Tuned In

HBO Gets Back on the Couch

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(Apologies in advance for the longish post, but I watched 10 hours of HBO’s newest series only to write about 60 freaking words in the print TIME–that’s 10 minutes a word, folks–so I’ve gotta get my verbiage on here.)

Byrne sits and listens in HBO’s sit-and-talk-y new drama. / HBO photo: Claudette Barius

HBO’s new series, In Treatment, is an intriguing, often rewarding experiment that’s well worth checking out. Which is why I’m asking you, in your own best interests, not to watch the first episode tonight.

A bit of explanation. In Treatment is a five-nights-a-week serial drama that, in some ways, is really like five separate series. Each Monday through Thursday therapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) sees a different patient, and each patient returns each week. Mondays he sees Laura (Melissa George), a young woman having problems with her fiance; Tuesdays it’s Alex (Blair Underwood), a Navy pilot who went on a mission gone bad; Wednesdays he evaluates Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a possibly suicidal teen gymnast; Thursdays he’s with Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), a yuppie couple debating having a baby. Fridays he sees his own therapist, Gina (Diane Wiest), to whom he vents about his patients, as well as his problems with his wife (Michelle Forbes), which crop up at other points in the week.

Whew. You got that? You may want to get graph paper and draw a grid.

As you’d guess, this is one talky series—really, it’s like a nightly one-act play with a very small cast. If you’re one of the people who thinks HBO has gotten too far up its own navel with cerebral stories where no one kills anyone else, you will hate In Treatment. The writing is uniformly strong and Byrne excellent not only at reading Paul’s dialogue but conveying what he’s withholding—his true feelings about his patients, his inner turmoil over his disintegrating home life. But the storylines vary wildly from riveting to tedious. (When I wrote my review, I literally gave each night a separate grade and averaged them out with a calculator: the series overall got a B-, but the individual nights ranged from A to D+.)

Tuesdays and especially Wednesdays are the best bets. Alex, forced to seek therapy after a bombing raid gone wrong, protests too much that he feels no guilt, and his need to feel in control of the situation turns every encounter with Paul into a passive-aggressive, or just aggressive, play for dominance. (After complaining about the coffee Paul serves, he returns with an espresso machine, a “gift” intended to show his authority and make Paul feel indebted.) And Wasikowska is flat-out stunning as the Olympic hopeful who, seeking therapy after a car accident that may have been intentional, gradually reveals a heartbreaking story while fighting Paul—slyly, charmingly, sometimes cruelly—every step of the way.

Unfortunately, the show kicks off with Laura, whose story involves the oldest psych-drama twist in the book, transference: the beautiful, self-destructive woman confesses her love for Paul in the first session. (I suppose that may be a spoiler, but it comes early and is too cliched to really count, and The Sopranos handled the same issue much better.) Her sessions are both melodramatic and dull and they put Mrs. Tuned In off the series from the get-go, which is why I suggest you catch up on this one later, if at all. Jake and Amy, meanwhile, are saddled with class issues (she’s the one with the money) and the kind of marital resentments that Tell Me You Love Me rendered more fully. (Watching their sessions, I realized how much I missed the context that that show’s non-therapy scenes gave the explosions that came out in counseling.) Paul’s sessions with Gina, meanwhile, fall in the middle. They’re technically impressive–two old colleagues and, we learn, rival, using all the tricks of their craft on each other—but they depended too much on old professional resentments I couldn’t get interested in.

I said earlier that this show was like five series, but that’s not entirely true. As the weeks play on, some of the storylines become intertwined (which helps elevate some of the weaker ones), and Paul’s home problems are a running thread throughout all of them. As the details accumulate, the show becomes richer and more quietly fascinating. You’ll definitely get more out of In Treatment if you watch every night (helpfully, HBO is running all the week’s episodes in a block on Sundays). But it may be no coincidence that the best of the five nights—Sophie on Wednesday—is the one that is almost entirely separate from the others. (At least through the four weeks that I’ve watched so far.) If you want to pare In Treatment down to one strong half-hour a week, that’s the one.

Otherwise, be patient and remember that therapy is a process. And you’ve got to take the bad with the good to get to the real breakthroughs.