In Treatment moves in increments. It’s a show where a character writing her big secret on a note and then handing it over to her shrink is treated with all the momentousness of the smoke monster showing up for the first time on Lost. The show’s central conceit – two people sitting in a room and talking – is inherently stagey, a throwback to the kinds of small-scale dramatic anthologies that made up much of the so-called golden age of television, and it doesn’t so much progress as it inches forward, bit by bit, until the characters look up and realize the place they’re standing is so far away from where they started out. The best TV often feels like some sort of novel, full of characters who go on long emotional journeys, but In Treatment often feels like a grouped collection of short stories, waging battles for the psyche on an infinitesimal scale that only later reveals itself to hold so, so much.
On the other hand, if you can’t get into that pace, the show can be infuriating. It was at times in season one, particularly in the episodes featuring Melissa George’s Laura, a patient who was never as interesting as the show wanted us to believe she was. Gabriel Byrne’s Paul nearly threw away his entire career for this woman, and all she really was was good-looking. Paul just never seemed ruled enough by his sex drive to make this storyline credible, and George’s performance never made Laura alluring enough. In Treatment is a show that is only superficially about what it seems to be about (therapy). It’s really about one man fighting so he won’t completely fall apart, and the Laura storyline just never took root in the way it needed to to make season one work as well as it possibly could.
Then again, so much of season one was so good anyway that it wasn’t hard to highly anticipate the show’s second season, which, for starters, managed to land an impossibly great team of actors, including Hope Davis, Alison Pill and John Mahoney to complement the returning Byrne and Dianne Wiest, and then it gave all of these actors great dialogue to chew on. In addition, the show’s deceptively simple directorial style, which initially seems to just be a long series of close-ups but reveals itself after many episodes of watching to have a subtly profound rhythm to its cuts and shot choices, lulls you into a space where Paul, when he looks out at his patient, may as well be looking out at you, quietly chastising you for your failures.
Briefly, then (since this was mostly a week of set-up episodes), here’s what happened in week one of In Treatment:
Mia: Davis’ Mia at first glance seems to be one of those deeply clichéd career women who never had time to really have a personal life, etc., that you see so much on ABC dramedies. When we meet her, she’s brusquely consulting with Paul about a malpractice suit brought against him by the family of last season’s Alex (Emmy winner Glynn Turman returns ever-so-briefly as Alex’s father to let Paul know he’s being sued). Choosing to start the season with one of the show’s off-format episodes where the series leaves the confines of Paul’s office immediately lets us know that the rhythm of the show’s first season can’t necessarily be counted on in its second (a vital thing to know when so many of the patients seem superficially similar to the previous season’s patient), and spending the first fifteen minutes of the season with Paul being berated by a woman he abandoned her in the course of their therapy 20 years ago. After those first fifteen minutes, though, Mia’s boss comes in and lets Paul see just how little control she has over even her own life, and that allows him to shift the conversation onto ground more favorable to him. I think we need those first fifteen minutes, though, to remind us that Paul can be a terrible therapist, and one of the reasons he’s come to Brooklyn in season two is to put a year when he WAS often a crappy therapist behind him. In addition, she gets a lot of exposition out of the way early (Paul’s divorced now, etc.). This was probably the least interesting episode of the week but also probably the most structurally necessary.
April: Pill’s April, however, is the sort of character who instantly announces herself, like Alex or Sophie last year. Watching her try to bullshit Paul only to have him call her on it after a few minutes of her trying to talk big was another good reminder of how he’s trying to put that painful past behind him. This whole episode (probably my favorite of the week) hinged on April revealing that she has cancer that will likely kill her and she’s only told Paul and a construction worker. The decision to play the scene where she writes that she has cancer on that piece of paper and hand it over to Paul as big as it played was worth it, and Pill, one of the best actresses of her age group coming up right now, absolutely kills the line, “It was awesome. Not really.”
Oliver: Oliver’s the one patient I’m not so sure about just yet. The kid playing him (Aaron Shaw) is just a marvelously naturalistic actor, stumbling over words in the way a real kid probably would, but I’m not sure I want to watch a half-hour every week of his parents sniping over his head as if they have no idea what’s going on. Paul’s often at his best around young people (see: Sophie and April), and he’s built a real affinity for Oliver already. Just watch the easygoing way he tries to start a card game with Oliver, only to be completely stymied by the rules of blackjack, and you learn so much about who Oliver is and how he’s grown up that I’m not sure you need to learn the same from having his parents there as well. Watching Paul try to referee between Jake and Amy in season one often grew tiring, and I fear that this will grow back into that, with the added detriment of having a kid we know Paul would be SO MUCH BETTER WITH right there.
Walter: On the other hand, Mahoney’s Walter seems to be almost a direct replay of the Alex arc (he even talks about how much he loves flying in airplanes!), but watching Mahoney as a CEO who’s having trouble sleeping just reminds you of how ably he plays dramatic roles like this and how much he was wasted in the later seasons of Frasier. Walter’s episode is probably the most set-up heavy of the first week’s episodes, mostly consisting of Walter putting new bricks in the wall he’s building to keep Paul out as fast as Paul can take old ones out, but the panic attack at episode’s end suggests that there’s much more going on here than just simple insomnia.
Gina: The Gina episodes, meanwhile, function as a necessary release for Paul at the end of each week’s arc. We watch Byrne’s emotions build and build and build behind his façade of a silent face in every episode, and then we watch them slowly leak out, then turn into a torrent for Gina. Hearing Paul’s outburst about how tired he is of listening to people’s problems might have seemed like a season one rehash, but this sort of thing must be a constant burden for therapists, and Wiest is so good at playing Gina’s constant manipulation of Paul to get him right to the point he needs to be at to make the revelations he needs to make that she and Byrne could probably just act out the same script week after week and find new subtext in it with every performance.
Looking back over that, I see I said the word “subtle” approximately 400 times, but, then, In Treatment is that kind of show. As it starts its second season, the show is at that rare place for a television series: It knows what it wants to be, and it seems to be ready to do what it takes to get there.
Mia, week one: B+
April, week one: A
Oliver, week one: B
Walter, week one: A-
Gina, week one: A-
Week one average: A-
—Who likes Paul’s new office? I’m a fan of the big windows. Something about In Treatment has an autumnal feel to it (I always want to watch it while sipping on tea before a crackling fire in a rambling Victorian manse), and that feeling could grow a little oppressive in season one. The windows let in a little light to keep things from getting too gloomy.
—How is it possible Paul has made it so far in his life and not known how to play blackjack? I’ve barely set foot in a casino in my life and I know how to play the damn game.
—Alan Sepinwall’s piece on the show’s production process is a must-read.
—I just found out I’ll be doing these Tuesday, so look for recaps in the weeks to come on Monday nights, rather than the Wednesday morning appearance of this piece.