Thursday, 28 May 2009

End Of Season Review: In Treatment

When new TV shows are announced, it's inevitable that, for someone like myself, it's the flashy stuff that catches my attention, because basically I'm a twelve-year old nerd in an adult's body. Sad, but true. This TV season it was Fringe and Dollhouse that caught my attention, even when they turned out to be of variable quality. The year before, it was Journeyman, and next year it will be Flash Forward that I spend most time anticipating. Every other new show will be extraneous. Everyone is telling me that Glee is great and must be seen, but it's like High School Musical for adults, right? So, it's the American Britannia High? Even if there was ten Jane Lynch clones in it I'd still not be too bothered.

Of course, this means I miss the real gems. Much as I liked Fringe and Dollhouse (and loved Journeyman), with all of their crazy sci fi speculative craziness, they will only occasionally give me as much satisfaction as, say, the whole second season of Mad Men. The rest of the time, I'll wince and hope the next episode is better. It's a sickness. I've not even watched Breaking Bad yet, despite the involvement of X-Files hotshot Vince Gilligan, just because a teacher making drugs doesn't interest me as much as a show featuring a big transgenic monster, even though that episode of Fringe was almost unwatchably stupid and boring, and Breaking Bad is apparently better than sex in a Ferrari, according to its many fans.

I'm my own worst enemy, because this bias stopped me from watching the first season of In Treatment, which struck me as a potentially tedious and earnest drama which would also require a huge investment of time. With the season running over nine weeks, and each week featuring five instalments of around twenty-two minutes in length, it was like watching nine two-hour movies featuring the same characters, the same structure, and surely the same dialogue. Descriptions of the show mentioned how it was the most realistic depiction of psychotherapy yet shown in TV or film, which suggested that development in the characters would be incremental, just like in real life. Why would I spend that much time with these people?

Sometimes I love being proved wrong. Canyon persuasively argued its case, and convinced me to give it a try (which is more than I have done for her new favourite thing in the world, So You Think You Can Dance [It is genius and you are watching the first performance show. Adam Shankman and L'il C 4-eva! -- Canyon]). After a few episodes, during which time I adjusted to the format (one-on-one conversations between therapist Dr. Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne, and his patients), it became apparent that In Treatment was the most intense kind of long-form storytelling on TV right now, and if you’re interested in “The Golden Age of TV”, and how newly confident TV writers and directors have become so adept at creating and sustaining this relatively new form of extended narrative, you have to try it out. Based closely on an Israeli show called Be'Tipul, which ran for two seasons, the show has been described as a series of vignettes or short stories that just happen to be linked by the main character, but really they are "TV as novel" just like shows that run for a longer period (such as The Wire and The Shield), but in a more concentrated dose.

Paul's patients are protagonists in their own way, and we care about the outcomes of their therapy, but more than that the show is an intricately detailed character study of one man, either by reflection - we see who he is through his reactions to his patients - or by action, i.e. how he breaks the boundaries of his role as therapist, and how he treats his family and therapist Dr. Gina Toll (played brilliantly by Dianne Wiest). By the end of the first season, it became clear that, though we had been following five stories, we had learned the most about one man, someone who had lost sight of what he was supposed to be doing and had thrown his life into disarray by committing the same mistake his patients had: not listening to good advice from those who care about them.

Both Canyon and I fell deeply in love with the show after rushing through the first season at a rate we've not done since we watched all of The Shield in a few weeks. Nevertheless, I was concerned about the second season, which was no longer run by Rodrigo Garcia, the man who had done such a good job of adapting the original series for a new audience. This change of leadership struck us as an odd move, thinking it was perhaps brought on by the low viewing figures and minimal press coverage; other than the odd rave here and there, what little attention it got was to point out how boring therapy is and silly it was, with plenty of whining about the amount of episodes. God, it must be SO HARD being a TV critic.

