Dr. Elizabeth Goode
In the offices of Dr. Elizabeth Goode, there's a slow-closing, trick elevator door that minimizes quick escapes and maximizes discomfort. It's not the best situation for her celebrity clientele, who reach out to her for career, relationship and sexual advice. But it's a good thing for viewers of the Starz series Head Case, a show that creates delightful discomfort while poking fun at the absurdity of celebrity.
During the first half of Episode 1, my scorecard wasn't looking so good. I was laughing, but the humor felt a little forced and predictable. But as the episodes started to play out, I was smiling, laughing and gasping constantly--and sometimes shamefully (Channon Roe's performance in one episode may go too far). By the end of the season, Head Case had easily won me over. An exaggerated exercise in celebrity self-mockery, it's a series most people will either love or hate--but even the detractors are lying if they don't admit to a few chuckles.
Star Alexandra Wentworth (aka Mrs. George Stephanopoulos) is the show's co-creator, and her experience from In Living Color serves her well. She plays Dr. Goode, a single WASP and Wellesley graduate who lives in hotels. She's a highly unqualified, out-of-touch, culturally insensitive, self-absorbed and (semi) man-hating therapist to mostly mid-tier celebrities (which might be a generous label for some of the guest stars: Jonathan Silverman and wife Jennifer Finnigan, anyone?). "I'm a healer, like the Lord Jesus Christ and Oprah."
It takes a full episode or two to warm up to the show, primarily because the jokes are (at first) too obvious: "I build you up," the doc tells Lea Thompson. "All I see is your agent bringing you down and suffocating you." (This comes moments after Dr. Goode encourages the actress to go for the Harriet Tubman/Grandma Moses roles.) Then there's her accusation that a client is "screaming for validation". Get it? The doc is too vain to realize that her observations are the exact opposite of the truth!
But stick with it...by the time the second episode came to an end, I was easily converted, laughing out loud as the doc uses toys as a learning tool in a session with Desperate Housewives actor James Denton (the struggling actor "pitched Desperate Plumbers to ABC last week").
Elizabeth's questionable tactics include insulting her patients, laughing in their faces, flirting with her more handsome clients and forcing extremely uncomfortable role play. Insensitive staff members frequently interrupt the sessions, where Dr. Goode's inflated ego deflects criticism of her methods. She frequently crosses the line of professionalism and good taste, a co-dependent enabler who cares little for patient privacy. She's a fan of "object therapy", with Barbie dolls and stuffed animals frequently employed (Richard Kind's reaction to a masked teddy bear is a hoot), and also has hand sanitizer constantly at her side.
As the season progresses, the characters become more comfortable--and hilarity awaits for viewers willing to accept the cartoonish concept and roll with it. You'll warm up to Wentworth, who starts to add a little depth to the doctor (don't worry--she still wades in the shallow end of the pool). Elizabeth becomes slightly more sympathetic, making it easier to laugh at/with her. While I wouldn't rank this show on par with HBO's short-lived and underrated The Comeback (which was far more subtle and uncomfortable), Dr. Goode has a little Valerie Cherish in her. Wentworth is at home in the improv-ish environment, her comedic instincts fitting the show perfectly.
Head Case is also helped by its supporting cast, especially Michelle Arthur as office secretary/"celebrity ambassadress" Lola Buckingham. The curvaceous, inappropriately dressed, star-struck Brit is obsessed with pop culture and small dogs (she's a happy member of Tiny Dog Adopters of America and has a dachshund named Alfred Molina). Arthurs is always engaging and good for a few gasps--her greeting of patient David Alan Greer had my jaw dropping (like much of the show, it's extremely off-color and lowbrow).
Lola develops a rapport with "Bry the Fatburger guy" (Bryan Farhy), but is secretly married to Dr. Goode's office partner Dr. Myron Finkelstein (Barney Miller's Steve Landesberg), a psychiatrist with zero patients (a running gag that wears thin), a never-ending line of ex-wives (watch for an energetic appearance from comedian Luenell Campbell) and a daughter fresh out of the Israeli army (the burka-adorned Candace Brown). Myron--whose patients keep killing themselves--tries to poach Elizabeth's clients, frequently exerts his credentials ("She can't prescribe anything") and yearns to be just like Freud ("He invented anal"). Also rounding out the somewhat random cast of characters is one-armed janitor Ron Julio (Aris Alvarado).
Meanwhile, Dr. Goode has a rollercoaster relationship with fellow narcissist Jeremy Berger (Rob Benedict), her on-again/off-again agent boyfriend and partner in fame whoredom: "I want to be a power couple...GoodeBurger!" (Roll your eyes all you want, it still makes me laugh). He tries to get back into her good graces this season, but deep down just wants her contacts.
