Saturday, November 27, 2010

Life of the Mind (In Treatment, Season 2)

Is there an actor who listens better than Gabriel Byrne? Usually performers stand out by how adeptly they fill silences, and to be sure Byrne's distinctive Irish brogue can put a memorable backspin on moments of levity or gravitas. On In Treatment, though, he spends the majority of his screen time as an actor portraying a psychiatrist should -- by reacting to the actors around him. Not only is Byrne a great listener, he has a seemingly endless array of ways to listen: Sometimes he lets you in on exactly what he's thinking; other times he erects a wall around his character, Dr. Paul Weston, that keeps you out and leaves you guessing. In Treatment: Season 1 gave us a Paul Weston who was besieged on all sides, his skills as a therapist suffering as a result. Season 2 (now on DVD) shows Paul, if anything, facing higher personal and professional stakes than before; only this time he brings his A-game to nearly every session. (Season 3 is currently in progress on HBO.)

In Treatment is very much an actor's show: each episode, about 25 minutes long, consisting of two characters sitting in a room talking to each other. (Occasionally an episode will break this format, but not often.) It's a series that's ultimately only as good as its actors, and the first season's ensemble ran the gamut from the annoying (Melissa George) to the sublime (Mia Wasikowska). Something miraculous happened that year: What was to be the pivotal plot arc, Paul's falling in love with Laura, a neurotic patient (George), fizzled; but his sessions with Sophie, a suicidal teen gymnast (Wasikowska) soared, so that by the end of the season (five episodes per week for nine weeks), Sophie became the heart of the show, and all the earlier flaws seemed to dissipate.

Season 2 has no hole in need of filling. All the actors bring his or her A-game to rival Byrne's. Hope Davis (no stranger to screen therapy, from Mumford) leads off each week as Mia, a former patient of Paul's from 20 years earlier, now a successful attorney at the law firm representing Paul in a malpractice suit. (Fallout from the first season, with Paul's treatment of Alex, a pilot who kills himself, leading to accusations of blame from Alex's unstable father, played by the remarkable Glynn Turman.) Next comes Alison Pill as April, a young graduate student dying of cancer; followed by Aaron Grady Shaw's Oliver, an adolescent reeling from his parents' recent divorce. As Walter, a wealthy CEO with a sleeping disorder, John Mahoney (best known as the father of another therapist on Frasier) gradually reveals deeper layers of anxieties. Ending each week, like the first season, is Dianne Weist playing Paul's own therapist, Gina, a former mentor and friend who possibly knows him too well.

I watched the first season of In Treatment twice on DVD: the first time through every episode featuring every patient; the second time I selected only the characters who resonated with me (Sophie, Alex), following their individual arcs from start to finish. In Treatment: Season 2 is so consistently strong that when I revisit it I can't imagine skipping anybody. Each of the four patients we follow (other secondary patients are given glimpses throughout the season) represents an aspect of Paul's life that he's either confronting or avoiding: a failed marriage; estrangement from his children; difficulties with his father. Individually, their sessions are compelling; cumulatively, they serve as external manifestations of the inner workings of Paul's psyche.

Even more than before, the second season of In Treatment asks probing questions about the benefits and detriments of therapy, where the boundaries lie between therapist and patient. Mia questions whether feeling miserable after each session does anybody any good. Walter is so set in his ways that examining his life at this stage in his life "opens a Pandora's box," as another character puts it, that perhaps would be better left shut. April refuses to go to chemo or tell her parents about the cancer, forcing Paul to decide whether to intervene and take her himself. Oliver becomes such a lonely kid, living between two homes, that even a simple matter of asking Paul if he'll make him a sandwich blurs the line between being a therapist and being a friend or father-figure.

If this description makes the show sound like heavy weather, I should add that an assortment of moods and tones are juggled in every episode. Each session is like a fencing match, with Paul and his patients parrying and thrusting with jabs and barbs and accusations and recriminations. Oftentimes, the show is deeply funny. Then there are the silences, the long pauses where memories and dreams and friendships and romances are shared. I've called In Treatment an emotional epic: a single twenty-five minute episode can stretch across space and time, with descriptions of people in the patients' lives so vivid that it's astonishing to realize that we often never meet them.

While the performers deserve much of the credit for this, props must also go to the thoughtful writing and directing that go into each episode, following the template set by the original Israeli series BeTipul. (Paris Barclay took over the series for S2, following Rodrigo Garcia in S1.) The art direction and production design also add a great deal to the overall experience, turning the main setting from Paul's study in season one (in the house he shared with his wife and kids in Baltimore) to a Brooklyn apartment in season two (where he lives alone). Warm, enveloping shadows filter into the room, with signs of the seasons changing through the windows -- subtle shifts that mirror the fluctuating emotional states of Paul's patients.

I'd be curious to know what real psychiatrists think of In Treatment. (The DVD set is, once again, disappointingly non-existent with special features.) My guess is they would regard the tests and challenges put before Paul as too dramatic, the breakthroughs occurring too soon. This is a television drama, however, not a documentary; and for TV the series paces itself much more gradually than is customary, its rhythms as metronomic and mesmerizing as that wave machine rocking back and forth in Paul's office (and appearing over the opening theme). And then there is Byrne, generously opening up a wide enough emotional space to include patients and viewers, penetrating with questions, basking in silences.


etopt said...

You said you'd be fascinated to know what real therapists think of In Treatment? On, they have a panel of 3 therapists, reviewing the current episodes of Season 3. It is really fascinating reading. Check it out.

Craig said...

Thanks, I will!