In Treatment is like nothing else on television right now, and as trite a phrase as that might seem, in this case, it happens to be true.
Each half-hour episode, four altogether, is a two-character one-act play containing a three scene story arc: the first scene sets up what the patients want to talk about with therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne); the second scene is the discovery of why the patients are really there, and the final scene is some kind of resolution for Paul or the patient or lack of resolution altogether which is, of course, the most realistic conclusion of all. This sounds all a bit rote, but with In Treatment’s excellent acting and writing, the show elevates above the formulaic.
The stage drama as television drama is not surpising here. Last season, Marsha Norman, Tony and Pulitzer winner, wrote the Gina stories – Paul’s visits to his therapist. This year, accomplished playwright Sarah Treem, who started her theatrical success at the age of 12, not only writes the Jesse storyline but also is a series producer.
In Treatment’s writers, its theatrical format, its dramatic aspirations: all these things make this reviewer, whose regular beat is the theatre, very, very happy. Add to that, an unusually short introductory theme song, and it equals exceptional television.
photo by Paul Schiraldi
The curtain rises on this week’s dramas:
Sunil: “What an interesting tea we have had.”
This week Sunil (Irrfan Khan) seems cooperative with this whole idea of therapy even though, to a Bengali, being in therapy is an alien concept: being a patient can only mean someone is in the hospital.
Paul’s conversations are, in Sunil’s opinion, best had over tea, so Sunil brings some to this week’s session, seemingly to facilitate some friendly intimacy. Note the rejection of Sunil’s current home, New York City: the tea he brings is not that dishwater stuff that “New Yorkers seem to enjoy,” but real Indian tea. Tea, that Paul, being Irish might enjoy as well. On the surface, this ceremony seems to be a bit of a breakthrough toward cooperation – a ritual that both cultures, both Bengali and Irish, have in common. But it doesn’t end up as a tea party.
All begins apparently well in the session. The tea steeps for three minutes. Sunil tells Paul about the friction in the household where he lives with his son and his daughter-in-law, pretty commonplace stuff on the surface, but as the ordinary anecdotes accumulate involving overly loud music and awkward dinners, there emerges a continued trend toward highly sexualized stories involving his “immodest” daughter-in-law: a little voyeurism goes too long a way in a healthy family relationship.
Last week, Paul accused Adele, his own therapist, of proposing “absurd theories.” This week, with Sunil, Paul proposes his own absurd theory, or at least it is absurd to Sunil. Paul confronts Sunil over the possibility of Sunil being attracted to Julia, his daughter-on-law, and Sunil reacts in a most unexpected way. Shocking really.
Irrfan Khan is described by In Treatment showrunner Dan Futterman as “greatest actor in the world.” As Futterman explains, Khan was deliberately brought in as a challenge to Gabriel Bryne, no slouch in the thespian arena himself. The chess move seems to have worked.
Sunil reacts to Paul’s idea that Sunil might be overly involved, emotionally, with Julia, with such paroxysms of laughter that I defy any viewer not to start snickering in harmony. Paul is horrified as is the viewer who unfortunately is caught laughing with Sunil. It’s as if we are all laughing at Paul, and it is a theme that resonates through Week Three. Paul has always been a more than competent therapist. Sunil shows the cracks in Paul’s veneer that reappear with all three patients this week.
Paul claims that Sunil’s “intensity” does not make him nervous, but it makes me nervous. Sunil’s almost maniacal laughter, his insistence that Julia “would deserve a harsh punishment” if she were having an affair, and his abrupt dismissal of Paul makes me nervous.
Frances: “Don’t be an actor unless you can’t bear to be anything else.”
The Frances session opens with Wendy (Susan Misner), Paul’s girlfriend. Actually, it opens with Paul’s rejection of Wendy, which is just as well, because Wendy is too young for Paul. Sorry, Mr. Byrne.
Paul experiences again a paralysis with a patient. This time with Frances (Debra Winger). He is literally caught napping by the actress, and then later in the session, he mistakenly attributes a conversation he had with Frances’ sister, a past patient who is currently dying from cancer, to something that Frances said. And she’s supposed to have the memory problem.
This does not go over well with Frances who has a troubled, rivalrous relationship with her sister. Paul verbally stumbles, realizing that he has made a huge mistake with Frances: “you never told me that?”
Speaking of theater and actresses, Frances, who is named for Frances Farmer (which is a whole other wonderfully funny story), seems to be channeling Blanche DuBois, always depending on the kindness of strangers; in this case, Paul, to help her learn her lines. The end of the session ends as bleakly as Sunil’s with Frances declaring that Paul is of no help at all – another dissatisfied customer.
It is interesting that Paul rejects the role of helping Frances learn her lines for her role in The Night of the Iguana. Helping Frances learn her lines is a role that once was filled by Frances’ husband, and Paul doesn’t think it appropriate that he step in those shoes. This parallels his later relationship with Adele, his therapist, who refuses to play the role of supervisor when Paul asks her opinion on one of his patients.
Analogous, too, Frances continually tests Paul just as Paul tests Adele. Frances quizzes Paul on who starred in The Country Girl (Grace Kelly) just as Paul questioned Adele if she “got” his reference to Bartleby (the Scrivener).
Jesse: “I said I knew him. He wasn’t a stranger. Are you getting this, Helen Keller!”
Jesse’s story is in contrast to the two sessions that precede his. Both Sunil and Frances are stories about reconciliation with the past. Jesse’s is about his future, or at least on how to avoid the disaster in his future. Accordingly Paul transforms from the most active listener in the history of television, to an unusually aggressive counselor to Jesse (Dane DeHaan.) Paul does not hold back as much as with his other patients: “If you must talk to your mother like that, don’t do it in my office.”
The episode begins with Paul’s confusion, once again. Jesse has brought along his adoptive mother, Marisa (Dendrie Taylor): “just like you wanted,” he tells Paul, but Paul has done no such thing and spends yet another half-hour alternately confused and quietly seething in witnessing for himself the relationship between Jesse and Marisa: “Is this the way you and your mother normally act?” Jesse hopes to manipulate Paul into telling Marisa that his birth mother has contacted him, but it doesn’t happen quite the way he intended.
The Jesse session is one of the most effective of the four: his youth and his vulnerability recoil against his deliberately ugly, hurtful language (this is HBO), and it makes for the most dramatic tension of the four stories. Writer Sarah Treem is able to make us feel as uncomfortable with Jesse as if we were sitting in on the session with him – too uncomfortable, really. He is such a monster it makes me wish for the good old days of Ms. Treem’s character, April, from last season.
Adele: “Cruelty, power, control, youthful clinging to protocol…”
Actually that was Paul speaking, the world’s most horrid patient, describing his therapist’s methods. Paul neglects to mention Adele’s Louboutin boots. Now those bother me. How much did they cost?! Isn’t that a bit ostentatious?
Paul’s son Max has discovered that his father may have Parkinson’s, and Paul worries to Adele that he is failing his son just as his body will start to fail him. He also understandably resents the new stepfather in his son’s life – he refers to him as a warlock.
So far, Adele (Amy Ryan) has been very careful and controlled while Paul verbally spins around, jumping from topic to topic and quite resistant to talking about anything at length. Paul on the couch, acting as poorly and as troubled as any of his patients, is the tension that gives energy to an otherwise restrained story.
Gotta go. I’m late for an Animal Collective concert. I leave you with some things to discuss: in the Sunil storyline, will Paul have to defy his patient-therapist confidentiality because someone’s (Julia?) in danger, and how sympathetic is Jesse’s poor, confused adoptive mother? “We’ll talk next week.”