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'Huff' shrinks from heady story lines

Series television has been a haven for cops, lawyers, and physicians since the days of ''Dragnet," ''Perry Mason," and ''Dr. Kildare." But you can count the number of shrink series on one hand, and they include ''The Bob Newhart Show," ''Frasier," and, to some extent, ''The Sopranos." And it's easy to understand why: There's just not a lot of perp chasing, courtroom prosecution, and intubation in the daily life of a psychotherapist, which makes the profession less than telegenic. How do you transpose the drama of interior ''issue" journeys -- like those in ''The Prince of Tides" and ''Good Will Hunting" -- onto the small screen every week?

''Huff," a new Showtime series that premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., solves the problem, but sells its therapy soul in the process. Rather than making the professional life of psychiatrist Dr. Craig Huffstodt (Hank Azaria) into something intellectually engaging, the show amps up his patients and turns them into overdramatic caricatures who, like Lara Flynn Boyle's raving maniac on the second episode, could also appear as the perp on ''NYPD Blue" or as the thrashing psych patient on ''ER." After Boyle's character smacks Huff -- Huffstodt's nickname -- and he yells at her, ''Nice ring, you little bipolar whack," you know the show isn't trying hard to be accurate and perceptive so much as riveting. It makes the therapy sessions in ''The Sopranos," even with their crossing of physical boundaries, look like the epitome of realism.

The event that starts the series on its way is also extreme, as it leaves blood and brains splattered all over Huff's office. The violence -- and his possible role in causing it -- sends Huff reeling and reconsidering his role as a caregiver. But the show, created by Bob Lowry, doesn't dive into the specifics of Huff's crisis. He's quite clearly thinking a lot, and he says randomly ''heavy" things to his loving wife, Beth (Paget Brewster), like, ''I'm a psychiatrist who started listening." He also starts talking with a homeless Hungarian man, who may be a figment of his imagination. But the nature of his inner search is left vague; he's a nice guy who is still a nice guy, but with a few added creases to his forehead. Even though it's about a therapist, the show doesn't seem to want to bore us with the nuances of his torment.

At home, Huff's biggest problem seems to be his mother. It's a glaringly Freudian scenario, but no more faceted than that of, say, ''Everybody Loves Raymond." Blythe Danner is Huff's snobby mother, Izzy, who lives in an apartment above his garage. She and Beth go at each other constantly, battling over Valencia oranges and other household trivia. At one point, when Beth urges Izzy to be sensitive to Huff's angst, she snaps back, ''I held him in my arms long before you did. Please don't tell me how to love him." Huff is overly attached to his mother, since he doesn't defend his wife from her clawing attacks. But, again, the show fails to delve into the complexities of that bond. It walks the psychological walk, but doesn't talk the talk.

The superficial treatment extends to the other major characters. Huff's 14-year-old son, Byrd (Anton Yelchin), is the stereotypical psychiatrist's child. Precocious and calm, he serves as his father's therapist, possibly forsaking his own needs in the process. ''Should I be worrying about you?" he asks his father, noting, ''Sometimes I think you care too much, Dad." But Huff prefers to share his feelings with his brother, Teddy (Andy Comeau), who lives in a mental institution. The scenes in which Huff unloads himself on the addled Teddy have their poignant moments; still, they lack intricacy. The relationship between the brothers is a schematic -- the healer and the unhealed.

And the show's lack of subtlety is at its most ridiculous with the character of Russell (Oliver Platt), a brilliant lawyer and drug-using carouser who likes hookers who tie him up, rob him, and split. He'd be over the top on any show, but in the context of a therapist's life, he seems to be there simply to counteract the danger that a show about a shrink might be too cerebral. Nothing like a hedonistic mess to keep things from getting too talky.

And yet, while ''Huff" is disappointing, it's still entertaining enough to draw you into its exaggerated, sensational world. The show has hints of promise -- in its likable acting, in its potential to treat its themes with more depth -- that make it worth following for a few episodes. Shows often take weeks to find themselves, to distinguish and perfect their tone. ''Huff" may well be one of them.

Showtime certainly thinks so: The cable channel has already renewed the series for a second season, hoping the show will usher it into the more mainstream territory of HBO, and out of its peripheral role as a niche (read: gay, lesbian, Latino, black) outlet. The opening credits of ''Huff," for example, are an obvious effort to re-create the literary tone of ''Six Feet Under." Alas, they promise a penetrating drama that doesn't materialize, at least not yet.

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