HBO’s latest DVD boxed-set release is In Treatment, an unusual series of 43 short episodes each based on or around a single therapy session. Having won two Emmys and been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, with Gabriel Byrne winning best actor in a TV drama, it confirms HBO’s substantial reputation for intelligent and innovative television. The series is actually adapted from an Israeli show, however, an indication of the global reach – and origins – of the therapy culture it explores.
Byrne plays Paul, a psychologist who meets individually with the same people at the same times every week: we see one meeting a day from Monday to Friday for nine weeks. It is a simple conceit, which, on DVD, allows the option of watching one twenty-odd-minute episode at a time (on the corresponding day of the week if that tickles you) or watching a week at a time in feature-length chunks – or indeed bingeing for hours on end. The various characters’ stories unfold and subtly and not-so-subtly interact, with Paul himself as the hub and emotional centre of the series.
A therapy session can work as a dramatic window on a life, making it an obvious if unusual device for a TV show. In the most obvious example, therapy offers a perspective on the life of mobster Tony Soprano in The Sopranos that wouldn’t have been possible using more traditional dramatic means. But therapy also frames a life in particular ways, foregrounding particular aspects of a character’s inner life and perhaps making certain assumptions about what matters.
Intriguingly, only one of Paul’s patients, Laura (Mondays, Melissa George), begins the series seemingly ‘in therapy’ in the almost recreational sense associated with a certain social type, showing up every week like others go to church or the gym. The others have more specific reasons to be there. Alex (Tuesdays, Blair Underwood) is a navy pilot on leave after bombing a school full of kids in Iraq (his superiors’ mistake rather than his), but he insists he just wants some ‘advice’ on the direction of his life rather than treatment for the trauma. Sophie (Wednesdays, an excellent Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful recovering from a traffic accident: the insurance company suspects she was attempting suicide, so she’s been sent to Paul for a professional opinion. And Jake and Amy (Thursdays, Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz) are a mismatched couple trying to save their marriage.
When it comes to relationship problems, however, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. In Treatment highlights the clash between a traditional institution like marriage, based on taken-for-granted expectations and obligations, and a therapy culture based on constant reflection and the quest for individual self-realisation. Laura can’t commit to her boyfriend, who wants her to marry him. In fact, she’s in love with Paul. Alex doesn’t seem to love his wife and feels it’s best simply to leave. Sophie thinks she’s already a home wrecker at 15. Jake and Amy have come to the point where the opposites-attract tension that brought them together – he’s a slacker musician and she’s an ambitious career woman – has turned to mutual suspicion and contempt. Oh, and we quickly learn that Paul’s own marriage is in doubt, with his wife having an affair.
This last point adds a frisson to the potentially clichéd patient-in-love-with-her-therapist storyline. Laura is a textbook case of ‘erotic transference’, but she insists she’s not crazy, and poses no threat to Paul’s kid’s pet, which of course is the opposite of reassuring. Sometimes she does seem crazy, utterly convinced that Paul is in love with her too, that they already have a relationship and he’s simply in denial. But at other times her certainty is infectious, and the more reflective and unsure Paul concedes that they do have a connection. It’s hard to know whether this (honesty? failure to maintain boundaries?) counts as good therapy or not. How can he be non-judgemental about something intimately concerning himself? And he is attracted to Laura, as he confesses to Gina (Dianne Wiest), his former mentor, whom he sees on Fridays. Like the others, these are not straightforward therapy sessions: Paul wants Gina’s help, but they have a fraught history, and tensions frequently simmer over. And it is the vexed question of personal involvement with patients that provokes most tension. Should therapists empathise as well as analysing? Or does their whole authority rest on a non-negotiable distance, on a willingness to be the unmoving reference point patients can’t find elsewhere in their lives?
When Paul tries to encourage Alex to keep things in perspective, Alex rephrases the advice in flight vernacular: ‘Keep your eyes on your instruments’. He explains that under intense physical pressure, pilots can lose perspective and have a completely false sense of what their planes are doing, so they are trained to ignore their instincts and trust only what their instruments tell them. It is a concentrated metaphor for military life in general: suspend your own judgement, do what you’re told. But then that’s how schools get blown up. Alex has lost faith in the one source of authority he had thought he could rely on, and is looking up from his instruments in search of another. But what is the perspective offered by therapy? Well, it isn’t really supposed to have one.
All the patients mock therapy, the obsession with parents, with sex, the ‘how do you feel about that?’ The jokes and eye-rolls are as much a part of popular culture as therapy itself. At the same time, though, all are yearning for something, and hopeful that they can find it with Paul. The one patient who really does seem to be in need of help of some kind is Sophie. But as we learn more about her, it’s hard to decide whether the sinister shades in her backstory are the source of her unhappiness, or whether she’s just a typical precocious teenager dealing with a peculiar set of circumstances. Behind her often charming irreverence lies a more disturbing doubt about whether adults have anything to offer her beyond false promises and disappointment. If not, that’s a diagnosis Paul alone can’t treat.
In Treatment is an intriguing exploration of both contemporary inner life and how we try to make sense of it. Perhaps most of all, it reveals a profound doubt about traditional sources of authority, and a desperation to believe in new ones even as they continually elude us. How do you feel about that?