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Hybrid Series 'Huff’ Hooks Viewers Slowly

10/31/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Huff, Showtime’s highly touted new series starring Hank Azaria, may not grab you instantly. Part legal show, part medical drama, part comedy, it’s a hybrid that needs time to lay out all its characters and their foibles before the viewer can become irrevocably involved.

Azaria portrays Dr. Greg Huffstodt, a psychiatrist bored with the banal struggles of his patients until a troubled 15-year-old commits suicide in his office. The tragedy knocks him off the tightrope that is his life.

But you shouldn’t focus solely on that struggle. Through multiple episodes, viewers come to realize the shooting — and resulting malpractice suit — are just the biggest of Huff’s problems. His best friend, Russell (Oliver Platt) is a hedonistic, sexist, drug-abuser who’s amazingly effective as an attorney and fierce in his protection of his friend. Huff’s wife Beth (Paget Brewster) and live-in mother-in-law, Izzy (Blythe Danner) are engaged in a daily power struggle over control of the family. Preternaturally mature 14-year-old Byrd (Anton Yelchin) is discovering sexuality, prompting moments such as the one in episode three, in which he matter-of-factly explains to his parents that he had been at an oral sex party with peers the previous night.

The characters unfold like the layers of an onion. Just when you think you hate Izzy, she becomes the salvation of a stroke-addled friend. When you think Russell can’t function after a coke-fueled binge with two electronics store employees and the plasma-TV installers (you just have to watch), he bails Huff out of a jam, teaching his friend the difference between justice and law.

The principals are amazing, led by Azaria, who sets the tone of normalcy while emoting the depths of despair to the giddiness of coping with daily absurdity. A less-gifted actor would have turned Russell into a complete buffoon, but Platt always keeps viewers in touch with the real man behind the excesses. Danner’s tour de force, Izzy, is manipulative and annoying, yet you want to see what she’ll do next.

Then there’s the guest stars: Lara Flynn Boyle as a bipolar hysteric/stalker; Annie Potts as the damaged mother of the suicide victim; and Bob Saget, playing against type as a sitcom star on a marathon drug binge.

The family’s problems are extreme, but at the emotional core, the series rings true. If you give it until the third episode, Huff will really hook you.

Huff debuts Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

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