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A drama retools to heal itself

TELEVISION CRITIC

HBO’s critically acclaimed and viewership-challenged psychiatric drama, returns Sunday for a second season determined to maintain the acclaim and resolve the challenges.

While the basic premise remains the same -- five weekly episodes will depict sessions with psychiatrist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) -- changes have been made, in cast, characters and configuration (not to mention Paul’s rather severe new haircut.)

Last season, each of the five half-hour episodes aired on a different day, approximating Paul’s schedule; this season they are bundled, with two appearing on Sundays and three on Mondays, offering a more immersive experience that makes good dramatic sense.

While the patient du jour formula may have worked in the original Israeli version, it was no doubt a bit jarring for American viewers, unused to making a daily commitment to a single half-hour show.

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Mercifully, form definitely follows function here and the stories that fill each episode, however you watch them, are even better than they were last season and that’s saying something.

Paul and his wife have separated, and he has moved to an office/apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he learns, as the first episode opens, that there is no such thing as closure. Last season ended with the death of Alex (Blair Underwood), a troubled fighter pilot who ended his therapy to return to the air where he subsequently crashed. This season opens with Alex’s father informing Paul that he is suing him for not preventing the tragedy.

The malpractice case, and its emotional impact on Paul, overarches the narratives of a host of new characters and situations. They include Mia (Hope Davis), a former patient who is single, over 40 and not happy about either; April (Alison Pill), a young woman who is ignoring her recent diagnosis of lymphoma; Oliver (Aaron Shaw), a boy miserably at the center of his parents’ divorce; and Walter (John Mahoney), an embattled chief executive with sleep issues. Rounding out each bundle is Paul’s session with his therapist/former mentor, Gina (Dianne Wiest).

It is, to put it bluntly, a cast to die for. Each story line is well-drawn and compelling and each subtly represents a thread of Paul’s own issues that come together in Gina’s office even more effectively, if a bit more sentimentally, than they did last season.

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While many of Paul’s patients from last season seemed, strangely, much more concerned with him than with their own issues, this round is much more believably self-absorbed. Oh, they may rail against Paul’s methods, but they at least acknowledge that they are in therapy of their own free will, which leaves the writers and the actors free to explore issues that are more wide-flung and resonant.

Mia’s love/hate relationship with men her own age, April’s apparent belief that if she denies her disease it will disappear, Oliver’s utter powerlessness to save his family and even Walter’s issues of fear and control transcend the narrative specifics and speak to the reason people go into therapy in the first place.

It also doesn’t hurt that the performances are uniformly terrific. Mahoney, in particular, is mesmerizing to watch, perhaps because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a man of his age given material that meets his extraordinary range and talent. Although the episodes between Paul and Gina remain the perfect cap to the group, this time around all the pairings achieve the same high standard.

Byrne and Wiest, who won an Emmy for her season one performance, seem to move even more easily with their characters, as if use has stretched them a little, giving the actors a bit more room to breathe. Together they make the contrast between the comfort we offer others and the comfort we allow ourselves much more marked and haunting.

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With his crookedly handsome face and sad, sad eyes, Byrne’s Paul is obviously a man who has too long been giving what he has not gotten. “I hate my life,” he says to Gina in one early episode. “It’s broken. Every day, it hurts . . . OK, I have you. But you can’t give me what I need.”

Of course she can’t, of course she won’t, but the point of being “In Treatment” is that at some point the patient will give voice to precisely what that need is often enough or loudly enough that he or she will finally hear it.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘In Treatment’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday

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Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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