‘The only measure I have of whether I’m helping somebody or not, is how my patients feel about it, and how their lives go on from there, and they won’t know that until long after we’ve stopped therapy… I guess what I’m trying to say is that, these people come to me, and they want me to fix their problems, and the truth is I think all I can do is walk with them for a while, keep them company during a rough patch. I don’t think anybody’s life can be figured out, but it is in our nature to keep trying to make sense of it, and sometimes we can use help, that’s when if we’re lucky there’s somebody in the room who can listen. I doesn’t have to be somebody perfect, [it can be] somebody sufficiently screwed up to actually get what we might be going through.’
That’s a direct monologue taken from the last episode of In Treatment’s second season, which aired on the US network HBO this past Tuesday, from its main character Paul on the process of psychotherapy. It illustrates both the eternal conflict of the series over its two seasons, as well as verbalising the ongoing need for personal and intellectual growth that every human wishes to experience. This is part of what makes In Treatment so compelling, it is intellectually simulating. It requires not only passive viewing, but also active participation. Watching In Treatment allows viewers to understand themselves better. Very few fictional television dramas can achieve this.
In Treatment is about a psychotherapist, 53-year-old Dr. Paul Weston, and his weekly sessions with patients. The program, which stars Gabriel Byrne as Paul, is a five-night-a-week series. The program's format, script and opening theme are based on the successful Israeli series BeTipul, created by Hagai Levi. Each episode of In Treatment focuses on one patient, including Paul, who is seeing his own psychotherapist, Gina, played by Dianne Wiest. The first season included 43 episodes, each airing a different night of the week, Monday through Friday. The first season covered nine weeks for most of the characters, except in the final week, which did not have Monday and Tuesday night installments.
During the first season Paul sees Laura on Monday, an anesthesiologist who is in love with him. On Tuesday, he sees Alex, a fighter pilot traumatized by a recent mission. Wednesday, Paul works with Mia, a suicidal, damaged, and an anorexic teenaged gymnast. On Thursday, Paul tries his hand at couple’s therapy with Jake and Amy who are deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Finally on Friday, Paul visits his own therapist, Gina.
The first season establishes the main structure and flow for the sometimes separate, sometimes interrelated plot points, as each character has some sort of psychological breakthrough towards the end of the season’s run. However, what makes the writing of In Treatment a particular pleasure is that just like real life some of the conflicts are resolved, some are not, and some lead to even harsher consequences. The beauty of the screenplay and the acting is that there are no obvious ‘light bulb’ moments because character development is gradual. The challenge for the viewer is to really listen to the way both the patients and the therapists communicate. The skill in Byrne’s amazingly subtle acting is the way that he uses different facial expressions to convey different subtexts according to the situation. Similarly, the level of restraint Weist displays when Byrne turns aggressive in his own therapy sessions is a marvel.
As good as the first season is, the second series is far superior as Paul embarks on therapy sessions with a different set of patients whilst still seeing Gina on Fridays. The characters are more complex, the writing is more intelligent, the acting is more nuisanced and although there is less dramatic conflict, there is a larger emotional payoff for the viewer,
On Monday, Paul sees Mia, a successful malpractice attorney and former patient of Paul's from 20 years ago, who blames him for her present status: an unmarried, childless, workaholic, who makes poor choices in men. April is Paul’s patient on Tuesday, an architecture student diagnosed with lymphoma, which she has been keeping shamefully secret and appears in denial about the severity of her illness. Wednesday, Paul embarks on therapy with Oliver, the 12-year-old son of Bess and Luke, a divorcing couple, who blames himself for the family chaos. Thursday, Paul sees Walter, a self-confident CEO with a history of panic attacks, who finds his life is becoming overwhelming.
I found the season two sessions with Paul and April particularly astonishing. Allison Pill’s performance as the young woman diagnosed with cancer, whilst trying to balance a university education and family commitments is worthy of several awards. The way Pill is able to change her emotions in such a versatile fashion from anger to sorrow, from pessimism to optimism, and from strength to vulnerability is a sight to behold.
In Treatment is certainly not for the faint hearted. Its demanding viewing structure makes it perfect for rainy day DVD sessions (Season 1 is available now) or cable TV marathons. As Paul says to April in one of her therapy sessions ‘The thing about self knowledge, is that once you have it, you have it’ The great thing about In Treatment remains that it not only teaches you about self knowledge in an entertaining manner, but it empowers you to discover your own subconscious.