Sunday, November 7, 2010

Of Sound Mind: Tackling In Treatment

If my head ever needs shrinking, I’d know which guy to trust. He’s Irish, lives and practices in the same Brooklyn brownstone, has a gift for listening, does not hesitate to provide insights and has been through enough misery himself to understand the suffering of others. Unfortunately, this psychoanalyst is merely a fictitious character named Paul Weston on In Treatment, an HBO series now in its third season. I have to admit I’m addicted.

The minimalist drama is derived from BeTipul, a popular show broadcast in Israel for just two years. The American version’s 2008 and 2009 episodes essentially were just translations from the Hebrew scripts into English. For 2010, original material is required. So far, the process has been seamless, thanks to writers such as Rodrigo Garcia, son of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and author Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake got her a 2003 Pulitzer Prize). Actor Mark Wahlberg is an executive producer. The fine casts have included Hope Davis, John Mahoney, Blair Underwood, Laila Robbins, Josh Charles, Alison Pill and Embeth Davidtz. In addition, directors such as Melanie Mayron (Melissa on thirtysomething), Chris Misiano (Law & Order), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and Paris Barclay (NYPD Blue) contribute to the classy credentials that set In Treatment apart from so much television trash.

Over seven consecutive weeks, there are two half-hour episodes every Monday night, followed by another pair on Tuesday. Each focuses on the protagonist communicating with a different person or persons, who are usually sitting when not pacing. They’ve come for help but frequently resist it. Paul, played by Golden Globe winner Gabriel Byrne with understated eloquence, initially saw clients in Baltimore before relocating to New York City after a divorce. His ex-wife (Michelle Forbes) retained custody of their two adolescent kids. By now, he’s also stopped sessions with his own longtime therapist Gina (Dianne Wiest, who earned an Emmy for the role), and battled a malpractice lawsuit.

Samrat Chakrabarti

At the moment, his new start up north involves three clients, all fascinating neurotics:

* Sunil (Irfan Khan of Slumdog Millionaire fame) is a middle-aged widower who has left Calcutta to move in with his son Arun (Samrat Chakrabarti) and non-Indian daughter-in-law Julia (Sonya Walger). It’s a not a happy household. When the three are consulting Paul, we witness the dysfunctional dynamics firsthand.

* Frances (Debra Winger), a seasoned actress who keeps forgetting her lines while rehearsing a Broadway play, is losing a sister to breast cancer and has been alienated from her only child for years.

* The openly gay Jesse, an angry teen who resents his adoptive parents, can’t bring himself to return a recent call from the birth mother he’s never met.

Amy Ryan
Paul has begun weekly visits with another psychiatrist -- Adele (the remarkable Amy Ryan, such a convincing lowlife in Gone Baby Gone) -- at first merely to renew his prescription for Ambien. He’s contending with persistent insomnia, a recurring nightmare, fear of inheriting a terminal illness and fury that his personality and problems may be the inspiration for a novel Gina has just published. During these therapeutic discussions, the man who demonstrates utter kindness, wisdom and patience at work is transformed into a tightly wound hypochondriac with dozens of unresolved issues. Doctor, heal thyself.

Despite all the angst, In Treatment is quiet and thoughtful. The dialogue rings true, with carefully chosen words as the weapon in some instances and the cure in others. It’s a yakfest but I think even restless viewers would be riveted by any show that gets down to the essence of human despair and confusion. I once had a job as a lowly aide in a Massachusetts madhouse, where patients -- referred to as “residents” to sound less incarcerated -- were diagnosed with more severe conditions than those under Paul’s care.

The psychiatrists and nurses conducted informational staff meetings covering the types of troubled people on the ward: schizophrenics, manic-depressives (now called bipolar), borderline personalities, sociopaths. As their symptoms were described, I almost aways would imagine myself with the same demons that were bedeviling those crazy kids. This was a Harvard teaching hospital, so many were students close to my age. They used to tease us by saying, “The only difference between the patients and the attendants is that the attendants have the keys.”

My night shift at the loony bin often was fun. We played card games, ping pong, Scrabble. The residents liked to dance to the Eric Burdon and the Animals’ anthem “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” blaring from the Day Room stereo, some doing what I thought of as the Thorazine Shuffle. But our chats were heartbreaking when they talked about their screwed-up childhoods, their terrifying quests for a sense of identity, their suicide attempts. If memory serves, some of them were much like the lost souls on In Treatment, with whom I also can identify -- or at least they might remind me of people I know.

Gabriel Byrne
Sunil, a retired math professor, bears the sorrow of anyone who has lost a loved one and suddenly become displaced. Panicked about the aging process, the self-centered Frances believes it’s her against the world though, of course, the enemy mostly is within. The cynical Jesse, a temperamental high school boy, is reminiscent of a young ex-Marine I recently interviewed; after two tours of duty in Iraq, the vet's post traumatic stress syndrome has left him depressed, anxious, quick to lash out and unable to tolerate everyday hassles.

While denouncing Adele for not being experienced enough to comprehend the distress that torments him, at 53 Paul is far more immature on a personal level than his perceptive younger therapist. Convinced the Parkinson’s that claimed his father not long ago has been passed on genetically -- despite no medical proof of that -- he’s already planning for death. (This family tragedy truly hits home for me; My father was killed by the debilitating disease on Christmas Eve 1996.) Yet pessimistic Paul still has an astonishing ability to serve as a beacon of hope for his clients, offering them a safety net of calm and reason. Even so, things can get intense and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” may seem like a good idea. But they rarely flee before finding some solace. Neither would I.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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