Representing one of Showtime’s concerted bids to steal some of HBO’s prestigious thunder, the first season of “Huff” generated award recognition and some critical praise, if not much of an audience. Renewed even before its premiere, the second flight of episodes shares much with year one — showy perfs tethered to uneven writing and a less-defined premise than those of other top pay TV dramas. Put together, this equation is less than the sum of its parts, which won’t dissuade the show’s small but loyal following from savoring its twisted turns.
Introductory season was set in motion by the suicide of a gay teen in the office of his psychiatrist, Craig “Huff” Huffstodt (Hank Azaria), which provided a point of entry into Huff’s life and his peculiar web of friends and family. Beyond his patient wife, Beth (Paget Brewster), he had a precocious teenage son, Byrd (Anton Yelchin); a lush of a mother, Izzy (Blythe Danner), a mentally ill brother, Teddy (Andy Comeau); and a drug-downing, sex-crazed lawyer pal, Russell (Oliver Platt, at his zany, vulgar best).
Those characters hurtled through a series of outlandish entanglements, from Teddy’s illness and eventual disappearance to Byrd’s forays into teen sex to Russell’s out-of-control behavior, which culminated in his affair with Izzy, driving a spike into his relationship with Huff.
All those pieces remain in play in the two-hour opener, from Izzy’s drunken meandering to Russell landing an equally screwy new client, played by Sharon Stone as a cross between her roles in “Basic Instinct” and “The Muse.” Swoosie Kurtz also delivers poignant support, along with the marvelous Danner, as Beth’s ailing mother.
Unfortunately, series creator Bob Lowry’s world is filled with decadence and dementia but has no real guiding template for this oddball assortment of personalities. In fact, the one element that initially grounded the show — Huff and Beth’s loving marriage, a rarity in TV — has been undermined by his earlier flirtation with infidelity, robbing the show of even that basic bit of humanity.
That doesn’t mean “Huff” is without top-flight moments, thanks to its uniformly stellar cast, but too often the show feels “out there” mostly because it’s pay cable, not because the characters deal with the Mafia, funeral arrangements, polygamy or being gay — anything that would help process all the over-the-top behavior.
Ditto for the dialogue. Sometimes it’s wonderful, but Danner, for example, is saddled with a line like “Whatever happened to happiness, Byrd? Whatever happened to hope?” while adult-sounding asides consistently spill from teen Yelchin’s lips.
The pay services operate by their own arcane set of rules in measuring success, and “Huff” has certainly met a few of those criteria. In addition, Showtime has given the program HBO-style treatment, which included sending out all 13 episodes in advance in a splashy package.
Even so, “Huff” has all the trappings of a series that aspires to greatness and simply doesn’t get there — the one way, alas, in which it isn’t over the top.