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Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEW

Sometimes it's funny how life falls apart

ABC's `Help Me Help You,' starring Ted Danson, finds dry yet apt humor in a therapist's sorrows.

September 26, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Ted Danson, who has spent 19 of the last 24 years starring in situation comedy -- six of them, astonishingly, in "Becker," which makes me feel as if I'd been living out of the country -- is going 20 for 25 in "Help Me Help You," a low-boil sitcom in which he plays Dr. Bill Hoffman, a respected psychiatrist whose life is falling apart. Premiering tonight on ABC, it's a slightly schizophrenic show, for want of a less appropriate word, split three ways between group therapy sessions; the adventures of the group members as they attempt to put Hoffman's activity of the week into action (make connections, practice nurturing, take risks); and Hoffman's messy personal business.(Doctor, shrink thyself!)

It's a little hard to get a handle on, critically. Each element of the show has its own vibe -- the group sessions feel theatrical, like little playlets. The bits focusing on the group members tend toward blackout rhythms; the parts dealing with Hoffman are more dramatically developed. It's an actor's comedy rather than a comic's comedy, and, notwithstanding some bursts of physicality and some extreme behavior on the part of Hoffman and his patients, it's all rather dry in a way more familiar on cable television than network. Created by Jennifer Konner and Alexandra Rushfield (who wrote for "Undeclared"), with "Malcolm in the Middle" producer Alex Reid as a co-executive producer, it's funny in its own way, smarter than most TV comedies and has a terrific cast -- all of which makes me wonder why I'm not more moved by it. (At the same time, I'm not unamused, nor uninterested.) Although I wouldn't necessarily recommend "Help Me Help You" in a grab-you-by-the-sleeve Ancient Mariner sort of way, I would certainly recommend checking it out.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
'Help Me Help You': A review of the television show "Help Me Help You" in Tuesday's Calendar gave the wrong title for Alex Reid. He is an executive producer of the show, not a co-executive producer.

Hoffman's therapy group includes Dave (Charlie Finn, a winning dumbbell on the short-lived "Life on a Stick"), who jumped out a window in a botched suicide attempt after e-mailing an "interoffice suicide note" with a cc to his cat-sitter (he landed on his boss); Jonathan (Jim Rash), the new season's second married-gay-man-in-denial after Sam Harris on "The Class," who tries to mask his swishness in guy talk but can't keep from using words like "adorable"; Darlene (Darlene Hunt), who, we are told, has a list of issues as long as your arms, but is represented here primarily as a nymphomaniac with a psychiatrist fixation; Inger (Suzy Nakamura, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), a 25-year-old retired software designer who "can't read people" and so says funny things to them; and Michael, who can't manage his anger, played by Jere Burns, best known from another support-group sitcom, the Judd Hirsch vehicle "Dear John."

They are a talented troupe of players, but may soon suffer from having to play the single note of their stated neurosis -- you can tell the same joke only for so long.

As to Hoffman, he's more preoccupied with his own troubles than those of his patients -- the first two words of the title are, significantly, "Help Me." His marriage has come to an end -- Jane Kaczmarek, from "Malcolm in the Middle," plays not-yet-ex wife Anne -- and his daughter (Lindsay Sloane, whom it is always nice to see) is dating her psychology professor (Bruce Altman), who is more or less as old as Hoffman and has a massive professional crush on him.

This part of the show reminded me, of all things, of the stories of John Cheever -- the displaced upper-class suburbanite trying to get his life back. In the first episode, a drunken Hoffman crawls mindlessly into bed in his old house with Anne and her new boyfriend, the man who sold him his car; later he takes a golf club to it but cannot dent it. In another, he crashes a birthday party for his daughter, tries to buy her love by giving her his new and expensive midlife crisis car, gets into an aggressive game of basketball with Anne's boyfriend, winds up sprawled over "his" old barbecue grill, and is then carried off to the hospital by his new rival. It has something of Cheever's sorrowful comedy, not to say its Westchester County milieu -- and I must say, that is an impressive, and surprising, quality in a situation comedy.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Help Me Help You'

Where: ABC

When: 9:30 tonight

Rating: TV-PG DLS (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)

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