Picks and Pans Review: Huff

updated 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST


Showtime (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)

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Anyone who sampled Hank Azaria's short-lived Imagine That in 2002 probably thought no good could come of it. But now we see the bright side: If that NBC sitcom hadn't tanked, he might not have been available to star in this remarkable new Showtime series.

The versatile actor, winner of three Emmys for his voice work on The Simpsons, portrays an L.A. shrink who's not so handy at solving his own problems. Such a premise could lend itself to comedy à la the '70s Bob Newhart Show, and indeed an easy laugh comes early in the Nov. 7 premiere when a patient passes out at the sight of her bill. Further on, however, a teenager's suicide shakes Dr. Craig "Huff" Huffstodt to the core, and this shocking death casts a shadow over the first half-dozen episodes. Huff must face himself as a psychiatrist who's admittedly "tired of listening" yet unable to tune out his patients, his loved ones—including his schizophrenic brother Teddy (Andy Comeau)—or his conscience.

Azaria ably conveys the intelligence and deepening self-doubt of a skilled therapist with a need to be reassured of his usefulness and decency. Huff looks for emotional support at home, but too often he's caught in the crossfire between his wife, Beth (Paget Brewster), and Izzy (Blythe Danner), his tart-tongued, manipulative mother. Though Izzy comes dangerously close to caricature, Danner plays her so vividly that you wouldn't want the writers to tone her down.

The same goes for Huff's friend Russell Tupper (Oliver Piatt), a glib, cynical, fast-living lawyer who's way too big for his britches. Platt's bravura performance threatens to pull the focus away from the main character, but it's far better to see him on this series than not at all. Among the guest stars, Annie Potts is superb as the dead teen's bitter, guilt-racked mother, and Bob Saget, shredding his Full House image, plays the coke-addled star of a family TV show. Our advice: Schedule multiple sessions with Huff.

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