On the couch with Hank Azaria

Voice actor from "The Simpsons" to star as shrink in new psychiatry show.

hank azaria 88 (photo credit: )
hank azaria 88
(photo credit: )
Has Israeli television lost its mind? It certainly seems that way, what with the recent increase in local programs featuring psychiatrists. First there was Asi Dayan in Channel 3's B'tipul (Therapy) - a well-received series that had local audiences making regular appointments. Now there's a new doc in town, this one familiar to fans of The Simpsons, although they may not know it. Yes, our new TV psychologist is Moe the Bartender, otherwise known as actor Hank Azaria, who supplies the voice for the sandpaper-voiced barkeep on the cartoon masterpiece. Azaria, who's also in the cast of the Monty Python-inspired musical comedy Spamelot, stars here as Dr. Craig Hoffstadt, or, as his friends and family call him, "Huff" - a family man and devoted professional whose life is turned upside down when a gay teenage patient commits suicide in his office. "Nothing empties a psychiatrist's office faster than a suicide," observes Huff's mother Izzy, played dryly by the absolutely wonderful Blythe Danner. Talk about Oedipal real estate - mom lives in a carriage house just outside Huff's place, a situation that's grist for an ongoing dispute between her and Huff's wife Beth (Paget Brewster, of Andy Richter Controls The Universe). But at least the old lady isn't anti-Semitic. As Beth prepares pork chops for dinner, Izzy notes that Jews don't eat them, adding: "That's one thing I will say for those Jews: their food is clean." Huff's experiencing a mid-life crisis and spinning out of control in the season opener, which will be screened tomorrow night at 9 p.m. The suicide is threatening to ruin his practice, and in any event he's not sure this is what he wants to do anymore. "I'm tired of listening... I'm a psychiatrist who's tired of listening," he admits while visiting his brother Teddy, who's been institutionalized for reasons still unrevealed, but probably connected to their loony mom. If that's not enough, Huff's seeing things, particularly a Hungarian composer who stops him on the street one day for a handout. After assuring Huff that the psychiatrist's character is far better than he gives himself credit for, the stranger disappears, then repeatedly reappears with new requests before disappearing again, leaving Huff wondering whether it isn't he who really needs to be on the couch. Helping out is Huff's hefty best friend Russell (veteran movie and TV actor Oliver Platt) - a hedonistic power lawyer who has an addiction to nose and eye candy, but also an amazing talent for winning cases, no matter how fast and loose he has to play. According to Russell, testifying under oath is "archaic - it means very little these days." Russell's got quite a stable of clients, including a disgruntled secretary suing for not being sexually harassed, and a terminally ill man who decided to end it all by jumping out of a plane, but lived. "He's supposed to be cremated tomorrow," hisses his angry wife. "They better give me my deposit back!" There are twists and turns all over this entertaining, well-acted and well-written show, starting with the highly innovative opening sequence, which features a series of Magritte-like paintings that revolve around the screen as the outstanding music, composed by W. C. "Snuffy" Walden, who also did the music for The West Wing, plays in the background. This is a cable program (Showtime), so there's some nudity and profanity, but it's certainly not the focus, which instead is Huff's attempt to rebuild his practice and figure out just where his life's headed. Not everything works - Huff's son, nicknamed "Byrdie," is a bit too much of a goody-goody, although he does get some good lines. Reassuring his dad that he's not gay, Byrdie notes that this is "a miracle, considering I used to spend summers with grandma." This isn't Azaria's first TV gig. He played one of Herman's office buddies in Herman's Head, an innovative series seen here in the early 90s. He's also done some fine movie work. Azaria, who's Jewish and, like most brilliant people, was born in Queens, New York, deserves credit for choosing an edgier direction than mere straight comedy. And creator Bob Lowry has a good track record too, having given us Profiler in 1996. While nothing can match The Simpsons, this new series is a top-notch addition to Xtra Hot's schedule, so viewers should find a comfortable spot on the couch for Huff.