When I first read the description of HBO's "In Treatment," I have to admit it sounded like too much of a time obligation, and way too indulgent an idea.  Five nights a week?  Who can program that kind of TV viewing time these days?  I don't even watch five shows a week on TV, much less five episodes of the same thing.  And watching patients in therapy talking about their problems every single night?  I'd just become a therapist if that's what I wanted, right?

Still, when it showed up here at the house, I put it on the stack, and every day, I would eye the box again.  Finally, curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to try the first disc.  That's all it took for me to realize that I had totally misjudged the show, and I worked my way through the entire thing, all nine weeks worth of the first season, in a few days.  As you'd expect with any series that keeps five major storylines running concurrently, some are more successful than others, but overall, the show proved to be one of the smartest, saddest pieces of TV writing I've encounted in a while, and one storyline in particular positively destroyed me.

Gabriel Byrne stars as Paul, a therapist who works out of a home office, where he sees a steady stream of patients each week.  Each week is broken up into a routine.  Monday is when he sees Laura (Melissa George), Tuesday is Alex (Blair Underwood), Wednesday is Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), Thursday is couples therapy for Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), and Friday is reserved for Paul to go have sessions with his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Weist).  Paul's got plenty of personal issues to work through, including his strained relationship with his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes) and the thunderclap revelation that his patient Laura is in love with him.

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The stuff with Kate and Laura is the closest the show comes to swinging into pure soap opera, but it manages to walk a fine line and never quite turn maudlin.  I'm not sure I buy Byrne's midlife crisis.  As hot as Melissa George is, her storyline never quite won me over or convinced me.  And since it rippled through the relationships between Paul and his wife and Paul and his therapist, it's the one thing that I found to be a little tiresome.  Still, there are solid moments peppered through it, and the stuff with Weist and Byrne eventually just becomes a tennis match of two great character actors playing huge emotions with profound restraint, something that's a real pleasure to watch.

The Alex storyline surprised me because it seems like an easy one to figure from the way it starts.  Underwood plays a Navy pilot who is grounded following an incident in Iraq where he bombed several civilians under order.  When he comes in for his first session, it looks like that's what the whole story arc is going to be about... grappling with the emotions raised by that incident.  But actually, there's a whole other set of issues with Alex that eventually bubble to the surface, and it turns out to be a much sadder and richer story than I expected.

Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz play a truly toxic couple, and anyone who has ever struggled with any degree of marital strife will probably recoil from most of their sessions together.  Davidtz in particular gives good crazy here.  She's a rancid, horrible woman who thrives on drama and hate as the glue that keeps her sex life going, and Charles seems uninterested in therapy at all.  There's a moment three or four episodes in for them that is wrenching and monumentally tragic, and when Davidtz just shrugs it off, you get an idea of just how awful a ride you're in for with them.

But the winner... the reason you owe it to yourself to see this first season of this show... is the storyline involving Sophie, a 16-year-old Olympic hopeful gymnast who shows up for her first session with two broken arms.  I was not familiar with Mia Wasikowska before this, but she's on my radar now in a big way.  She's Alice in Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice In Wonderland," and she's also sort of a genius.  I don't throw that word around lightly, but to be able to play a kid wrestling with adult issues as well as she does here, to be able to plumb every nuance of the incredibly well-written part she's been given, and to be able to go toe-to-toe with a veteran like Byrne in every single episode... I think it applies.  She is jaw-dropping.  And her entire nine episode arc is so perfectly scripted that it stopped feeling scripted at all.  By the time she sits down opposite her absentee father, played by Peter Horton, and just destroys him, I guarantee you'll be as won over by her as I was.  This is a major talent, and a major showcase for that talent.  I had to go back to look at who won Emmys this year, and who was nominated, and suffice it to say, as much as I don't like awards shows generally, I absolutely despise how wrong they got it last year.  Wasikowska should have been nominated all five times in her category and won in a walk.  Nothing else on television all year even came close.  In fact, I can't think of a female performance on film last year that I liked better, either.  It's that impressive.

Rodrigo Garcia has made a few films I've liked ("Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her" and "Nine Lives") and has been a solid worker for HBO on shows like "Big Love" and "Carnivale" and "The Sopranos."  He's one of the driving forces of this series, along with other directors like Paris Barclay, Jim McKay, and Melanie Mayron (who absolutely crushed me with her final "Sophie" episode), and writers like Brian Goluboff ("The Basketball Diaries") and Warren Leight and Marsha Norman.  These are some serious heavy hitters, and I think I understand what attracted them to the series.  Most of them have a stage background, and each of these episodes, especially the ones that work perfectly, unfold like one-act plays.  It's a lovely dramatic challenge, and it's one that "In Treatment" more than met.  I understand this was based on an Israeli TV show with a similar premise and even some story similarities, but the American version has a potent and powerful voice of its own, and I look forward now to checking out season two when it reaches DVD as well.

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