In these strike-plagued days of endless reruns and empty, aching TiVo queues, just about anything new from HBO would be cause for rejoicing. But “In Treatment,” a half-hour drama that debuts tonight, is the proverbial manna in the desert. And not just because it’s based on a popular Israeli television show. Cleverly conceived, it boasts a star-studded cast (Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, Blair Underwood) who achieve, at times, theatrical transcendence. And perhaps most important considering these troubled times, it airs five days a week! Yes, that’s right, every weeknight for nine weeks.
As God is my witness, your TiVo will never go hungry again. No, nor any of its kin.
Here’s the setup: Paul (Byrne) is a therapist who sees patients in his home. Each episode is devoted to one patient’s session: Monday, it’s Laura (Melissa George), a young doctor with the hots for Paul and some fairly obvious father issues. Tuesday, it’s Alex (Underwood), a cocky fighter pilot who completed a mission that left 16 Iraqi boys dead, not that this is a problem for him or anything. Wednesday brings Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a troubled teenage gymnast who may or may not have attempted suicide. On Thursday, it’s Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), a couple fighting over what to do now that their five-year attempt to get pregnant has worked (she wants to abort, he doesn’t). Friday is the best, because that’s when Paul takes himself, his fraying marriage and various midlife anxieties to the home of his former mentor, retired therapist Gina (Wiest).
If you’ve ever been in therapy, thought about going into therapy, known anyone in therapy or just really like Gabriel Byrne and/or Dianne Wiest (and I think I have covered the vast majority of Americans here), “In Treatment” is television as controlled substance -- highly addictive. The therapist’s office may be in danger of being worn ragged as a dramatic construct -- indeed, between “The Sopranos” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” it is tempting to wonder if HBO executives are making some kind subconscious plea for help. But “In Treatment” writer-director Rodrigo Garcia refuses to apologize or equivocate. He just puts troubled people in a (very lovely, evocatively lighted) room and writes the hell out of it.
Which doesn’t mean “In Treatment” is perfect. At times the construct of two or three people sitting in a room talking for half an hour becomes stagey, and the level of antagonism each patient aims at Paul in almost every episode strains not only believability (surely grown-ups would not waste their money talking about their therapist’s failings when they could be talking about themselves) but also the dramatic pitch. Nor are all of the characters or storylines as compelling as the others -- I found Laura grating rather than seductive, and the Alex storyline failed to capture me.
That said, I watched all seven weeks that HBO sent me (that’s 35 episodes, people), one after the other, as fast as I could clear the room of my young children. I stayed up past midnight, grew hollow-eyed and pale, missed meals and refused to answer my cellphone or check my e-mail just so I could squeeze in another episode. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was fun.
Part of this you can chalk up to a lifelong pash for Byrne, who is at the top of his fretful haunted game, portraying a man truly devoted to his clients and his science and yet depressed, repressed, narcissistic and occasionally downright whiny. Having now officially turned the noncommittal murmur into an art form, Byrne uses his craggy brow and tragic Irish eyes to their best advantage, making Paul, at the base of it, noble enough, a man seeking to correct his failings even if he can’t quite bring himself to admit them.
When he first turns to Gina, the mentor he broke with years ago, he tells her it is because he has become so impatient with his patients. That isn’t what the real problem is, of course, and his and Gina’s attempt to get at the root of his irritation forms the spine of the narrative.
Now I could devote a whole paragraph to the wonder that is Dianne Wiest and, in fact, I think I will. Long one of the most versatile American actors around, her Friday appearances lift “In Treatment” into dramatic realms that defy mediums. Watching her and Byrne circle each other and the truth, it’s easy simply to forget where you are -- you could just as easily be at the Mark Taper Forum or the ArcLight as in your own living room. With relatively few lines, Wiest radiates the wisdom, curiosity and bewilderment of a woman in that stage of life when the paths before her grow more numerous and less distinct. She has lost her husband and retired -- she’s trying to write a novel -- and although she is still angry at Paul for past behavior, she is clearly grateful for the opportunity to sit in the therapist’s chair again. With her easy laugh and mercilessly direct questions, she is therapist as Mother Earth, and is there any chance she has an opening on Thursday afternoons?
You could watch “In Treatment” for the level of acting alone. As the truly troubled Sophie, Wasikowska is a luminous prickly wonder. Davidtz (so marvelous in films as diverse as “Matilda” and “Junebug”) and Charles (“Sports Night” and “Six Degrees”) perfectly embody one of those crazy couples whom you can’t imagine ever getting married in the first place and, yet, here they are. As Laura, George has the difficult task of parading her character’s sexual exploits in an queasy sort of psycho-seduction, while Underwood must create a man so buried under denial that he really believes his heart attack had nothing to do with his killing of 16 children. If they don’t always reach the same level of resonance some of the other story lines do, it is not for want of effort or talent.
And the best part of “In Treatment” is that if, for some reason, you really can’t stand one of the patients or the stories, you can just skip that night. Though I wouldn’t recommend it. Even without a strike, television like this doesn’t come along every day.
When: 9:30 to 10 tonight; Monday through Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)