The Dirty Irresistibility of HBO’s ‘In Treatment’

Originally written for and posted on RootSpeak, November 11, 2010.

A friend recommended In Treatment to me about a year ago and so I started watching season one. I became addicted to the show pretty quickly, gobbling it up in large amounts at a time, and luckily season two was there right after to keep me engaged in the story for another month.

This wait for season three, however, was pretty dismal. For a while, In Treatment fans on message boards (which, yes, I went to in desperation) were speculating that there might not be another season. After all, it’s no Entourage or Sopranos. It didn’t get ideal ratings for HBO, though it received a good amount of critical acclaim.

Then on October 23, 2009 Variety released a story with HBO’s announcement to renew for season three. As for the not-so-high ratings:

“‘The viewership isn’t as big as we’d like but creatively the show works so well for us, if we’re true to who we say we are, we had to pick it up,’ Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group and West Coast operations for HBO, told Daily Variety. ‘We’re not just into ratings and the awards game. We’re here to deliver shows with distinct voices.’”

And good thing. Now coming up on its sixth week of the third season, the show is an American adaptation of the Israeli original, BeTipul (the same title in Hebrew.) Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays the enigmatic, brooding and eager-to-help therapist, Dr. Paul Weston. When it airs on HBO, the show comes on for a half hour or less more than one day a week. Each patient gets his or her own episode, and then at the end of the week, Paul goes to see his own therapist and complicated mentor Gina, played amazingly by Dianne Wiest. (While this was true for seasons one and two, season three takes a new direction but retains this same concept.)

As a study in life, life’s issues, and how people interact with one another, the show doesn’t seem to play out like a TV show or a mini-film. Instead, it feels like watching a perfectly rehearsed play with highly trained actors whose dialogue and movements are fluid, true to life, and yet grippingly entertaining. But unlike a play, there’s a camera of course that lets us in even closer – sometimes too close – to the patients and their therapist. You can literally feel the discomfort in a session because the camera and performances force you to feel it. You can get lost in it and feel as though you are part of the therapy session yourself. It is truly one of the most intimate shows I’ve ever watched, and it’s surprisingly addictive at the same time despite the heavy issues and depressing tones.

The setting itself has always made the show stand out to me from all the others. Most of the scenes are set in the therapist’s office. Though he changes locations, Paul’s office is always within his home. He lives and works in the same space, and thus the audience is confined almost entirely to this space as well. What may seem like a “bare minimum” approach is exactly what makes In Treatment worth watching for a different kind of television experience. The limitations the show sets for itself only make the show more distinct and more intimate. It relies purely on acting and story and excels beautifully at both, regarding all other elements as a distraction to what’s crucial. It might seem “simple,” but once you’ve engrossed yourself in it, it becomes clear that it’s probably one of the most complex and thoughtful shows of its time.

In the third installment, a few differences are already noticeable. One thing I keep catching is the constant references to current pop culture – things like Mad Men and Twitter and how our world is increasingly ruled by the internet keep popping up in Paul’s conversations with patients. In the past two seasons, come to think of it, there weren’t that many references to a world outside of the therapy sessions and the patients’ personal lives. This season seems to be leaning towards incorporating present-day cultural influences with the lives of the characters, which makes for a very interesting choice.

As for the ones on the therapist’s couch, the show features its first openly gay patient (a troubled and aggressive teenager), a middle-aged actress struggling in her career and family life (played by Debra Winger), and a man from Calcutta who’s just lost his wife and is having trouble adapting to living with his son and daughter-in-law in New York City. (This first episode, which opened the season, was co-written by Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake.)

Seeing Paul try to help all of these very different characters is fascinating enough. But as mentioned before, at the end of the week, Paul always goes to talk to an analyst himself. So not only do we get to see the therapist with his patients, but we also get to see the therapist in treatment – how he’s feeling, what he struggles with internally, and how he feels about his own sessions. And that is just too dirty and captivating to resist.

Season three of In Treatment is currently airing on HBO on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9 and 9:30 PM.