Saturday, October 30, 2010
Therapy as Drama - HBO's 'In Treatment' Starts its Third Season
An unusual format
For those unfamiliar with the show, it's a half-hour drama that follows the stories of therapist Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne, along with several of his patients. It's an unusual format for TV: each episode is one therapy session, and the stories are advanced through dialog between the patient and therapist. Last year, HBO aired them one-a-day. Looks like this year they will be putting a couple of episodes back-to-back, over two days rather than one episode per day.
Therapy as dramatic device
Therapy is a brilliant dramatic device, and In Treatment uses it well. Characters get to immediately dive into intensely personal issues, to the core of their stories, with amazing brevity. It's storytelling shorthand. It's not an accurate portrayal of therapy -- it doesn't have to be. If you've done therapy, you'll, no doubt, see some of the psychoanalytic concepts and behaviors in the show as dated, or 'off'. No matter. In the same way we don't judge cop shows on the basis of verisimilitude, we need to suspend judgment in order to enjoy In Treatment.
And it is enjoyable. With A-list actors like Gabriel Byrne, Debra Winger, Amy Ryan, (along with actors who don't have household names but who can hold their own with the best of them), and great writing, the show can have moments of breathtaking beauty.
One such moment happens in the first episode of Season 3. Actor Irrfan Khan (left) plays grieving widower Sunil, who's been brought from Calcutta to America to live in the spare room of his son and daughter-in-law's home (whom he refuses to speak with). It's a memorable performance of grief and displacement and unspoken anger. More than memorable. Mesmerizing. (I did a bit of digging after watching the episode to find out that Khan is an accomplished Indian actor and has appeared in many films, including Slumdog Millionaire).
Conflict and compassion
Scenes feature someone withholding, hiding, or in denial, the therapist prying, encouraging, listening. Through this, their stories emerge, piece by piece. Conflict arises as patients get pushed closer towards difficult truths and realizations. They often resist and lash out. Weston works at keeping his composure.
Weston's role, and duty, as therapist, is to be caring and non-judgmental - to have compassion for the people in his office. You as viewer are invited into the compassionate perspective. As the show goes deeper into characters' hearts and minds, their sometimes disdainful outward behavior takes on new meaning. There's a woman in the first episode, for example, that I can't stand. But. I'm sure, before the season is over, I'll see why she is the way she is and care for her, like I do the more obviously likable characters.
Reality and projection
Where the show does have parallels with actual therapy is the puzzling conundrum of 'reality' and projection. Each character comes to the scene with partial understanding. The patient with their history, and the therapist with their theoretical constructs, and personal issues.
Is Weston truly 'seeing' what's going on, or projecting some Freudian theory that doesn't fit? Who knows better? When a patient gets angry and yells at Weston for judging them, are they picking up on subtle cues he's giving off, or just projecting their own insecurities? The show does an excellent job playing with that ambiguity, and not providing easy answers.
A celebration of human connection
In Treatment clearly has respect for talk therapy, even as it shows the cracks in the process. It's not trying to undermine what goes on between therapist and patient - quite the opposite. Even though Paul Weston frequently wonders out loud whether or not he is actually helping anyone, it is clear to the viewer that he is. It's just a messy process - like life. Ultimately his compassion and understanding are curative, even if his psychoanalytic theories, and methods are at times suspect.
It helps that Gabriel Byrne's character is nicely complicated. They've supersized his defense mechanisms. "For such a gifted therapist, you have so little understanding of your own inner life," says his mentor at the end of last season. His failings make him human in what would otherwise be a saint-like role.
Season 3 plot overview from the HBO website:
Paul sees three new patients in Season 3: Frances is a former stage and screen star, struggling with her lines for a major Broadway role, while coping with her sister's terminal breast cancer and the implications this might have on her own health. Sunil, a native of Calcutta, has moved in with his son in Brooklyn, but struggles with life in America. He disapproves of the way his son and daughter-in-law are raising their children and suspects his daughter-in-law may be cheating on his son. Jesse, a gay teen, wrestles with his identity and his relationship with his adoptive parents. His birth mother reintroduces herself into his life with tragic consequences.
Paul himself seeks the guidance of a younger psychoanalyst, Adele. Recent struggles with insomnia and a recurrent dream are telling Paul he may have inherited Parkinson's disease from his father.