Turns out that making a series of thirty-five to forty-five episodes, with a shooting schedule of two days per episode (with no time to rehearse), takes its toll. In this interview with new showrunner Warren Leight, he tells of the deep fatigue everyone working on the show feels, with Garcia dropping out after one season, and Byrne and Leight both ready to move on as well. Sad though that is, I can completely understand.

And when I say sad, I mean really sad. This season was a marked improvement over the already impressive first, and that terrible burden of thirty-five episodes, that so upset the poor TV critics, was just too small. Could the show come back? Though each episode of In Treatment is based on a corresponding episode of Be'Tipul, the writers and directors and cast seem to have fallen into a consistent groove, rattling out incredibly complex and honest drama at an amazing rate. If HBO were willing to spend more money on development time, letting the writers construct a new set of patients and motivations for Paul, and giving the cast and crew longer to rehearse, there is no reason this show cannot continue indefinitely. Fans are talking about how the show could carry on with a new therapist, perhaps Wiest's Toll. Anything to get it back for at least another year.

Luckily, as the chances of the show returning are slim, this season did provide some measure of closure, though it stretches the definition of the term somewhat. As therapy is rarely able to completely fix a person, the show could not have each patient walk out with all of their problems solved. At best we got to see that some characters were willing to continue their therapy after a breakthrough, and others left before that could happen. Unsurprisingly, after spending the most time with Paul, and seeing him deal with divorce, lawsuits, estrangement from his family, and the death of his father, we got the sense that he was nowhere near happiness, only getting to the point where he wants to continue being a therapist after a crisis of confidence. A nice set-up for a new season, and a nice way to end it if that doesn't happen.

So why do I love it so much? Mostly for the same reasons that everyone does. The performances are truly magnificent (especially considering there are no rehearsals), the writing is perceptive and complex (and is apparently sometimes amended on set as the actors make certain choices), and the direction is a feat of engineering (different directors are expected to keep different "days" visually and tonally distinct even though the show is set almost entirely in a single room). Technically the show is a marvel, and the performers are repeatedly giving their best work ever. All of the characters in Paul’s circle are brought to life with incredible detail, but Byrne in particular deserves most of the praise. His personification of this complex, infuriating, and defiantly sympathetic character is one of the great acting feats of our age. This is not hyperbole; his commitment to emotional truth is revelatory.

I also love that the show is constructed with such meticulous care, even though the tight schedule demands that scripts are sometimes altered at the last minute. Despite that, the arc of the season, with Paul losing sight of what it means to be a therapist, and slowly coming to a realisation of what he can offer, is far more fascinating than some end-of-second-act crisis. While the first season showed him wrecking his life over a futile desire, and perhaps taking the life of one of his most combative patients, the second season showed the aftermath, and his slow climb back to a semblance of normalcy. Threatened with the loss of his practice, horribly lonely now his wife has left him, and increasingly frustrated with his antagonistic patients, Byrne brilliantly portrays his weariness in each session.

That's to be expected. What is even more pleasing is how each patient connects to the other patients, and to Paul. As his father lies terminally ill in hospital, the patients remind Paul of his own familial strife throughout.

Mia (Hope Davis) dislikes her mother and loves her father, while yearning for a child of her own and, possibly, a relationship with Paul.

April (Allison Pill) is dying of cancer, and unwilling to accept the help of her mother after years of caring for her autistic brother.

Oliver (Aaron Shaw) is a young boy whose parents, Luke and Bess (Russell Hornsby and Sherri Saum), are acrimoniously divorcing, and feels responsible for their break-up.

Walter (John Mahoney) is a CEO on the verge of losing his job, and who is too attached to his daughter at the cost of his relationship with his sons.

At first the connections between them are slight, but over the course of the season they become more pronounced. April's nihilistic attitude, refusing to treat her cancer, reflects Walter's late-season suicide attempt (both triggered by their dread of burdening their loved ones), which in turn recalls Oliver's guilt over the events occurring around him. Oliver, Luke and Paul all have fractious relationships with their fathers, while Mia seems to have a loving relationship with her father that turns out to be a lie, and Walter feels he has somehow failed his daughter. Mia and Paul both hide from the truth of their childhood, constructing fantasies about which parent was the most supportive, in order to blot out uncomfortable truths.

