Help Me Help You

[3 October 2006]

By Elaine Hanson Cardenas


Help Me Help Youis a cynical, artless, unamusing sitcom about psychiatrist Bill Hoffman (Ted Danson) and his therapy group. The attempts at humor are built on the patients’ quirks, Freudian symbols, and ironic comparisons between the odd behaviors of group members and their doctor. To say the show presents people with mental illnesses insensitively is an understatement. The first episode raised one pertinent question: why would viewers be interested at this time in a comedy about group therapy with a self-absorbed buffoon of a leader?

Their mental health problems were defined in cartoonish lettering superimposed over each introduction: “David: Suicidal,” “Jonathan: In denial about being gay,” “Michael: anger management.” Everyone performed consistently in type.
Jonathan (Jim Rash) quickly denied he was gay after the hunky African American barista he had invited to the Spurs game said, “One thing you should know: I’m not gay.” Inger (Suzy Nakamura), a wealthy software developer who supposedly lacks social skills, prattled on about herself and insulted others, seemingly unintentionally. Darlene (Darlene Hunt), who has too many neuroses to name, obsessed about her psychologists, flirted with all the male group members, and ended up in bed with Michael (Jere Burns). He had bashed a window when someone said something he didn’t like.

As members of the therapy group talked, their stories appeared as flashbacks, reinforcing their cartoonishness. The pilot episode began as David (Charlie Finn) was confronted by his boss for playing computer solitaire on the job (read: he’s bored and lonely). After the confrontation, David dashed off a suicide email to his coworkers (“Good-bye”), rushed to the window, leapt and fell on his boss, who was walking out the door beneath the window.

Unconvincing, the scene mocked the genuine misery of potential suicides, and set up the structure of the show. That is, the members of the group were all positioned as failures in contrast to their “highly successful” leader. Hoffman used David’s “bungled suicide” attempt as a basis for challenging the patients to go out and “make connections,” suggesting fatuously that “human relationships” are the solution to all woes.

And yet—here’s the “joke”—the pilot showcased Hoffman’s own ineptitude at relationships in contrast to his patients’ successes. Scenes shifted from Hoffman getting drunk after learning his ex-wife Anne (Jane Kaczmarek) had a new boyfriend, to Inger calling from a bar to bemoan her inability to “connect,” to Darlene in bed with Michael, to Hoffman unwittingly climbing into Anne’s bed with her and her the boyfriend. He went on to bash the guy’s car with a golf club, even as David kicked bags of garbage outside a bar where a woman rejected him.

By the end of the pilot episode, all the group members made “connections” and Hoffman did not. Nevertheless, they credited him with their successes, and he continued to boast about himself. Hoffman speeded off in a new Porsche at the end of the episode, singing.

It would be a stretch, of course, to see Help Me Help You as having any relevance for current affairs. And yet: here’s the story of a grey-haired, middle-aged man in a position of authority, convinced that his “way” is right, despite evidence to the contrary. He believes in resolving issues through confrontation and aggression, and has faith in an ideology (Freudian psychology, rather than capitalism) and strange bedfellows. Mostly, the show captures (however poorly) viewers’ rising concerns about what lies ahead.
Unfortunately, the program offers no diversion from real-life anxieties. The characters are undeveloped, the situations are improbable, and Ted Danson is neither funny nor convincing.

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