Much has been made about the sad, but unexpected, cancellation of FX’s sublime TERRIERS. It’s been alleged that subtlety is not in high demand on TV. Some of TVs biggest hits, while wonderful, are big and have high concepts. Even one of my favorite shows of all time, THIRTYSOMETHING, while critically acclaimed and one of the first “demo hits”, was never a huge hit and many attributed it to the fact that it was too real and subtle. Industry professionals speculated that people don’t want to see “real” when they come home from work. They live that. They want to escape.
HBOs IN TREATMENT is arguably that network’s quietest show. It certainly would fall under the header of “subtle”. It also would give credence to the above point because its ratings are even lower than TERRIERS, which again is a shame. as it’s pretty special. It’s just 2 people talking to each other in each episode. The hardest job falls to Gabriel Byrne who is in every scene, as the damaged but caring Dr. Paul Weston. There are 4 episodes and new patients a week in this 3rd season with the 4th being the one when Paul becomes the patient under a new shrink, Adele. (She replaces his sessions with Gina played by Diane Wiest in the prior 2 seasons). The show feels so authentic, that we feel we are actually being intrusive and listening in on actual private therapy sessions, but I feel there is much insight to be gained from them, like one would from real therapy.
All 4 episodes each week and all 4 actors who play opposite Gabriel are stellar (including terrific work from Debra Winger, who I would love to see on TV on a weekly basis) but there are 2 that consistently knock me out, The first is the one with Sunil played by Irrfan Khan. Over 7 weeks the arc with Sunil has twisted and turned in interesting and dark ways. Sunil, a 52-year-old Immigrant from Calcutta is in deep despair over his wife’s death and forced to now live with his son and daughter-in- law whom he cannot connect to. He and Paul have formed a bond and the performance by Irrfan is one of the best this season by any actor. Paul is a caring and involved psychologist but he is also, sad, lonely, missing his family as his ex-wife is remarrying and living in Baltimore with his 2 kids. Paul feels isolated and alone and mournful of having a real loving relationship in his life. Plus he is an Irish immigrant and relates to Sunil on that level too.
What’s fascinating about this show is that after watching Paul be a competent and caring and involved professional with his patients, when he becomes the patient himself (for that 4th episode each week), he isn’t the even-tempered, quiet professional we are used to seeing. He is angry, hurt, belligerent, and exhibits much of the behavior he can easily diagnose as dysfunctional when it’s sitting across from him. He is certain that he has inherited his Father’s fatal Parkinson’s disease even though medical tests seem to indicate otherwise. He even finds himself falling for his therapist, Adele, standard behavior for many in therapy. It’s not uncommon to be attracted to that one person that is so invested and caring for you. It’s practically cliche.
As a therapist he cares deeply about his patients and he’s humble, never arrogant. He tells troubled teen Jesse (the wonderful Dane DeHaan), this week, who’s so heartbreakingly plagued with self loathing and self doubt when trying to reach him, “You are important to me”. Hell I wish he were my therapist. Any patient would. It makes his sessions with Adele, when he becomes the patient, that much more fascinating. (It should be noted Adele thinks he is too connected, too invested and there’s much truth to that.)
Speaking of Adele, she is played tremendously by the wonderful Amy Ryan. If there’s any doubt about the magnitude of this woman’s talent, think about the roles she has played in the last 5 years. From the dowdy cop in Season 2 of THE WIRE, to her Oscar nominated turn in GONE BABY GONE, to her warm, funny and sweet role as Holly, the love of Michael Scott’s life on THE OFFICE (which she is set to reprise this week) to Adele. Each part so distinctive, so different. As Adele she is firm, but caring, so smart but understanding and compassionate. She won’t let Paul push her around but she’ll be there for him too. She wants to be. Her understanding of Paul is astute and she wisely gets to the core of Paul, He is seeking intimacy and connection with anyone, even his patients. He’s profoundly lonely and Gabriel Byrne portrays that aching feeling with such honesty and authenticity. Adele also adds new insight to Paul’s sessions with his patients and we see them in a new light. These sessions in particular are written so well by this season’s executive producers (multi hyphenate) Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein. Acclaimed director Paris Barclay has directed many eps beautifully this season, in addition to being an executive producer.
What’s so great to me about IN TREATMENT is that it is about life and human frailties. It’s about love and loss. It’s about how life is grey, not black and white. How we are all complex individuals. Never is this depicted so well as the contrast between Paul as therapist to Paul as patient. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed between just 2 people talking in a room. The biggest drama doesn’t need massive explosions or special effects, the biggest drama is merely the human condition and that doesn’t always need to be explored on a grand scale. I am a big fan of THE WALKING DEAD, but if the show was just about shooting zombies in the head, I wouldn’t still be watching. It’s about survival and how we react in the face of dire circumstances. The story isn’t as heightened on IN TREATMENT but the drama is as real.