Bess and Mia are faced with the conflict between motherhood and career, though while Mia opts for career and ends up regretting it, Bess opts for motherhood and regrets that just as much. Paul loses a father, and Gina and Walter are both grieving for lost loved ones to varying degrees. Paul and April have given up on their futures due to circumstances beyond their control (a potentially ruinous lawsuit and lymphoma respectively). Luke, Mia and Walter all want families around them in order to prove a point, because that is the way things are done. Luke is trying to negate the neglect he felt from his own father, Mia thinks other people will make her happy as that seems to be the way of things, and Walter goes along with it as that is just the way things were when he was younger.

All of these connecting issues are secondary to Paul and his relationships, and how he manages, at the last minute, to use those experiences to help his patients. After telling Gina that he thinks he can do no good for others as he himself is so screwed up, she gives him the advice to act as if he believes he is helping them all. In the final week, Paul uses his experiences to bring some form of peace to all of his patients. Mia, whose relationship with her father has been so close that she cannot let any other man get close, despairs of ever finding intimacy, and when Paul tells her that her confessional sessions with him are perfect examples of her capacity for intimacy, he's telling himself as well, and reassuring himself that he is not necessarily alone, which generates the later realisation that he needs to cultivate more non-work relationships. April is unable to imagine a future for herself, and Paul's advice is given from the natural perspective of someone who has lived longer and seen how possibility can arise. He also symbolically stops her from using her brother's needs as a barrier to living life, by giving her his father's hat to use instead of the itchy one, given to her by her brother, that she had previously been using.

In the previous weeks of the show, Paul's father dies before Paul is able to reconcile with him after years of neglect, an error that haunts him until the end of the season, especially as his separation from his own younger son is troubling him. Using this pain as a touchstone, Paul tells Luke to do everything in his power to never lose touch with Oliver, and Oliver is reassured that his father really loves him and always will. As both man and boy respect Paul's judgement, you get the very real sense that they will take his words to heart. Walter is given similar advice about reconnecting with his sons, even though he is adamant that it is too late for him.

Of course, as he heals these people, they heal him. April tells him that Sophie, his suicidal patient from the first season, has written about him on the Internet, and is proof that he has been able to save a life. By keeping in contact with Oliver, Paul finds a new connection, one he can keep and monitor from a perspective of wisdom and not emotional irrationality, as he does with his own children. The advice that he gives both Mia and Walter, about not giving up treatment even though it seems like it is too late to help them (because of Mia's perimenopause and Walter's old age), applies to himself as well, giving him the awareness that what he does has merit, and that the parts of his life that are lacking are easily filled, especially once the lawsuit against him is dropped.

This satisfying cross-cutting complexity is good enough to make this one of the best shows on TV right now. Only Lost matches it for storytelling ambition. It's no coincidence that both shows feature some of the most detailed characters in modern fiction, spending hours revealing enormous amounts of back-story. Lost's use of this device is for story reasons that are not entirely clear right now (other than to have some great characters in the show, obviously), but what makes In Treatment so special is that without distractions (smoke monsters, time travel, the unbelievable hottness of Sawyer and Juliet), the show can concentrate on doing just one thing; illuminating the human condition. That remarkable format means it is done in enough detail that it speaks to all of us.

On top of that are incredible individual moments: Walter's final tearful breakthrough; Paul's confrontations with Alex's father, played by Glynn Turman; Mia’s defiant resistance to any possibility of change, and her epiphany in her final episode; Paul’s eruption at the breathtaking selfishness of Luke and Bess; Oliver contentedly eating the sandwich Paul has made for him; and all of April's fourth session, a masterclass in acting and writing that left me shaking with emotion when it was over. By the time the final week aired, I was sobbing at the end of almost every episode, especially Oliver’s final appearance.

