Only Fiona Wallice can go on a national media tour from the comfort of her own home. I love the entitlement at the heart of Web Therapy, how Fiona wants to become famous more than anything but doesn’t want to work for it. Her book is still a manuscript, and her revolutionary therapy modality has been put in a drawer for now so she can focus on putting her senile mother on a months-long cruise and evicting her relatives and spending exorbitant campaign funds on styling herself (the Palin reference is icing). Her new avenue to fame is through her husband, but she doesn’t personally contribute anything to the world anymore (and what she did at both Lachman Brothers and Web Therapy is controversial to say the least), and she doesn’t do much to enrich her own life, either. All she does nowadays is brand herself.
Web Therapy is a photograph—well, web video—of a culture of self-promotion. The show isn’t interested in assigning blame or suggesting alternatives (in fact, without Fiona’s intervention, Jerome might not be in such a healthy relationship); it’s a document of the digital age from a particularly cynical perspective, kind of like Olivier Assayas meets Stephen Colbert. Consider Molly Shannon’s freelancer Kirsten Noble (pronounced “Kirstine Nobel”). Her erotic blog is her passion, but it isn’t enough to support her right now. So she plays freelance writer interviewing Fiona—and I’m so disappointed we don’t get to see the scene where she answers Ben’s Craigslist ad—with an apathetic face and the world’s fakest laugh. She couldn’t be less invested in doing a good job at her work, but there’s a ping-pong of cultural forces that brought her here, not least 8% unemployment. And she winds up using her interview as a springboard for rumor-mongering erotica transparently based on Fiona (although I welcome the defense that Filona is somewhat less uptight than Fiona). She’s not an unsympathetic character, but she’s also only interested in others insofar as they can advance her own status. I’m compassionate toward Fiona, too, but she’s unquestionably the personification of most of Web Therapy’s critiques.
Then Fiona meets a patient—to which I had the conflicting responses of “Finally!” and “Aw!”—until she turns out not to be a patient at all (just as the writer turns out not to be from InStyle) but rather television star Allegra Favreau (played by Minnie Driver). It’s not Beckett, exactly, but miscommunication is key to the comedy of Web Therapy, a badge of Fiona’s delusion and a component of chat life. Allegra’s dream is fame, too, but she’s going the more tried-and-tested route, child star to intervention-show star to future comeback story. After reading Fiona’s manuscript (buried deep in a seat-back pocket on a plane) she wants to play Fiona for Lifetime and has already gone as far as she can with the project without legally optioning the material. Presumably Fiona’s refusal would only have led to The Filona Wallice Story, but—of course—Fiona is enticed by the promise of a new revenue stream as producer, and she consents to letting this obliviously condescending woman degrade her for fame.
Two of the six vignettes in “National Exposure” are one-sided. First Fiona’s on the phone with Ben—not that we hear him—while she plays with a website that shows her what she’d look like on the covers of Glamour, Forbes, and Hip Hop Weekly. Later she chats with Richard, who’s only seen in e-mail attachment photographs. These are low-cost workarounds, but they both spice up the formula and fuel some of the core arguments of the show. Fiona obviously gets out and sees people every now and then—for instance, she meets with her mother’s lawyer in person, and she wants to use the campaign jet to investigate the Lifetime deal—but the style of the show suggests her psychological retreat. The only time she shares a physical space with someone this week—in a scene where she runs off with Kip’s package, teehee—is an accident, and a hostile one at that.
“National Exposure” feels more cynical than usual, what with Kirsten laughing off the seriousness of web-based libel, so it’s important to remember that while Web Therapy has scope, it is far from sweeping. “Dr. Fiona Wallice” tweets during her own episodes, which could maybe be glossed over as ironic distance, but Lisa Kudrow and company are smart enough to see Internet-based self-promotion for what it is. Pick apart the plots and telecommunications have done plenty good for some of the characters on the show. And most of all, Web Therapy began as a web series. This isn’t a Great Awakening sermon. It’s just channeling all these related ideas of modern fame and finding a culture’s creative life being gradually usurped by its marketing life. I can’t wait for its Sundance episode.
Which would all be fascinating on its own, but what makes it go down is the sugar coating. From what I’ve read, Web Therapy isn’t everybody’s cup of tea when it comes to comedy—and with that accent, it’s understandable—but I laugh my way through every swallow of pride. Kirsten’s contemptuous laugh, the dazed expression on Allegra’s website headshot, the way Fiona smiles and says she hasn’t read Waiting for Godot after laughing at a joke about it: I’ve said it before, but Web Therapy is hitting the sweet spot established by The Comeback.
Superficial conceptions of quality television are what lead to canonizing The Killing based on a slick pilot, never mind the bathetic exploitation, and ghettoizing Adult Swim for its ten-minute installments, never mind the chaotic experimentation. There seems to be no greater obstacle to recognizing artistic unity than lo-fi ugliness (in both form and content). Web Therapy is packed with talented stars playing self-styled whistle-blowers, celebrity candidates, ex-gays, Youtube pranksters, gotcha journalists, and moguls who can pour unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns, and it’s slowly building a shrine to the limited fame of these united shameless out of cable-news talking heads in 140-character vignettes. Best of all, they’re making it up as they go along (within the constraints of the story, that is). The cheapo form is exactly right.
- Fiona’s back in scarlet in two different scenes. Girl has will power!
- Unfortunately on screener, I can rarely read any of the text on the windows, but I’m dying to know what’s on Fiona's calendar.
- "National Exposure" is full of layers, including a sequence of in-the-moment performance talking about performance and concluding with a web-chat within a web-chat, but the best part is how Fiona, who has written an opportunistic and disputed account of her departure from Wall Street, reacts to being a character in someone else's story. Twice.
- “You have a permanent smile, is that hard?” Allegra asks Fiona. “And you talk with your eyes shut sometimes!” One week I need to focus strictly on Kudrow’s performance, because it's a monster.
- “I’ve never really analyzed myself. It’s a little uncomfortable.” I love when Fiona talks about psychology.
- Beyond the Palin reference, “National Exposure” has some fun with the politics that arise out of total self-absorption, like Fiona’s proposed food surtax for fat people.
- “Ben is the greatest thing that has happened in my life,” Kip tells Fiona. “Since you, of course . . . He is behind me 100 % in every way.” I’ll take that as official confirmation.
- I love the “How dare you” chain when Fiona, Austen, and Kip argue about whether the Amish vote. “Oh, really, it’s crucially important that I go to Lancaster and speak with the League of Amish Women Voters . . . and that I appear on Mennonite Tonight?”