by Nancy Franklin
To say that the new HBO drama “In Treatment” is boring doesn’t really get at what’s wrong with the show; the problem, to a great extent, is that the show isn’t boring enough. It’s a half-hour drama centered on the therapy sessions of a psychotherapist named Paul (Gabriel Byrne)—sessions with five of his patients, and his own sessions with a former supervisor, Gina (Dianne Wiest). I learned many years ago, when learning such things cost only fifty dollars for forty-five minutes, that boredom isn’t the same thing as stasis. Being bored doesn’t mean that “there’s nothing to do,” as children imprecisely complain to their parents on a rainy day, dragging their feet on the rug and kicking the sofa. It means that something big—whether it’s rain, other people, or our own hot-to-the-touch fears—is keeping us from doing what we want to do, from playing outside, from expressing ourselves, from moving forward.
It’s hard to sit in a room and talk to another person in the way that therapy calls upon you to do. The inevitable silences, the halting admissions, the difficulty of finding the right words, the struggles with that enraging, adored person facing you, the secret pleasures of the embarrassing focus on you—just you, and nobody else but you—may look dull from the outside, but to the people involved it’s a highly charged, tense, and active situation. “In Treatment,” while offering viewers a seemingly intimate look at this process, doesn’t capture the emotional mise en scène: the characters on the show have all too easy a time expressing themselves, and the element of suspense is mostly absent. (What’s missing from “In Treatment” might not have been as noticeable if the show weren’t premièring so soon after “Tell Me You Love Me,” an HBO series about a couples therapist that aired last fall, whose atmosphere of awkwardness and shame came through the TV screen and right up into your face. When the characters in that show spun their wheels and went nowhere, you could smell the burning rubber. And, of course, viewers—I say this at the risk of seeming to beat HBO with its own “Sopranos” stick—still have vivid memories of Tony Soprano’s sessions with Dr. Melfi, which set the bar very high for anyone who wants to dramatize a therapeutic relationship and raise questions about what therapy is for, and about whether it does any damn good, anyway.)
“In Treatment” is adapted from a popular Israeli series, and, in addition to being the first Israeli program to be remade for American television, it can lay claim to a number of other firsts. As it did in Israel, it will run here five nights a week—every weeknight—for nine weeks, with each night devoted to one patient, or, in one case, to a couple. This is HBO’s first half-hour drama, and to fill the hour it will, starting in the show’s second week, run the previous week’s episode before the current one. (New episodes air at 9:30 P.M., Monday through Friday, and there will be many chances to catch repeats if you happen to miss one.) The show has a team of five writers, and, after the first week, each is in charge of his or her own night—in charge of his or her own patient, as it were. This approach is not a bad one, and although it may sound gimmicky, it isn’t. Gimmickiness isn’t “In Treatment” ’s problem. It’s that the writing itself rings false to an almost bizarre degree, with the result that the world created in the show simply isn’t credible. It’s not that there’s no there there; there’s no here there. “In Treatment” seems to be happening in a bubble somewhere, not in the United States, or anywhere else in particular. The show feels translated from another language without having been tailored for a new audience, though that actually isn’t the case; some episodes closely follow the Israeli version, but a number are new. (The first week’s episodes were all written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who is also one of the executive producers, along with Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, and Hagai Levi, the creator of the original Israeli series.)
Paul works from home, in an unnamed, mostly unseen suburb, in an office that’s the size of the New York Public Library; if you stick your head out the window a couple of minutes after the first episode starts, you’ll be able to hear all the psychotherapists in the country laughing, and then crying. The atmosphere, the air itself, is right—the room feels like a safe place, as a therapist’s office should—but, in other ways, the show has it all wrong. The office is packed with things that broadcast Paul’s personal interests (models of boats, photographs), yet, at the same time, we’re given to understand that he prides himself on his professionalism. In fact, his wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes), thinks that work is all that matters to him; in the second week of the series, she berates him, saying, “You’re energetic and alive in this room, and you’re an old man at home.” Well, one thing Gabriel Byrne is not in this role is energetic. His Paul is sympathetic, a good listener, but monotonic and slow to react, and sad, sad, sad. (Depressed, even, and yet, incredibly, the subject of medication never comes up once in a month’s worth of episodes. This really isn’t America.)
What is most at odds with the aims of the show, and with real life, is the way the characters talk. With one exception—a teen-age girl, Sophie (Mia Wasikowska, in what could be a star-making performance), who may or may not have tried to commit suicide, and who seems startlingly real—the patients seem like situations with arms and legs. Monday’s patient is Laura (Melissa George), a thirty-year-old doctor, who’s in a relationship but is in love with Paul (and, in regard to Laura, a narcissist supreme, one really has to echo Prince Charles and add “whatever ‘in love’ means”); she’s a hell of a way to start the week. Her self-involvement is such that she tells Paul, in all seriousness, “Just my being here has brought you back to life.” She’s a key player in the show, alas; Paul, who is fifty, is attracted to her as well. Ethics committee, start your engines. All that is fine and well, if lamentable for the characters; our loss is that Laura isn’t believable. I’ve seen four of her sessions, and only once has she mentioned that she’s a doctor, and she has never mentioned her specialty. (According to the press materials, she is an anesthesiologist.) She acknowledges that she knows nothing about Paul’s life but, unaccountably, doesn’t have enough savvy to admit that maybe a wee bit of transference is going on. Paul’s lines are often robotic; once, making an analogy having to do with mood swings, he says to Laura, “I don’t know if you know anything about scuba diving. They have this thing that’s called the bends? It’s something that happens when the divers come up to the surface too quickly—it’s really dangerous, it can explode your lungs from the sudden changes in pressure.” Laura, during this Mr. Peabody monologue, curls up on her couch, smiles, coyly bites her lip, and then says that she’s a certified diver. It’s a moment of phony intimacy, imposed from above, as if the writers were playing with dolls and had decided to make the boy doll and the girl doll kiss; no doctor needs to have the bends explained to her, and any therapist who’s been seeing a patient for a year would probably know that she was a scuba diver. Picky, picky—but many minutes of every half hour are similarly askew or unlikely.
There are several patients missing from this account: a nasty couple (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz) torn about ending a pregnancy, and a cocky Navy pilot (Blair Underwood) who missed a target in Iraq and killed more than a dozen children. I can say no more without causing repetitive stress injuries to the fingers that type the words “miscast” and “ill-conceived.” And, shiningly, there is Sophie, a talented gymnast and a troubled, spiky, sweet girl, nearly wrecked by the adults in her life. You watch her, mesmerized, praying that she’s not beyond repair. Paul goes into therapy with Gina in the first week, driven there by the Laura tsuris. Wiest is Wiest—and that’s a good thing. Implausibilities abound in Gina and Paul’s relationship, but there are some choice, funny moments when you see how these two old pros play old pros who, just like the rest of us, are not beyond lying to themselves about who they are.
Okaaaay. . . . We have to stop now. We’ll pick up again here next time