Treating My “In Treatment” Addiction

30 Jun

In TreatmentI can’t say enough about the awesomeness that is HBO’s “In Treatment.”  My sister is currently getting her masters’ in counseling at the California Institute for Integral Studies, and I’ve had a really good time talking with her about the things she’s been learning in her time there so far. The whole concept of therapy, of digging into why we do what we do, is endlessly fascinating, though admittedly sort of in a “Stuff White People Like” kind of way… Also, the more I work with an ever-increasing number of students, the more interested I am in plumbing the depths of the why they are how they are, and how I can better help them learn. Why one student practices and another doesn’t.  Why one student boldly improvises in front of hundreds of people, and another is too petrified of performance to even audition for band.

None of that has any real bearing on my enjoyment of “In Treatment,” though.  That’s because the show should come with a warning label – due entirely to its format, it might be the most addictive television program I’ve ever seen.

In Treatment follows the work of a therapist named Paul Weston, played by the amazing Gabriel Byrne, and airs over 9 weeks, with five episodes airing each week, one for every weeknight.  Each episode is 25ish minutes long and focuses on a single therapy session. Mondays are Laura, Tuesdays are Alex, and so on.  The twist is that on Friday, Paul goes to see his own therapist, and we learn how the interactions he has had during the week have reflected his own state, and how the (many) problems he has in his own life are reflected in the problems of his patients.

The writing is unbelievable, and the performances are in a league of their own.  And more than just a show about people’s problems, it’s a mystery – the characters each spar with Paul, back and forth, blocking and defending, thinking and rephrasing, revealing little bits and pieces, until we can start to put together a full picture of what’s going on with them.  It’s never anything less than engrossing, though a bit draining and all but impossible to stop mid-week.

With 43 episodes (apparently the last week is cut short) in the first season, it’s a serious time commitment, but I’m telling you – fire it up and you’ll have no complaints about watching.  If anything, you won’t want it to end.

I’m currently about to start week 7 – I’ve been having a really good time reading the comments over at Sepinwall’s blog, and thought that I’d share my own thoughts on each of the patients.

In Treatment Laura

Monday: Laura

Laura’s the first character we meet on In Treatment, and as such is probably the biggest risk the show takes – if we were to watch the first episode and think of it as the “Pilot,” we’d walk away from the show with an entirely different idea of what it’s all about.  In reality, the first week was the Pilot, and it’s only after five episodes (after Paul himself has re-entered therapy) that we can hope to understand what the show is really about.  Reading through online comments, Laura is probably the most-hated character on the show, which strikes me as kind of funny for a number of reasons.

I think that Melissa George is doing a great job of portraying this type of woman – an emotionally damaged control freak who uses sex both to communicate and wield power – and that the reason that so many people have a negative reaction to her (and to Mondays in general) is not that people don’t like the actress who plays her, it’s that people don’t like that sort of woman. When Paul’s wife Kate gets a look at her in week 6, she immediately sizes Laura up and sees her for what she is – “Sex is how she measures her distance to other people, and she always gets her man.”  But commenters forget that that’s what she’s supposed to be:

I love Kate / Michelle Forbes in this role and I agreed with Kate’s assessment of Laura 100%. I have disliked Laura from the beginning and her ability to manipulate Paul with her sexuality has been irritating throughout.

I think it speaks to the quality of the performances on this show that so many people would so strongly dislike a character that they would begin to confuse him or her with the actor, and transfer their dislike. Anyway, I really like Melissa George’s performance, and think that understanding her emotional transference onto Paul (and his openness to it) plays a critical role in understanding Paul himself.

In Treatment Alex

Tuesday: Alex

And now, to turn around and do the exact thing I just spent the last few paragraphs mocking, let me say – you guys, I have always sort of hated Blair Underwood.  He just bugs the shit out of me.  I didn’t like him on Sex and the City, didn’t like him on Dirty Sexy Money.  Something about his vibe, his smoothness, it’s just uber barfy.

In Treatment has changed my opinion of him quite a bit – by allowing him to play a cocky, dominating fighter pilot who is dealing with a fundamental emotional systems-malfunction, the show has let Underwood show us the most interesting, vulnerable side of the “master of the universe douchebag” he usually plays.

Lots of folks online thought for that Alex was gay and in denial, but I’m unconvinced – it seems to me, particularly after his last session, that he just envies the freedom that his gay friends have (or that he perceives them to have), the conviction in their sense of self.  Alex is a guy who just doesn’t know who he is, and dealing with that is super scary for him.  Anyway, a really great performance by Blair Underwood.