But it's the celebrities that sell the show, even if they aren't A-list material. It's great to see so many stars unafraid of mocking themselves--and to see Wentworth let them take the lead. That allows us to see the doctor's more subdued side; Elizabeth is sometimes caught off guard, with some priceless reactions to her loonier clients.
Head Case shines with its guest stars, all of whom chip in with the writing. Some pull it off better than others: MADtv's Nicole Sullivan shines in a few appearances, slowly broken down after confiding her guilt in wanting to work again. "I don't know what you mean by work," notes Dr. Goode. "I'm sorry, isn't your career over? Isn't that why you had a baby? You know, searching for something 'cause SNL was cancelled?"
Also rising to the challenge is Thompson, Monica Potter ("Oh, you're just a Greek tragedy!"), Islamic fundamentalist Ahmet "like Vomit" Zappa (his three criteria for a spouse: 1. no cats; 2. not an alcoholic; 3. hasn't been raped), Rosanna Arquette ("What is that bra you're wearing?!"), Cindy Margolis ("Getting bored with pornography? Too much in every orifice?") and dildo-gripping nympho Ione Skye ("I think somehow, you need to be overwhelmed by your sexual partner"). Pamela Adlon also shows up, "acting" exactly like her Californication persona.
And while Andy Dick probably makes you cringe, he delivers my favorite moment--undoubtedly improvised, like much of the show--when answering one of Dr. Goode's role-play questions. But the gold medal goes to Heroes star Greg Grunberg--I don't want to spoil much from his appearance, but it's unforgettable ("Have you ever done the Trojan Helmet?").
Silverman also plays well with Wentworth, who adopts a French Canadian accent while using a moose puppet to fill in as his mother-in-law:
Dr. Goode: "Have you had fantasies about sleeping with Jen's mother? Is this sort of a Graduate situation?"
Her appointments frequently become self-therapy sessions, the celebrities shoved aside as her own insecurities rise to the surface: Dr. Goode (aka "maggot" to her dad) is afraid of sex ("I can't do this without a vibrator"), still seeks her parents' approval (watch for brief but beautiful turns from Sally Kirkland and Sam McMurray), is scared of being alone and harbors jealously over her sexier sisters--including "village idiot" Viola, who garnered all the attention playing Sandy in their high school production of Grease (Elizabeth wasn't so fortunate: "I was one of the 'Grease Lightening' guys...on the car...").
While most of the action takes place in the office, we follow the characters on some fun sidetracks--including a corporate retreat (featuring one of my favorite proposals ever), a strip club ("Goddamn, am I somebody to idolize, or what?!") and Elizabeth's not-so-successful turn as a high school career day speaker ("Okay, show of hands...who likes to masturbate?").
Yes, the show is unapologetically blue and frequently tasteless--which is sometimes my kind of funny (don't judge!). As the good doctor wisely says, "Crazy makes me hungry." Watch a few episodes of Head Case, and you too will be chomping for more.
Ralph Macchio and Liz Phair (along with Twin Peaks' Dana Ashbrook in a revealing video) show up for another great episode:
Lola: "Can I interest you in a tiny dog adoption? I've Mr. Pebbles or Sir Ralph Fiennes!"
Tom Sizemore also makes a few appearances (one with Traci Lords), frequently toying with his image, while Sean Hayes pops up in a bar. And while opening patient Jason Priestly sometimes seems a little too aware of the joke (like a few other participants from both seasons, you almost see a smile crack through), he's still a great sport:
Dr. Goode: "Have you ever been with a man, Jason?"
Up next is Head Case: Behind the Scenes (7:31), a short but informative look at the series. Wentworth shares her love of improv and her inspiration for the show: "You see all the Us Weeklies and the In Touches...and whenever I see them, the only thing that would come to my mind is, 'Are these people in therapy?! Is anybody working on them besides a trainer?' And just the idea of celebrities on the couch was funny to me...I like the idea of Marilyn Manson in therapy." (So far, no Manson appearance...we can dream!)
Landesberg and Arthur also chime in, while series executive producer/writer/director Jason Farrand notes that "what's been the most fun is going out to the celebrity community and having them come and kind of play themselves--or pseudo-versions of themselves--and we've been able to play with the common misconceptions, so half of this is real therapy." Adds co-creator/executive producer Robert Bauer: "It's right on the razor's edge of truth, or is it not truth? Sometimes the celebrity patients reveal things that either they hadn't intended to reveal, or are honest in the moment."
Also included is a blooper reel (6:14) with a few great moments, including various takes on Wentworth's nightmare "Rape!" scream. Trailers round out the package.