Special 'Treatment'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

Long ago, when cigarettes were still advertised on TV and radio, one was peddled with the slogan "A treat -- instead of a treatment." HBO's new weeknight drama series, a high-gloss soap called "In Treatment," is perhaps more treatment than treat, but mainly because it's dealing with the unhappiness and maladjustment that send people running to psychotherapists for help.

And also because it consists literally -- and largely -- of scenes set in a shrink's office as he talks and listens to his patients, an intriguing assortment with a colorful palette of problems and neuroses.

It's surprisingly easy to settle into their stories and the series, which begins tonight at 9:30; a later hour might have made more sense, since the show has a sort of late-night "feel" to it. For the first time in HBO's history, episodes air each weeknight, Monday through Friday, at the same hour. Each day of the week brings a different patient to the office and couch of Dr. Paul Weston, presumably no relation to the big-band conductor (of even longer ago than cigarette commercials) who was married to singer Jo Stafford. Give yourself a hug if you remember that.

Monday night is Laura night, Laura played by Melissa George and suffering from, among other problems, disillusion with her current boyfriend and, simultaneously, a somewhat suffocating crush on Weston. The good doctor, and he does appear to be a good one, is played by Gabriel Byrne, who wears the role like a comfy old rumpled sweater. He seems at times the very essence of rumplement, in fact, and the acting challenge -- spending lots of time on camera listening, listening, listening, as shrinks are condemned to do -- is handily met. He's an arresting listener.

Weston is also a human being with problems of his own, and so while he sees a different patient each night Monday through Thursday, the Friday night episode is given over to Weston's consultations with his own psychoanalyst and mentor, played by the very misty but highly credible Dianne Wiest.

The notion of a psychiatrist having his own emotional problems is hardly unheard of -- from the loony bin of shrinks in Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" to Tony Soprano's therapist seeking her own therapy in "The Sopranos" -- but here the doctor's private life intersects with certain of his patients' lives in novel, provocative ways.

One of the more intriguing is Tuesday night's patient, a Navy pilot and Iraq war veteran named Alex, played with imposing rage by Blair Underwood.

Alex seems to hate psychotherapists and all they stand for -- whatever that is -- and his hostility adds a thread of mystery to the tapestry. To whet your appetite without spoiling anything, here's a story line from Week 5: "Alex's intimate knowledge of Paul's private life pushes the therapist to the brink." Hmm.

Wednesday night's patient is perhaps the least intriguing of the group, Mia Wasikowska as Sophie, a twisted gymnast. Thursdays look to be the most volatile episodes, with Josh Charles as a very angry young man named Jake and Embeth Davidtz as his victimized wife, Amy. So far, they are both one-note characters, but there is plenty of time as well as room for complications in the five weeks of the series.

There is one more key role: Michelle Forbes as Weston's wife, Kate, whom we see endure the same kind of implacable, distanced exterior that he shows his patients, as if she were more a subject for study than a partner in life. In a memorable scene involving, of all things, a malfunctioning toilet, he hurts her feelings with a casually unthinking remark that sums up their marital problems succinctly.

The field of psychotherapy is hardly unplowed at HBO. By coincidence or design, HBO's most ballyhooed productions usually have resident shrinks running around, whether it's Dr. Melfi on "The Sopranos" or the shrink on the channel's hotsy-totsy drama series "Tell Me You Love Me," which just ended. It's a peculiar bee in HBO's bonnet, but there you have it.

"In Treatment" is based upon an Israeli television series, which also makes it something of a novelty. The concept of the high-concept show may sound forced, even contrived, but the talent behind the cameras is smart enough to bring it all off with plausibility. Viewers who only want to watch one or two nights a week would do well to choose Mondays and Fridays, but then Underwood's character may hold the key to Weston's own undoing on Tuesdays.

The producers escape the potential claustrophobia and predictability of a show that takes place in a psychotherapist's office by occasionally leaving that setting for another -- including, obviously, his living quarters -- and making the drama in his own life part of the texture.

It isn't high literature nor even perhaps high television, but "In Treatment" does have a welcome, and occasionally riveting, pulpy streak, perhaps inevitable with its promise of peeks behind doors that usually remain closed. Wednesday's child is full of woe, but that goes for Monday's, Tuesday's, Thursday's and Friday's, too.

In Treatment (one half-hour) will be shown weeknights at 9:30 beginning tonight.

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