To borrow a sentiment from the New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin: “To say that the new HBO drama ‘In Treatment’ is boring doesn’t really get at what’s wrong with the show; the problem, to a great extent, is that the show isn’t boring enough.” (You can read the rest of her scathing 2008 review here.)
In Week One, the moments that hit me the hardest were when Paul silenced his patients with an insight—when he points out to Laura that she began her own crisis, or when he confronts Alex with the fact that he came to therapy to find a commanding officer for his emotional life.
Paul’s nonadventures into his patients’ psyches are a bit too consistently revealing, a bit too action-packed. There’s barely any of the type of small talk and silence that teaches the audience about how hard it is for its characters to go through self-analysis. Week Two continued this trend—Alex can’t simply dislike bad coffee. There are very few throwaway lines or speech acts that are truly characters avoiding questions, and not significant content in their own right. Characters don’t even always say hello or goodbye.
The moments of a self looking at itself are what make the Friday episodes so engaging, and the unstable boundary between the therapist and the patient in Paul himself is an essential conceit of the show. However, In Treatment portrays self-examination as a sparring match more patient and therapist than between the patient and the patient themselves, and its Monday-Thursday patients show little of the type of awkward uncertainty and self-doubt that would necessitate prolonged silences and uncomfortable tangents. This is not to say that Paul’s patients don’t have uncertainty and self-doubt, but rather that the show keeps its conversations moving quickly to the point of artificiality.
David Foster Wallace wrote in E. Unibus Pluram, “The modes of presentation that work best for TV – stuff like ‘action,’ with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire “collage” of commercials, news, and music videos, or the ‘hysteria’ of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter – are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more … well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows and moves through it.” In Treatment is a window into therapy, but an idealized one—its characters have problems, yes, but they’re very good at getting to them quickly and with meaningful banter. Does this create a whispered promise to its audience that in the real world, these sordid problems should be articulated well and fit into a dense, exciting narrative?
That being said, I’ve enjoyed our week of In Treatment. I won’t go so far as Franklin (“I can say no more without causing repetitive stress injuries to the fingers that type the words ‘miscast’ and ‘ill-conceived.’”), but our classroom conversations have been largely without criticism of the show itself, and I wanted to potentially start this conversation online—in what ways could “In Treatment” be more believable? More affecting? More engaging? More intellectually stimulating? More marketable? Would it be possible to improve any of these aspects without losing something else?