Too Much Screens | Issue 22

Too Much Screens | Issue 22

In Treatment

In Treatment's structure was an unusual formal experiment. Each week, five episodes would air on HBO, with each weekday corresponding to a weekly session with one of therapist Paul Weston's patients: On Mondays he sees Laura; Tuesdays, Alex; and so on, until Friday, when he sees his own psychotherapist and supervisor, Gina. Its cable-TV origins afford In Treatment maximum formal flexibility: on one occasion a patient storms out before the session is finished, and the episode simply ends, only some 20 minutes through its usually half-hour timeslot. Similarly, while the first season covers eight weeks of appointments, some of the patients’ narratives are concluded before the eighth week, and rather than filling the space left behind, it simply aired fewer episodes.

The economy of the show’s larger structure carries over to the patients’ narratives. Each season’s cast is diverse, in social background and psychology, and while the show consists largely of two people sitting in chairs talking, it is consistently sharply written, with nuanced acting, and efficient direction. Over the course of a season, the audience gets to know the characters, their histories, and their personalities well, and because the episodes are only half an hour, and less than a quarter of the episodes are about any one character, sticking with characters you don’t at first enjoy is relatively painless, and often pays off.

Part of the strength of the show is that one single issue generally doesn’t define the characters; they contain multitudes, and their therapy reflects that. They contradict themselves, and hold back in very relatable ways. In season two, a gay teenager played by Dane DeHaan (later of the excellent 2012 found-footage film Chronicle) has lots of issues, many sexual, but never is his sexuality itself called into question. Played by another young rising star, Mia Wasikowska’s gymnast in season one sees Paul after possibly attempting suicide, but her story is more than just a generic “pushy sports parents” story. The show’s older characters provide a window into an age rarely explored, especially on television, in particular John Mahoney’s successful but troubled businessman in season two, and Irrfan Khan’s season three character, an older gentleman who has recently moved to the US from India, and is struggling with aging in such a foreign environment.

The show is also very interesting because of the way its format allows it to get at the split between the professional and the personal. Occasionally, Paul has personal issues that spill into his sessions, but the respect he has for that line with his patients is immense. Conversely, he has trouble drawing similar lines with his supervisor, Gina, due to their knotty academic and personal past. So, in addition to being a wonderful insight into how imperfectly but generally well therapy can go for patients, In Treatment is also acutely aware of how artificial and imperfect a lot of the rules around therapy are in practice. After all, any process that centrally involves human interaction is going to have one huge complicating factor.

For anyone with even a passing interest in psychology, In Treatment is a wonderful series that can offer an insightful glimpse into the psychotherapy process, and the ways it can alternately fail and help its participants. In Treatment's unique structure keeps it from turning into the boring, possibly stage-y thing it might otherwise have become, and its tautly constructed half-hour episodes giving its excellent cast lots to work with. In Treatment is interesting because human relationships are unavoidably messy. In a lot of cases therapy can help us get by and even make progress, but it isn't a quick fix, and there are no guarantees: sometimes life still gets in the way.
This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2014.
Posted 11:52pm Sunday 7th September 2014 by Sam Fleury.