In Treatment isn’t boring enough

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?

5 thoughts on “In Treatment isn’t boring enough

  1. This is a tremendously important point, Bea! I meant to bring up a version of it before time ran out today. In Treatment does omit so much of the ordinary and the everyday. It privileges events and narrative twists to silences, repetitions, struggles, and all of the other elements of which therapy might be composed. It’s not enough to argue that, say, the show is “unrealistic” or (perhaps in your formulation) not “believable” enough as a result. Not all worthwhile art or literature is realist or realistic. What, then, I wonder, is the problem of these omissions? What would the ordinary atmospheres of therapy add to the artistic ambitions or capacities of the series? This is another way of asking your final (speculative) set of questions.

  2. It was mentioned on Tuesday that In Treatment resonated with what Mittell was talking about with puzzle films, and one of the things that I noticed was how tightly written it was. As you’ve mentioned, absolutely everything that was said was loaded with significance, and you could be sure that it would be brought up again. Especially in the first week, where we are introduced to the patients, the show played less like a therapy session than it did a crime procedural. The patient would present their story, and the audience would be invited to try to keep up with Paul as he delved into their psyche. With that in mind, the writers may have been afraid to insert quiet moments of reflection for fear that the audience would have time to anticipate Paul’s next move, thus undermining the image that they were trying to build of him being a brilliant psychological diagnostician. It’s not a therapy show, it’s a mental mystery.

    With week two though, the characters from week one return, so it is not possible to continue the formula of “Law and Order: Paul’s Office.” Because the show has chosen to deal with a cast of recurring characters, and therefore make this a show based on those characters, it would probably be necessary to include those moments of quiet contemplation if this were to be a therapy show, to give more time for the characters and relationships to season.

    However, I would say that In Treatment doesn’t even attempt to be a “therapy show.” Instead, what it seems to be trying to do is pit five or six different personalities against Paul in mental duels, where he is up against a perfectly crafted opponent. The result is a constant hum of drama. The biggest problem that I see with that would be in the pacing, where the show keeps on pushing to push Paul’s buttons without giving time for the viewer to catch his breath (although this may have been alleviated by the one-a-night format of the original broadcast) or for Paul’s character to develop organically.

  3. The show is very good at being an Example of Complex Narrative Television, and for that reason, I’m glad we had the chance to watch and discuss it within that context, but the points you’re making about artificiality and “action” are so, so important. The Monday-Thursday therapy sessions are precisely not-boring, and I’m glad you were troubled by that. You’re right – there weren’t enough awkward pauses, too much was brought to the surface too quickly (I’m thinking of Sophie in particular, who was a little too forthcoming with the Red Flags), and Paul was much too active a participant in conversation with his patients. You can’t even say that it’s bad writing – it’s just very much in line with the traditions of its medium.

  4. Don’t have much to add here except that it might be cool to read this post in conjunction with Maia’s from earlier this week. The answers to both sets of (very different) questions could be similar in really interesting ways.

  5. This is such a great point; I hadn’t quite been able to pinpoint what it was that bothered me about IT before this. One thing that really stood out to me was the way that the series seems to critique the concept of watching; we as audience members are initially set to sympathize with Paul, viewing each patient from his limited perspective and given the visual cues of his reactions that in turn tailor ours to his. When he visits Gina at the end of the first week, a shift occurs and we’re forced to watch the following episodes in a totally different light. To me, the whole thing attempts to be a commentary on limited perspectives and how we “watch” characters or the people in our own lives– but it doesn’t really go far or make it explicit enough to be a real commentary on the flaws of talk therapy. It does make me curious, though, how they handle the issue in the rest of the series. The comments on the HBO website aren’t really encouraging.

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