For many, Lisa Kudrow will forever be associated with Friends (NBC, 1994-2004), the epitome of conservative network television. And yet, with both The Comeback (HBO, 2005; 2014) and Web Therapy (L Studio; Showtime: 2008—), the performer-writer-producer has shown great willingness to embrace developments in TV brought about by new media, as well as proving herself to be a subtle cultural satirist. With The Comeback, Kudrow teamed up with HBO and Michael Patrick King to play a fallen star, Valerie Cherish, one so desperate for a career revival that she’s willing to take a degrading sitcom role and appear on her own reality show. Despite critical acclaim, the dark comedy was dropped after one season only to return eight years later: HBO recognised that – having suffered through immeasurable quantities of celebrity reality TV – more people could now appreciate the show’s shrewd observations.
In 2005, Valerie’s main competition came in the form of younger actresses. By season two, in 2014, developments in TV and technology are the main threats to her struggling career. In Episode 5, we see Valerie pushed out of her comfort zone when she’s forced to act for a green screen in a motion detecting body suit. Valerie is a good sport until she realises that her publicist has arranged for a journalist from the New York Times to watch, as well as conduct an interview, while Valerie is effectively dressed as Kermit the Frog.
As if this weren’t enough, Valerie learns that technology has removed the need for a packed studio audience whose laughter could at least service her delicate ego. Instead, she has to act for just a handful of audience members (whose bodies and laughter will be multiplied in post-production to create the impression of a full audience).
Throughout The Comeback, Valerie struggles with the shift from artificial sitcom aesthetics to those of reality TV and, in season 2, the gritty realism of the HBO show-within-a-show. Valerie always wants to look her best and if this means telling camera men to shoot her from a different angle then so be it. She also knows the importance of good lighting and generally records her reality TV video diaries in a bubble of blinding light. Of course, this means that she quickly recognises the near dark shooting conditions of her HBO show as the director’s attempt at sabotage her. Valerie tries to see how bad she looks but even this is a struggle, again due to changes in production technology: she has no access to the dailies, once played back on monitors, since they’re all stored digitally using DAX (the actual cloud software now used by most studios). Naturally, the dailies are password protected and the director has given strict instructions that no-one is to give Valerie access.
As The Comeback shows so brilliantly, the rules of television have changed and there’s little space for old school performers unwilling to adapt. Much more so than Valerie, Kudrow proves her flexibility in Web Therapy (a web series, with episodes spanning from 2008-2015, and which was also shown on Showtime between 2011 and 2014). Like The Comeback, Web Therapy is pointedly reflexive: while the former is a HBO-made faux-reality TV show about a HBO show, and a reality TV show, the latter is a web series that is both about – and distributed predominantly through – the web. In over a hundred episodes of between ninety seconds and fifteen minutes, Kudrow plays Fiona Wallice; a morally bankrupt therapist whose impatience leads her to treat clients through micro-sessions on Skype and iChat.
The format and plot of the series depends entirely on digital technologies, since everyone directly addresses the other person (and the audience) through what is supposedly a personal web camera. We see what Fiona would see: her desktop and one or more Skype/iChat screens. The premise is central to the content of the exchanges between Fiona/Kudrow and her impressive stream of guest stars, including everyone from Meryl Streep, Jane Lynch and Jon Hamm as ‘patients’, to Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lily Tomlin as Fiona’s sister and mother.
Aside from being an interesting showcase for the improvisation skills of high-profile performers, Web Therapy cleverly foregrounds the realities of everyday internet use. Some of the show’s funniest moments occur when we can see what Fiona is Googling while half-listening to her patients. If she wants to get out of a session, Fiona pretends she’s experiencing Wi-Fi difficulties. She is also acutely aware of the potential to increase her income via social media: if Fiona learns that a client has millions of Twitter followers then she pushes them to endorse her therapy. Fiona even uses information given to her from an online gambling addict (Matt LeBlanc) to beat him at his own game.
In other episodes, Fiona engages in three-way video session with a young couple (Mae Whitman and Darren Criss) who have only ever communicated online. Always acting in her own best interest, Fiona encourages them to interact with her rather than to meet in real life. Her ruthless ambition is also signalled through the icons on the desktop: ‘Potential_Investors.docx’ and ‘Book_Ideas.docx’ are among the visible documents and folders.
Fiona spends a lot of time defending her web therapy method but, in the eight years since the series began, web cameras have increasingly been used by doctors and employers as an alternative to face-to-face communication. When it comes to digital technologies, Fiona is an opportunist and a savvy pioneer. When it comes to reacting to the impact of digital technologies on television, the same could be said of Kudrow.
Jennifer O’Meara is an Assistant Lecturer in Film Studies at Maynooth University, Ireland. Her recent publications include contributions on podcasts, film posters, music and dialogue to Frames Cinema Journal, The Journal of Digital Media Arts and Practice, The New Soundtrack, and Cinema Journal.