All of this could make the show sound like a worthy slog, but it does manage some light moments too. In the final episode, it was especially pleasing to hear Paul's rant about how much he hates his chair, which must have been added by Leight as a nod to Byrne's real hatred of the prop he has been using. I also love that he is just about the least funny character on TV, occasionally cracking out some dreadful pun to lighten the mood (the only person who seems to enjoy his jokes is Gina, who is similarly nerdy). Nevertheless, the show deals with such bleak subject matter that the tone couldn’t sustain wisecracking from the characters. It’s not something you miss, though I appreciate that this might be a deal-breaker for some.

Right now the show is not watched by many in the US, and the UK is currently not showing it. Hopefully someone will buy it soon. It's on region 1 DVD, so US readers can hire it or buy it, and when it eventually gets shown in the UK, hopefully it will be on BBC Four and that format (one episode each weeknight) will be retained. If so, ignore the critics who label the show boring (it's actually horribly addictive), and don't be put off by the big commitment (you'll be gutted when it finishes). It's more rewarding than any other show in recent memory, and more moving. It's the kind of intelligent, daring, and compassionate experience that makes you glad to be alive. Good TV can help you pass the time. Excellent TV can change the way you see the world. In Treatment is so perceptive, and so profound, it might actually change the way you see yourself. Do yourself a favour and hunt it down immediately.


Canyon said...

I think one of the things I love most about the show (and there are many, many things to love), and the reason I'm fascinated by psychology in general, is the little puzzles the characters present each week, as we and Paul try to work out why they act the way they do. They're so tightly constructed and carefully written that it's easy to forget they're not real people with real problems. I think Terry Gross pointed out that it's like watching a mystery every week, but the mystery is the characters' motivation and personality. It's the very essence of drama, really.

And you touched on it briefly, but I love how calm and wise and compassionate Paul is with his patients and how childish and petulant and angry he is with Gina (as his patients are with him -- I sometimes feel bad for him when he's taking all that abuse, but then he just dumps it all back on Gina. Whither Gina's dumpee?).

Please bring this back, HBO, preferably with more money behind it so it doesn't kill the people who make it.

Masticator said...

But is it any good though?

Canyon said...

Better than your joke. HI-YO!

Chrissy said...

I watched the first season and had to take it slowly because I was such an incredible mess at the end.

I wanted to shake Paul so badly - the people in his life who loved him and cared for him were doing everything within their power to connect to him and he couldn't see it, even as he clearly saw where his patients needed help.

I truly believe that it was the superb casting that worked for this show. Michelle Forbes always brings a bit of the astringent to the table and you could see why Paul feel for her but also why she could be utterly frustrating to a man who was so careful about keeping himself under control. Dianne Wiest showed a sternness and no BS that I'd only seen touched on in earlier roles. But the one who I adored and looked forward to seeing each week was Sophie. She broke my heart every week, even as old and cranky as I am.

Can't wait to find the second season out on DVD so I can catch up.

sjwoo said...

Great, great post. It's funny -- even though Mia had the least "important" problem -- an aging woman bemoaning her pervasive loneliness -- I found her issues to be the most compelling. Maybe it's just a testament to Hope Davis' abilities as an actress; she's just a goddess.

And even though I enjoyed the Paul-Gina sessions from season 1, I thought the ones this season were spectacular. Marsha Norman ('Night Mother) managed to create an incredible amount of tension with each episode, like the early one where Gina is threatening to leave (to go shopping or something?) after Paul is being wishy-washy about having her as his therapist. It's serious theater at its best.

By the way, there was a great piece in the New York Times about Alison Pill and Sarah Treem a few weeks back. Check it out if you haven't:

Dawn White said...

Brilliant John! I am so happy that you guys enjoyed this is truly one of my all time favs -- they are each like a little play within a play. And such insights into Paul...ahhh. A Dream of a Series.