Tuned In: Tough talk

Unusual format, serious subject make 'In Treatment' difficult viewing

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In the eternal struggle between abstract art and commerce, serious entertainment and fun fluff, HBO's "In Treatment" comes down squarely on the side of the former. It's admirable TV, but it's not enjoyable unless you like your lead character insufferable or you like to watch mom and dad fight.

That may sound dismissive but most viewers look to TV for escapist entertainment. There's nothing entertaining about "In Treatment," but it's not designed to amuse. It's a character drama created to provoke thought, and for viewers seeking a challenge, "In Treatment" will be a fascinating affair.

HBO gambles with the format of this series about Paul (Gabriel Byrne), the latest in a recent spate of TV therapists ("The Sopranos," "Tell Me You Love Me," "State of Mind," "Help Me Help You"). Paul's sessions with a different patient will be chronicled at 9:30 p.m. each weekday for the next nine weeks, beginning Monday. That's asking a lot of viewers in the current, cluttered media environment.

Some viewers may choose to watch a la carte, following their favorite patient only on his or her appointed day of the week. But after viewing 10 half-hour episodes (the first two weeks of the series), it was clear to me that "In Treatment" has the most impact when watched every night in sequence.

Mondays, Paul sees Laura (Melissa George, "Alias"), a patient who comes to him as a mess after a night of drinking. She reveals some feelings that will color future therapy sessions.

Carnegie Mellon University alum Blair Underwood stars as Tuesday's patient, Alex, a Navy pilot whose bombing mission ended in the inadvertent deaths of civilians. He claims to have no feelings of guilt but his protestations seem overly defensive.

A 16-year-old aspiring Olympic gymnast, Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), comes to Paul on Wednesday seeking only his professional opinion, no therapy. But in future weeks Paul begins to suspect she may be a victim of abuse.

On Thursday, Paul gets the double whammy of angry Jake (Josh Charles, "Sports Night") and his ambivalent, driven wife, Amy (Embeth Davidtz). They've been trying to conceive a child for years, but now that she's pregnant, Amy is having second thoughts.

On Friday, Paul visits his retired former supervisor, Gina (Dianne Wiest), with whom he had a falling out. She quickly returns to the role of therapist as Paul faces cracks in his relationship with his wife, Kate (the bracing, hugely talented Michelle Forbes).

Claustrophobes be warned: Each episode consists solely of the patient and Paul talking in his office. "In Treatment" rarely ventures outside or even to a different set. Mostly, Paul asks questions and the patients spew out what's going on in their lives. Then Paul asks another question. In the background (and in the opening credits), a perpetual-motion-wave desk toy constantly rocks back and forth, almost in sync with the show's repetitive question-answer rhythm.

The patients seem overly combative in their sessions with Paul, and their behaviors can impact viewers. Jake is jumpy in his session Thursday, pacing around the room; it made me anxious to watch him.

Viewers willing to invest in the characters and their problems will eventually get some payoff (stories emerge from the emotional muck), but "In Treatment" demands patience.

Paul's wife, Kate, doesn't make much of an appearance until week two. Her problems with Paul don't become clear until the couple finally get significant screen time together a week from Thursday, when they get into an argument that strays from the question-answer monotony.

"In Treatment" is fascinating TV, but it's not a pleasant experience. Watching these therapy sessions is akin to eating your TV broccoli.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Ask TV questions at post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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