene also broaches some of the show’s favorite themes: miscommunication, branding yourself, the distancing quirks of a communications platform that ostensibly brings us closer together. When I call Web Therapy one of the great shows on television, that’s not just because it’s hilarious. A show this funny, this smart, and this rigorously engaged with its moment in time—all of which is beautifully packaged in this unifying, universal, DIY format—is special.
Even the brief snapshot of Gina in Nome offers up that great joke, “I smell fish. Do you smell it?” It’s ridiculous, but so is Gina, and in that one minute, Web Therapy offers the audience a glimpse of Gina’s new world while staying thematically on-topic. The show is like a sustained riff on a dozen interconnected ideas, nearly all the comedy deriving from specific characters on the same branch of the Internet, a world of people with almost no introspection desperate to increase their audience. As Web Therapy probes deeper, it keeps finding new shades of trenchancy. Besides, a little desperation isn’t necessarily bad. I once heard a great line on a Fox sitcom that fits in here beautifully: “Please tell your friends about this show.”
- This is by far the best episode for Fiona Wallice, ethically speaking, right? Other than the outburst at Jerome and a certain dimness, she takes more defensible positions than ever. Progress? Schematically, it’s another sign that this is a misplaced early episode, but it’s increasingly clear that Web Therapy isn’t a broadside. It’s genuinely interested in examining both the flaws and virtues that these situations bring out in its characters.
- Newell has a great sign-off: “Father-fucker!” “He’s truly crazy. That’s not a saying.” There isn’t much to the Schwimmer scenes yet, but I’m curious to see how he knows Fiona so intimately without her remembering him. I suspect “father-fucker” is relevant. Maybe he’s the professor’s kid?
- Fiona’s motto: “The only good thing about owning anything is that you’re able to sell it later.” That or “I think therapy’s a two-way street,” which I think she’s said before.
- Conan tells Fiona, “I have to always be the nice guy, always be the funny guy, always be the guy that always makes ‘em laugh.” She says, “How tiresome. Not just for you but for the people around you.” My reaction to Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop in a nutshell.
- “I am like a Dr. Phil.” “Man-Cave Man” is really a great spotlight on Fiona. I love the way she beams when Conan admiringly says, “You were borderline cruel.” And I love her old habit of browsing the Internet while a patient is spilling his guts.
- “Hello Curnan. Did I say it right this time?”