In Treatment Sophie

Wednesday: Sophie

I’m with the vast majority of this show’s viewership in that I enjoy Wednesday’s sessions with emotionally damaged/suicidal gymnast Sophie the most – she’s a blast to watch, and brings out a side of Paul that is refreshing to see. Her sessions always start out so playful, as she enters the room with all of her usual smart-aleck defenses up, but within minutes, she’s angry, hiding, and, sometimes, finally dealing with the things that’ve happened to her.  During week five, also known as The Week Paul Finally Got His Shit Together, it was really gratifying to see him step up to her and take control, and to see her respond to his fatherly authority.  Some ethical and legal questions remain (can he really not report a statutory rape?), but on the whole, I just love watching these two actors, and characters, share a room.

Mia Wasikowska just plays the crap out of the part, and is just a ridiculously talented young actor.  She’s going to be playing Alice in the upcoming Tim Burton remake/reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, which is awesome – I have a feeling that we’ll see more and more of her in Hollywood.

In Treatment Jake and Amy

Thursday: Jake and Amy

If I had to pick a “least favorite” day of the week, it’d be Thursday’s sessions with the extraordinarily fucked-up couple Jake and Amy.  Both actors do a great job, and it’s really cool to see Josh Charles getting work after Sports Night ended so many years ago, but they’re just such negative, effed-up people, and their parallels to Paul and his wife Kate’s own troubled marriage, while there, are similarly painful, that it’s tough to watch.  It’s a testament, I suppose, to how effective the show is – it’s during their sessions that I have the hardest time remembering that I’m watching a show, and not just some awful people fighting.  But, looking at the week-long arc, they’re put in a perfect place – after Wednesday’s usually uplifting and interesting sessions with Sophie, we must endure Jake and Amy’s doomed marriage, before we head into Friday’s session with Paul, Gina, and sometimes Kate.

In Treatment Gina

Friday: Paul and Gina

And here is where it all comes together – the various threads of the week, the recurring themes, the off-camera sounds that you thought were nothing, all add up to much more than you may have initially thought.  Paul’s sessions with Gina allow him to connect the week’s sessions into a dense tapestry of conflict and motivation, reflecting his own desires and his patients’ as well.  At Gina’s prodding, he reacts angrily, spitting her theories back at her, unconsciously mimmicking each of his clients to an almost hilarious degree, and giving us insight into his thoughts in an absolutely fascinating way.  Dianne Wiest just rocks the crap out of her role here – sad, smiling melancholy with just enough bite to be able to deal with Paul’s overwhelmingly aggressive intellectualization.

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I’m just so, so impressed with the writing on this show.  The way that the characters parrot one another, the way that the patients share attributes and stories, merging into one larger patient, as the show allows us to draw these conclusions, and see them through our own lens, then through Paul’s own words at the end of each week… how he is so blind to his failures as a father and a husband, his own inability to open up to his therapist… it’s amazing.

And the writing wouldn’t count for much without performances to match – and every single one, from Melissa George to Blair Underwood to Mia Wasikowska to Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest, is like a master class in what my sis has termed “Capital ‘A’ Acting.”  The facial tics, shifts in body language, movements of the hands, eye rolls… they all say so much, it’s astonishing.

So, yeah.  For real.  This summer, if you’re chilling out and you want something to watch? Sure, you could re-watch Buffy on Hulu, people do that all the time, but if you want something different, challenging, and terrifyingly addictive, I can’t recommend In Treatment enough.

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3 Responses to “Treating My “In Treatment” Addiction”

  1. Dorothy June 30, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Yeah Kirk I completely agree ! I’ve been utterly addicted myself. Netflix can’t get the disks to me fast enough though so I am only on week 4 (so I didn’t read all your comments on each character but will come back and read them once I’ve caught up to week 7).
    It’s cool to hear that you’re fascinated by your students emotional life (in regards to stage fright etc). I’ve been putting together a workshop for acting teachers. Maybe I’ll have to do one for music teachers next ?

    • Kirk June 30, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

      Groovy! It gets pretty intense; I’m planning on knocking out week 7 sometime this week.

      As for the workshop, sounds interesting – let me know if you really think you might do it, that’d be fun to chat a bit about!

  2. sochatty June 30, 2009 at 6:41 pm #

    This. Show. Is. Awesome. I got hooked on season 2 and then when back to watch season 1. Season 2 is better than the first (in my opinion), so you definitely have something to look forward to!

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