The odd thing about "Help Me Help You" is the lack of a laugh track. Ted Danson's new series is written as a classically broad sitcom, with neurotic adults doing the zaniest things over and over again. You keep waiting for the jokes to be punctuated by prefabricated guffaws and Franken-cackles. But instead they are met with a high-risk Hollywood commodity: silence. The laughs are . . . gulp . . . left up to the viewers.
But you probably won't be filling in the laugh gaps on "Help Me Help You," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 5. The show isn't a debacle, but it's a disappointing comedy that doesn't live up to an interesting premise. About a therapy group and its flawed leader, it could have been a psychologically knowing riff on the silliness of being human, like "Frasier." Instead, "Help Me Help You" is a half-hour of refried shtick that plays like "The Bob Newhart Show" with an adolescence complex. Where it should be sly, it's just plain kooky.
The towering Danson plays a little man named Bill Hoffman, a therapist who surely has a degree in idiocy. Hoffman is narcissistic and pompous, and he pats himself on the back as he spouts self-help platitudes such as ``There are no accidents." He's supposed to be more likable than the titular character in Danson's last sitcom, "Becker," but he's ultimately more insufferable with his vanity and his bratty inner child. And Danson doesn't give Bill much range; he's just an all-round fool.
His therapy group is comprised of a handful of members, and this is where ``Help Me Help You" could have been a kick, as it follows them through their weekly travails. Jonathan (Jim Rash) is a married man in denial about the fact that he's gay. Inger (Suzy Nakamura) is lonely but has no social skills. Michael (Jere Burns) has anger-management problems, Dave (Charlie Finn) is suicidal, and Darlene (Darlene Hunt) falls in love with her therapists.
But instead of developing these promising supporting characters and adding comic layers to their issues, the writers appear bent on turning them into one-joke ponies. Jonathan's efforts to look like a stereotypical heterosexual man are funny the first time, and maybe the second; by episode 2, they're just flat. (The same gag is run into the ground on CBS's ``The Class.") Ditto with Michael's temper issues, and Inger's cluelessness as she insults men without realizing.
The show devotes most of its time to Bill and his personal woes. He is obsessed with reconnecting with his wife, Anne (Jane Kaczmarek), from whom he is separated, and he makes a spectacle of himself by chasing after her and insulting her new boyfriend. And he's distraught that his daughter (Lindsay Sloane) is dating her college professor.
This is all tired material, with Bill drunkenly falling into bed with Anne and her boyfriend, or competing with Anne's boyfriend to give the best birthday gift. The show needs to spend a lot less time tracking the not-so-good doctor, and more time in therapy.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.