By Gillian Flynn
November 05, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Huff: James Dittiger


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And the winner for most accidentally strange show of the season is…Huff, Showtime’s latest attempt to launch a drama that’ll land it on a playing field with HBO. (Or even at the tollbooth outside the parking lot adjacent to the playing field.) Huff stars Hank Azaria as Dr. Craig Huffstodt, a psychiatrist whose world is rocked when a young patient commits suicide in front of him. At least, that seems to be the point. Between the show’s tagline — Life. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of it — and the splattered blood in Huff‘s opening montage, the implication is that the boy’s act will rouse Huff from his fortysomething somnolence.

But it doesn’t, really. That’s right, this is a sorta-midlife-crisis story, but without much of a crisis. Sure, the dead boy’s parents (with Annie Potts as one brittle mother) file a malpractice suit. Even then, though, the good doctor’s ethics are never in question. Nor does Huff seem particularly epiphanized or overly guilt-ridden, which (see Drama 101) deflates the tension a bit.

The writers try to goose things on the home front, giving Huff both mommy and daddy issues. Gruff military Dad (Robert Forster) has left Mom (Blythe Danner in her usual boozy-society-WASP role), who now lives in Huff’s guest apartment. Mom unrelentingly annoys Huff’s loving, sexy wife, Beth (earthy Paget Brewster, of Andy Richter Controls the Universe). In this dynamic we have a slapdash of Everybody Loves Raymond: Huff’s wife and mother adore him, loathe each other; he even has a brother (Andy Comeau) who’s a real dark horse — the fellow is an institutionalized schizophrenic.

In the end, these complications don’t get too zingy because, well, Huff’s wife is loving and sexy, and the two have thriving careers and a sweet, precocious son, Byrd (Anton Yelchin). Maybe the tagline should have been Life. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of it…and discover everything’s pretty okay, thanks. Add on the Nip/Tuck echoes (Huff’s patients often confess freaky what-I-hate-about-my-Self problems) and what we have here is a kinda-family-sitcom-semi-midlife-dramedy-medical show.

The actors almost make the mishmash work. Azaria, who supplies so many big cartoon voices for The Simpsons, is impressively subtle here. (The same can’t be said for the actor’s lavishly bulging pecs — when exactly does Huff pump all that iron?) The series also makes time for some small, calm scenes: Byrd walks in on his mother in the bath and, without missing a beat, walks back out and talks to her through the door — no spluttering, no stuttering, just a nice everyday incident.

But for each understated scene comes a preening please-discuss-by-the-water-cooler moment. Many of these arrive courtesy of Oliver Platt, who plays Huff’s druggy, hooker-loving lawyer friend. It’s one of those Falstaffian roles Platt can do in his sleep (or, several episodes in, on the can, reading porn), but it’s a disappointment after the actor’s nuanced sad-dad turn in last year’s well-received indie film Pieces of April. Equally undermined is Danner’s character, Izzy, whom the writers insist on saddling with shock lines: She belaboredly mistakes an Indian doctor for an Iraqi, or she pops off about vaginal dryness. In the end, Izzy simply loses credibility, which is unfortunate, because later in the series she has some smart, sorrowful scenes discussing heart-break with her grandson. Linking gags to Platt’s weight (watch the fat guy do it!) or Danner’s age (listen to the sexagenarian discuss bikini waxes!) isn’t so much daring as mean-spirited.

Not to mention cliché — and Huff has plenty of those. Huff’s assistant is a sassy, Jesus-loving black woman who burns sage to rid the office of ”bad mojo.” More groan-worthy is the wise Hungarian homeless musician (a cousin of filmdom’s Magical Black Man) who benefits from Huff’s acts of kindness. This, one supposes, allows the audience to see, again, that Huff is a decent guy — and that…um…more homeless people could write symphonies if they only had the cash. On that note: If there’s a brilliant homeless man out there with a gift for fixing promising but ultimately not-so-great Showtime series. I’ve got a few bucks for him.


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