There have been episodes of the HBO therapy drama "In Treatment" where either Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) or one of his patients comes into a session not ready to do the work. Either Paul's distracted from the latest mess in his very messy life, or the patient doesn't want to talk about what's really bothering them, or both. But more often than not, Paul is able to push through the barriers and take the conversation someplace interesting before their time is up.
That's kind of how I feel about "In Treatment" season three, which debuts Monday and Tuesday at 9 and 9:30 p.m. on HBO. After liking the first season and loving the second, I dove into the third and felt like something was off. Maybe it was the slight change in format, from five episodes a week (Paul with four patients, then Paul with his own shrink) down to four (three patients plus Paul in therapy). Maybe it was the rhythms of new showrunners Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein, who took over for Warren Leight, who himself took over for Rodrigo Garcia. (Both the amount and nature of these episodes understandably proves exhausting.) Or maybe it was that Futterman and Epstein were traveling without a road map, since this is the first season where the stories and characters weren't adapted from the Israeli series "Be'Tipul."
Whatever the reason, something wasn't quite right about the new episodes. Byrne was still there, still fantastic as Paul, still making the art of listening seem like the most exciting form of acting there is. And the production team (including head director Paris Barclay) had surrounded him with possibly the best cast yet: acclaimed Indian actor Irrfan Khan as Sunil, a depressed Bengali widower chafing at life in the home of his Americanized son and blonde daughter-in-law; three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger, in her meatiest role since she emerged from semi-retirement a couple of years ago, as Frances, an aging movie star struggling to remember her lines as her Broadway play nears its debut; relative unknown Dane DeHaan as Jesse, a self-destructive gay teen battling with his adoptive parents; and the versatile and always-impressive Amy Ryan as Adele, who takes the place of Dianne Wiest's Gina as the psychiatrist to whom Paul unburdens himself at the end of each long week.
So great cast, same elegantly simple format (each episode is essentially a one-act play), many of the same directors/writers/producers, and same cable channel willing to subsidize a nichier-than-niche concept. The show is not for everyone, but it was definitely for me. So all should be perfect, right?
Yet as I went through the opening installments of season three, "In Treatment" began to feel like work in a way it hadn't in the past.
In fairness, "In Treatment" has never been an easy show to watch. This isn't made for casual viewing. As much is revealed by what the patients don't want to say to Paul, or by how he reacts to them, as in the dialogue itself. It engages a part of my brain that a lot of other shows don't, and the viewing gets tougher when there are a lot of other challenging shows at the same time.
The first season came along at the tail end of the TV writers strike of '07-'08, and for a while there wasn't anything remotely as complex to challenge for my attention. Season two aired in a slightly busier period ("Lost" season five and "Breaking Bad" season two overlapped it), but still nothing quite as crowded for quality TV as this fall. I was watching the screeners for the first three weeks of season three while I was also dealing with the final episodes of "Mad Men" and "Rubicon," new episodes of "Boardwalk Empire," "Sons of Anarchy," "Terriers," "Friday Night Lights" and AMC's zombie epic "The Walking Dead," to name just a few. As a non-professional TV watcher, you may not watch most, or any, of those other shows, but by the time I got into "In Treatment," my brain was definitely trying to tell me "Enough already! Can't we put on 'Man V. Food' instead?"
Beyond that, though, was the sense that even though the patients, their problems and even Paul's own therapist have changed, the concept begins to feel repetitive after a few seasons. Frances' problems are her own, but there's some commonality between her give-and-take with Paul and the relationships he had with previous patients like season one's Amy (Embeth Davidtz) and season two's Mia (Hope Davis). Similarly, Paul becomes more protective when he's in sessions with Jesse than with his adult patients, just as he was in the past with suicidal gymnast Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) or cancer victim April (Alison Pill). And though the issues that send Paul to see Adele - sleeplessness, fear of a bad medical diagnosis and his estrangement from Gina - aren't the same that he talked about with Gina in seasons past, his inescapable feelings of misery remain the same.
Now, this is all honest. Though each season of "In Treatment" covers a short period (nine weeks the first season, seven weeks ever since) in which Paul is able to get at the root cause of his patients' problems, even if he isn't able to solve them all, actual therapy can take much longer to achieve a positive outcome, if one ever comes at all. Of course Paul wouldn't suddenly be happy go lucky. And since the patients are really there to reflect the problems in Paul's life - Jesse, for instance, ties into divorced dad Paul's feelings of estrangement from his kids - of course they would have some similarities to previous ones.
Still, it took me a while to overcome the "been there, analyzed that" feelings I had in the opening episodes, as Paul and his patients began the familiar dance, wherein they talk about only what they're comfortable talking about while Paul, like a good detective, tries to solve the mystery of what's really bothering them. For the first two weeks, it was only the closing episodes with Adele - where Paul is on less than solid ground, dealing with a complete stranger he can't figure out and/or manipulate - that felt truly engaging.
Then I got to the third week, and began to embrace the show's rhythms again. By this point, the set-up is over. We know, and Paul knows, the basic problems of each patient (including Paul himself), and now it becomes a question of whether they're willing to accept the truth of what he's telling them, and whether there's anything more hiding beneath the surface. Once in the flow, I began to appreciate the nuances of the various duets: the way Paul learns to let Sunil take his time and fish around in his pockets for candy or tobacco or his journal as a stall tactic, or how Paul lets Jesse push his buttons only so far. And I began to really admire the performances, particularly by Ryan, who as the in-control Adele has to reveal even less of herself to Paul than Paul reveals himself to his own patients.
I'll wait until the second half of the season to decide whether I want to continue with this particular therapy. Season one also had an uneven beginning and then routinely knocked me for a loop in its closing weeks; the nature of therapy, and this show, means there has to be a lot of exposition before we can get to the good stuff. But I'm also open to the possibility that I've gotten as much out of this relationship with Paul Weston as I'm likely to get, and that after this round it may be healthier if we go our separate ways.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
I've always struggled with how best to cover this show on the blog. In season one (when episodes aired Monday-Friday), I mostly did open threads. In season two (when three episodes aired Sunday and the other two Monday), I waited until all five had aired and posted a more detailed breakdown of all five. Given some of my ambivalent feelings about the season so far, I may go for a compromise this time: I'll wait till Tuesday night, but the reviews may be a fair amount shorter. We'll see how things go in terms of my schedule and enthusiasm.