The benefits of watching ''In Treatment'' -- Why the HBO drama, starring Gabriel Byrne as a psychotherapist, appeals to audiences

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 21, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT
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For a show with relatively few viewers even by premium-cable standards, HBO’s In Treatment gets a whole lot of media attention. Some of that interest is, no doubt, a result of Darwinian selectivity: The innovative five-night-a-week, nine-week drama about the personal and professional life of psychotherapist Paul Weston — played by Gabriel Byrne — resonates loudly with the therapeutically oriented population who write about it. But particular identification among the byline set doesn’t explain the passion with which even nonprofessionals analyze each episode. Many are convinced they can read into the broody soul of the shrink by analyzing the meaning of his model-boat collection. Me, I’m convinced I can analyze the broody soul of an entire TV network by extracting meaning from the appearance of another psychoanalytic chair so soon after Tell Me You Love Me and The Sopranos.

In Treatment isn’t suited to moderate reaction. But then, neither is successful treatment itself — or successful drama, for that matter. To commit to watching regularly is to engage in transference all our own, that bedrock principle of Freudian theory. And so we bring our own experience of past relationships to our present experience of Paul’s patients — Melissa George’s narcissistic, seductive doctor Laura (hate her!), Blair Underwood’s conflicted fighter pilot Alex (aggravated by him!), possibly suicidal teenage gymnast Sophie (adore her, and swoon at the performance by young Mia Wasikowska!), Josh Charles’ and Embeth Davidtz’s fighting married couple Jake and Amy (on a roller coaster about them!) — and Paul’s own mentor and psychoanalytic supervisor, Gina (in awe of her, and of the way the great Dianne Wiest so fully occupies Gina’s chair!). Many of us (by which I mean me) also root for Michelle Forbes as Paul’s frustrated, straying wife (especially against horrid, manipulative, toothy Laura!).

Out of the analysis of transference, ideally, comes wisdom. Here’s mine: By introducing In Treatment on the heels of the first season of the sex-and-shrink-talk drama Tell Me You Love Me (where the dippy therapy sessions were forgotten in the bustle of all that Getting Busy), and with memories of Tony Soprano’s sessions with Dr. Melfi still so fresh, HBO has been in the crucial stages of understanding its own psychological profile. In Treatment may have a specialized appeal — if you don’t embrace the value of therapy as more than a premise for The Bob Newhart Show, then this isn’t the couch for you — but there’s something wonderfully, sincerely obsessive about the cable network’s self-defining interest in shrinks and shrinkage. Just as Bravo embraced its identity as the cool mainstream translator of gay sensibility, so HBO is doing hard work as the cool mainstream translator of the examined life, and of the comedy and tragedy of people who fail as a natural by-product of being imperfect humans. Let’s hope this introspection will continue now that the net’s entertainment president, Carolyn Strauss (who developed these shows), has stepped down.

The best characters on HBO have always made us feel uncomfortable…and right at home. All those neurotics on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sex and the City, the horndogs on The Mind of the Married Man, the po-pos, fiends, and hoppers on The Wire, the emotionally dead on Six Feet Under, the outlaws on Deadwood: Just like us, they’re men and women driven by forces they only partially understand. Newspaper headlines corroborate daily what we and the Doors have always known, that people are strange. We’re erratic, contradictory, each of us an individual bundle of urges, compulsions, and rationalizations, dressed in shoes. I don’t count on the good shrinks of HBO to make sense of me and you and everyone we know, but I rely on them to confirm that I’m okay, you’re okay.

In Treatment

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