HANDS steepled, eyes hooded in thought, handsome face transmitting engaged (but neutral) attention, Gabriel Byrne is the rumpled therapeutic lap rug at the center of “In Treatment,” a new HBO series seeking to provide a glimpse of what truly goes on in those 50-minute hours. Starting Jan. 29, it will do so five sessions a week for nine uninterrupted weeks.
Peter Sellers, left, analyzes Peter O’Toole on film, 1965
Adapted from an Israeli television series that turned into a national obsession, “In Treatment” is a surprisingly compelling show, given that most of the action occurs in a single room, and is built around Dr. Paul Weston’s ongoing interactions with a pouty anesthesiologist with attachment issues, a Navy pilot suffering from post-Iraq war stress, an aspiring Olympic gymnast given to troublingly incestuous urges and a married couple who enjoy each other sexually, yet turn into the Bickersons the second they’re out of bed.
It is also, as it happens, the latest instance of Hollywood’s century-old fascination with Freud and his descendants. Movies and television have both had a long and intimate relationship with a profession that has been alternately fetishized, sent up and rendered a cartoon. And that’s when it wasn’t being seen “through the distorting lenses of fear, defensive ridicule and the yearning for an ideal parent,” said Dr. Irving Schneider, a psychiatrist in Chevy Chase, Md., who has written extensively on depictions of psychotherapists in film.
These yearnings, if that is indeed what they are, have given us scores of pop cultural cuckoos, including the mind-destroying madman Dr. Caligari, Michael Caine’s homicidal transvestite psychiatrist in “Dressed to Kill” and, less famously though no less perversely, Art Garfunkel as a chain-smoking analyst caught up in a sadomasochistic affair in Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing.”
Television and movies have presented shrinks as villains, as shamans, as pert, efficient problem solvers like Dr. Joyce Brothers and as supermommies in the mold of the late Penelope Russianoff, a therapist who played a therapist in Paul Mazursky’s 1978 “An Unmarried Woman.” And they have also provided proof there are few problems in life that cannot be remedied by a hug from Judd Hirsch.
Hollywood has always “loved shrinks,” said Krin Gabbard, a literature professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an author of “Psychiatry and the Cinema.” This is not least because, as “The Sopranos” made clear, few theatrical devices speed plot exposition along quite as neatly as a therapeutic session.
“What Dr. Melfi was doing was what psychiatrists have always done” on film and television, Professor Gabbard said, referring to the character played by Lorraine Bracco. “It makes it a whole lot easier to get to know a character if they’re talking to a shrink.”
Or else it does not. Not many people are aware that the most often analyzed actress in cinema history is Ginger Rogers, and yet few would dispute that it would have taken a spelunker and not a therapist to plumb that particular performer’s inner depths. Therapy played for laughs, as it often was in Rogers’s movies, has its own loopy history, Professor Gabbard said.
Think of Dr. Von Hallor, the Viennese psychiatrist in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” his accent and diagnostic skills as thick as schlag. Think of Peter Sellers’s sex-crazed Dr. Fritz Fassbender in the 1965 film “What’s New, Pussycat?” gazing into the soul of Peter O’Toole from behind Beatle bangs. Think of the psychiatrist in “Airplane II: the Sequel,” who, when asked to give his impression of a defendant deadpanned: “I don’t do impressions. My training is in psychiatry.”
It was Dr. Schneider who, after studying more than 200 movies, arrived at a “typology” of therapists on film and the three essential archetypes he called Dr. Dippy, Dr. Evil and Dr. Wonderful. The amiable quack Dr. Dippy had a literal basis in cinematic history, appearing in the first American film representation of so-called “mind doctors” as the title character in “Dr. Dippy’s Sanitarium,” a 1906 film based on a popular comic strip.
“As long as there have been mental health professionals, asylum keepers or alienists, they’ve been caricatured,” Professor Gabbard said, adding that portrayals of Dr. Dippy are sometimes more generous to mental health practitioners than to the people they ostensibly help. “Dr. Dippy is really more of a parody of mental patients — the sleepwalker in the flowing white dress, with a candle out front, that Dr. Dippy tries to control.”
Once a movie staple, the nefarious psychotherapist embodied by Leo G. Carroll in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (whose cannibalism was easy to read as a wink at the psychoanalytic theory of “oral incorporation”) has lately become scarce.
Probably this is because these days a baddie like Dr. Caligari, the original “good example of a bad shrink” as Dr. Schneider called him, would be stopped by his own supervising therapist before he could plant murderous thoughts in Conrad Veidt’s mind.
Dianne Wiest plays Gabriel Byrne’s former supervisor in “In Treatment,” and, more than any other relationship in the series, theirs provides the show with the heft of verisimilitude. Like its Israeli model, “Be’ Tipul” — whose creators include Hagai Levi, the son of therapists, and Ori Sivan, who has described himself as a “therapy true believer” — “In Treatment” assiduously sidesteps the “Analyze This!” clichés. That it scrupulously observes therapeutic boundaries most films make a point of flouting (that hug from Judd Hirsch) in some ways renders the series both more mundane and more thrilling to the viewer, more “real.”
“The problem with most movie depictions of therapy is that they are not just cartoons, but melodramas, and melodrama is the enemy” of a process that can be dynamically glacial and untheatrical by its very nature, said Dr. Adrienne Harris, a Manhattan psychotherapist. “In so many feature film depictions, there are boundary violations, melodramatic crises and denouements, and that is not really how therapy works.”
“What seems intriguing about this new show,” Dr. Harris said, “is that it will focus on listening respectfully and managing the complicated feelings that get stirred up. Therapy is much more like a meditative process than it is like a drama.”
This is another way of saying that the success of “Be’ Tipul” and — HBO executives anticipate — “In Treatment” depends upon tapping into fascinations and compulsions hard to analyze or even explain.
“You know, the National Institute of Mental Health once decided to film an entire analysis,” Dr. Schneider said, describing how sessions were for several years recorded through a one-way mirror, using cameras with reels that ran a full hour. “It was a stupid project,” he said. “The analyst got disenchanted and wanted to stop, but had to keep going, and when they finished hardly anyone wanted to watch. I hope the HBO thing doesn’t turn out like that.”