In Treatment Season One
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Blair Underwood, Dianne Wiest, Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Melissa George, Mia Wasikowska, Michelle Forbes
Series Creator: Hagai Levi, developed by Rodrigo García
The golden age of HBO is over. Gone are the days of high-profile, pop culture-defining shows like The Sopranos and Sex in the City, mixed in with critically-acclaimed smaller successes like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Oz, and Rome. As those series completed, HBO has struggled to find the next big series to anchor the network, releasing a series of tepidly-received shows like The Comeback, Lucky Louie, John from Cincinnati, and Tell Me You Love Me, with all but the latter being cancelled after one season.
Unfortunately for HBO, In Treatment is not going to be the series that puts the channel back on top of the television zeitgeist. It lacks the immediacy and impact of those earlier shows to make a significant inroads into the general viewing public, or even to achieve significant buzz in the critical community. Fortunately, even if it never becomes the type of series that encourages people to subscribe to HBO, those who do check it out should find it to be a high-quality, addictive drama unlike anything else on television.
Adapted from the Israeli series Betipul, In Treatment stars Gabriel Byrne as psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston, following his weekly sessions with patients five nights a week for a total of nine weeks. From Monday through Friday, HBO aired one half-hour episode of the series, with each day dedicated to a specific patient (with the exception of the ninth and final week, which didn’t feature sessions for two of the characters, making the first season a total of 43 episodes).
On Monday, Paul sees Laura (Melissa George), an attractive young anesthesiologist who’s been Paul’s patient for a year dealing with relationship and intimacy issues. On Tuesday, he sees new patient Alex (Blair Underwood), a Navy pilot dealing with a recent mission in Iraq with tragic circumstances. Wednesdays are spent with another new patient, Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), an Olympic hopeful gymnast who goes to Paul in order to get medical clearance following a car accident. Thursdays feature couples therapy with Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz), and on Friday, Paul is the patient when he goes to see his former mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest) to help deal with issues in his own life brought up by his work in the previous four days.
It’s certainly ambitious, producing 2.5 hours of television for over two months straight. It definitely asks more from viewers than other shows, which is one of the reasons why I can’t imagine it ever being a cultural touchstone along the lines of The Sopranos (although, if you’re not tied down to the daily format of the series, and are able to follow it through PVRs, downloads, or DVD, it doesn’t require that much more time than a traditional network drama, with the 43 half-hour episodes adding up to a little over 22 hours).
One of the ideas behind the series is if the viewer doesn’t want to dedicate a half-hour of every evening of their work week to the show, they could choose to follow the characters that interest them in a weekly fashion (i.e., only tune in every Thursday to follow Jake and Amy). In practice, this doesn’t really work, unless you’re truly only interested in one particular character (that isn’t Paul), but in that case, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t just give up on the series as a whole, as I’m not sure any of the patients stories are strong enough individually to make it necessary viewing.
Instead, what makes the show so compelling is its day in, day out nature, where subtle changes begin to feel like seismic shifts as the audience gets used to its pace and characters. Also, while the patients all have their moments, the true story of the show, and the story of the season, is Paul and how he reflects and reacts to the lives of his patients. In order to appreciate how engaged he is with Sophie, you have to see how conflicted he is with Laura, or how weary he is with Jake and Amy. Its a show almost completely devoid of fireworks, so one needs to watch all five stories to appreciate the subtle ways it reveals character and builds narrative.
It’s definitely not a show for everybody, and I mean that sincerely (instead of a backhanded way of saying “people with no taste won’t enjoy this”). Each episode consists of 2-3 people sitting in a room, talking about themselves and their feelings. Because we experience these characters while they’re in therapy, they’re not exactly at their most sensible, so it takes awhile to warm to some of them. And given the emotional nature of the stories and its everyday serial nature, the show is basically high-brow soap opera. So if these things don’t sound like something you would enjoy, you probably won’t enjoy In Treatment.
I was drawn into the show early on largely because of its unique structure. Two to three actors sit in a moderately decorated office, exchanging dynamic dialogue in a one act structure. Compared to the big, expensive HBO productions like Rome or Band of Brothers, its minimalism is practically avant-garde. It was compelling by itself, slowly drawing me into the show until the characters had time to ingratiate themselves. Before long, in true soap opera fashion, I had become hooked to the small-scale interpersonal dramas of the show, angling for my daily In Treatment fix.
Because of its visually-repetitive and emotionally-draining nature, In Treatment doesn’t work as well in bunches as it does on a daily basis, so it won’t make for a great marathon viewing when it comes out on DVD (September 9). But it is ideal for small dose viewing, parsed out in half-hour bits that slowly draw you into the lives of these characters and their issues.
My favourite night was easily Wednesdays with Sophie, both because Wasikowska is so dynamic in the role and because it features Paul at his best. But the rest of the cast also get their moments to shine, be it Underwood’s intensity, George’s vulnerability, or Charles and Davidtz’s surprisingly sympathetic turns (as they spend much of the season as anything but). Gabrielle Byrne is phenomenal in a role the mostly calls for him to keep his emotions hidden, finding ways to reveal character in the smallest moments. Michelle Forbes is equally strong as Paul’s wife Kate, whose character helps the show break out of its standard format by going beyond Paul’s therapy sessions to show his personal life (and reinforce the idea that the show is ultimately about Paul, and viewers have to watch all the episodes to follow what’s going on, as Kate appears in 11 episodes throughout different nights of the series).
The performances are the best reason to watch the show, as this is a series the hinges almost completely on its actors. Obviously, the writing plays a big role, and the directing manages to find small ways to shift the tight focus of the visual palette. But the compelling element of the show is how these characters conceal and obfuscate their feelings while Paul struggles to get past these attempts (all the while doing the same things himself, especially in his sessions with Gina). Shot in intimate close-ups and two-shots with long scenes and loud silences, there’s nowhere for the actors to hide, and they succeed uniformly. What began as somewhat of an intellectual exercise quickly became addictive viewing as the actors made me care about their characters plights and need to see what they would reveal next.
So while it may be unfortunate for HBO executives that they will have to continue to look for the next breakout hit that will encourage people to subscribe to their channel, as a viewer, I’m thrilled to have another original, well-crafted drama that stands up to the level of excellence that HBO has established over the years. It might not be the next big thing, but it may very well be HBO’s next great series.