If you've been wondering about the art of series-TV writing, and how potent and resonant it truly can be, you need look no further than HBO's extraordinary new "In Treatment." This is a nightly show that unfolds like a succession of tight one-act plays, small emotional storms that accumulate into a searing psychological epic. More clearly than most TV series, "In Treatment" is driven by words and the images and feelings they trigger, and not by action. The scripts take us to vivid distant places - all without once leaving the therapist's office.
Yes, that's right. "In Treatment," whose producers include Mark Wahlberg, is set almost entirely in the home office of Dr. Paul Weston, played with cool intelligence by Gabriel Byrne. We only leave Paul's office, with its pale orange couch and its array of telling baubles, to accompany him to the office of his own therapist, Gina, who's given passive-aggressive ferocity by Dianne Wiest. More than "The Sopranos," more than "Tell Me You Love Me," and yes, more than Dr. Phil, "In Treatment" is talk therapy brought to the small screen in all its pain, claustrophobia, defensiveness, and revelation.
Here's how the nine-week series, based on the Israeli hit "BeTipul," works: Each episode is a half-hour long and, beginning next Monday, one episode will air every weeknight at 9:30. On Mondays, Paul sees Laura (Melissa George), who brings erotic confusion into her sessions. On Tuesdays, Paul treats controlling Navy pilot Alex (Blair Underwood), who's fending off the guilt of an attack gone wrong in Iraq. Wednesdays belong to Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a teen gymnast who may have broken her own arms. Thursdays go to Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), a couple at odds about having another child. And on Fridays, Paul starts to see Gina after years away from therapy. He is pent-up and weary from discord with his wife, Kate, played with rich sorrow by Michelle Forbes.
For a show with minimalist stylings, "In Treatment" is a lot - a lot of episodes (45 in all), a lot of angst, a lot of eavesdropping, a lot of viewer commitment. HBO is making it relatively easy for us to keep up - there will be Sunday marathons of the previous week's episodes, and all the episodes about a particular character will repeat on that character's night. "In Treatment" is the perfect kind of show for power-watching multiple episodes at a sitting.
But still, this is a demanding experiment, and it will only appeal to viewers already interested in the process that Tony Soprano called "terapy." The entertainment on "In Treatment" comes in watching these characters say the opposite of what they mean, or make off-handed comments loaded with significance. When Underwood's Alex insists, about the civilian deaths he caused, "I don't have a guilty conscience," we know better. In the context of the therapist's office, every statement is laden with potential unintentional meanings. In therapy, a cigar usually isn't just a cigar. The intrigue of the show is in watching for fleeting glimpses of the unconscious in the sessions, appearing like fins through the surface.
Naturally, each episode is a condensation. "In Treatment" isn't an attempt to slavishly replicate therapy, including long silences and dull recountings of the week's events. It's an artful approximation, a boiled-down version of a session, a cut to the chase. Occasionally, the scripts feel reductive - Laura's textbook fixation on Paul, and Alex's possible latent homosexuality, are too obvious. But the writing, much of it by producer Rodrigo Garcia (who is the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) is generally nuanced and woven with metaphor - when Paul can't remember which door to use at Gina's office, for example. At one point, Alex spits out Paul's acidic coffee, just like he is spitting out Paul's input.
Because the show has little soundtrack music, unchanging scenery, and only subtle camera play, the actors have the opportunity - and the obligation - to hold our attention. And they do, all of them, as they milk the scripts for every ounce of theatricality and use the office settings as a stage. The actors playing Paul's clients are the flashiest, with Wasikowska something of a revelation as a girl whose premature bitterness subsides as she learns to trust Paul.
But Byrne is the one to watch over the long run. He is true to his last name - he burns, slowly, but surely, despite his stiff manner. With his small, piercing eyes, he sees through everyone but himself. And Wiest is a great surprise, her sweet features and voice putting the lie to her character's barely bridled anger toward Paul. Years earlier, Gina was strictly Paul's supervisor and mentor; now, her role is hazier and fraught with unfinished business.
Some of the most dynamic episodes in the series are those between Paul and Gina. Their therapy relationship is contentious, and ridden with old hurts that rear their heads suddenly and cruelly. Their Friday sessions also put us in the super-viewing position, as we see Paul finally out of control, without his beloved professional mien. We can analyze the therapist, and see what of his own he has been bringing into his clients' sessions. And then we can also analyze the therapist's therapist. Why, for example, is Gina so focused on Paul's sexual boundaries regarding Laura's obsession with him? Why does she keep returning to that issue?
"In Treatment," so rife with projection and transference and counter-transference, so steeped in the pain of both denial and self-awareness, so unabashedly unconventional, proves that HBO is still trying to break new ground. It may not represent the territory that fans of "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos" are hoping to travel, but it's certainly new and risky. Dr. Melfi would probably be pleased.