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Our review of In Treatment: The Complete First Season, published May 13th, 2009, is also available.
Talk to me.
Everyone likes therapy, right? In Treatment: Season Two is riveting in the pejorative sense, in that I feel like someone has driven large metal bolts into my appendages when I watch it.
Okay, it's not that bad. There's something ineffably fascinating about HBO's low-key cerebral drama, but like real therapy, it's an uphill battle to get there.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), now recently divorced and living in Brooklyn continues his psychotherapy sessions with four new patients. Mia (Hope Davis) is a successful malpractice attorney and former patient with a grudge. April (Alison Pill) is a recently diagnosed lymphoma patient in denial about her illness. Oliver (Aaron Shaw) is the young son of a divorced couple, who blames himself for the parental acrimony. Walter (John Mahoney) is a scandal-ridden CEO suddenly plagued by anxiety attacks. Paul also sees his own therapist, Gina (Dianne West) to work out his own demons.
Adapted from the popular Israeli drama BeTipul, HBO's award-winning In Treatment is a bit of an odd duck, even for a cable network known best for pushing more envelopes than an office supply warehouse. I can't even imagine how this show was pitched to network executives. Who in their right mind wants to watch a show about people in therapy? And yet inexorably, against all rational thinking, In Treatment is a terse and well-assembled character drama; neurotic and self-aggravating to be sure, but full of depth and subtlety also.
The format of the show remains singularly unique: Paul has four patients which he sees on Mondays to Thursdays, and he sees his own therapist on Fridays. Each season is structured as a "day" in the life of his therapy sessions: on Mondays, he sees Mia, on Tuesdays, April; on Wednesday he sees Oliver and Thursday he sees Walter. Each DVD disc in the set equals a single week, from Monday to Friday, just how HBO aired the show on television. It is a fascinating approach for a television show, to approximate the passing of time in such a deliberate and methodical fashion. You don't often see a thirty-five episode television season.
Much ballyhoo has been made about the phenomenal acting, and it is no joke. The acting is superb from start to finish, turning out some of the most nuanced and well-executed performances on television. Gabriel Byrne is wholly believable in the lead role, all tortured and enigmatic and damaged. The revolving door cast of patients delivers standout performances, each one worthy of praise equally, but Hope Davis and Paul Mahoney knock it out of the park with grand slams.
In Treatment asks from audiences a commitment to the suspension of disbelief that transcends the normal television relationship. Here, we need to believe that these are real living people; troubled and whiny and flawed and angry people with a complicated tapestry of memories. These people have a schedule. You see Oliver every Wednesday and Mia on Mondays, sure as sugar. It is a credit to the actors and writers that the narrative sustains these illusions as well as they do. A weaker show would simply have disintegrated under the pressure. If you can't buy into the fantasy, then In Treatment may not be the therapy for you.
With a maddeningly slow pace, In Treatment demands a brutal and unforgiving commitment from audience to reap any rewards. Each story arc is like a puzzle box, a languidly paced series of questions and answers and long, probing silences. Watching In Treatment is like watching a fencing match in slow motion, a seven-week commitment to deftly probe into the dark secrets of characters who are, at best, extraordinarily disingenuous and unreliable in the narration department. Just like real therapy. The audience is a fly on the wall, a spy camera in a place we absolutely should not be. You could call it voyeuristic, if it was, you know, even remotely exciting.
Frustrating in its opaqueness, aggravatingly indirect, In Treatment is a surprisingly faithful rendition of how frustrating actual therapy can be. Each episode is an endless outpouring of anxieties and frustrations, both real and implied, full of all the unpleasantness that is the human condition. Evasiveness, petty jealousy, insecurity, anger and fear run as an undercurrent to every conversation. Just like real therapy, there are no quick wins or easy answers. There are no victories or losses, no scorecards to measure performance. There are no direct answers to questions, only dodging and weaving and misdirection.
Gosh, HBO, I don't know. In the last decade, there hasn't been any show you have offered up that has vexed me quite like In Treatment has. On the one hand, this is a marvelously unique show, elegant and sophisticated in tone with riveting writing and smashing performance from its cast; quite unlike anything else on television. And yet I struggle desperately to find the appeal of it, the reason to tune in week to week, or in my case, from disc to disc. Can people really enjoy watching a show like this? I mean, most people who go to therapy won't want to watch a show about people in therapy? And most people who don't go to therapy probably won't want to watch a show about people in therapy, right?
The best adjective I can use to describe In Treatment is "brave." This is a daringly unique and original show, but one whose appeal dances dangerously close to hostility and rebellion for its maddening self-indulgence. The format and subject matter represent a kind of brazen and brilliant minimalism; a rotating cast each season with an endless slew of personal problems and demons. A show like this is the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. It could literally run forever. I just don't think I'll be watching it, thank you very much.
The anamorphic transfer is muted and simple, struggling to fully capture the perpetually un-illuminated subjects in Paul's office. Shadows are deep and heavy, but black levels are not satisfactory rich. The image is clean and free from defect, but lacking crisp detail. Colors are unsaturated, but still within the margin of balance. Not a knockout disc from a technical perspective—the image is too flat, the subjects too stationary—but it gets the job done.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix satisfies. This is a subtle show, with little outside of ambient noise. The score creeps up now and again, a swelling of instrumentation that abates just as quickly during particularly dramatic moments. Dialogue is clear and clean. Environmental noises are clearly discernable, like rustles of fabric or people shifting uncomfortably in chairs. In other shows, these elements could be considered detrimental, but in In Treatment, they feel poignant and deliberate.
As for extras, there are none, which is unexpected for an HBO set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In Treatment isn't as masochistic as some HBO shows (cough, Six Feet Under), but a show where people exercising their emotional and mental demons week in week out feels too much like work for me to enjoy it. Well-acted and expertly written and marvelously acted…sure, but enjoyable? Not even a little.
I don't hate the show, but I don't like it either. My feelings are a weird uncomfortable back-and-forth between dislike and admiration, like the way I feel about my smother. Mother! I mean mother.
In Treatment is an easy show to appreciate for its daringness and prodigious dramatic performances, but a challenging show to love. If you liked Season One, In Treatment: Season Two should be right up the emotionally fragile alley of your traumatic childhood. There are many cups of tea, but this one is not mine.
Not guilty—but not a show I'll be watching again.
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