There are hard sells, and then there are jawbreakers. HBO's new show In Treatment had a lot working against it. Besides its unique, carpet-bombing schedule (five 25-minute shows aired weekly, for nine weeks) the show had only one big name—Gabriel Byrne as therapist Dr. Paul Weston—and essentially one location, his office. Adapted from BeTipul, a popular Israeli show, In Treatment also had to make its debut last January, when the final season of The Wire was inhaling every superlative that particular media moment had to offer. Not the kind of show to inspire reverent watching parties or drinking-game catchphrases, In Treatment is almost mortifyingly intimate, best watched—most fully watched—alone, in the dark, with a pillow slowly suffocating at your breast.
It is also the most daring, fully realized, and challenging drama to emerge this year, on any screen. Mini-operas unfold in Paul's office from Monday to Thursday, one recurring patient assigned to each day, each offering variations on the eternal Freudian themes, with Paul himself seeing a therapist on Fridays. The jazzy set-up and the tendency toward ponderous, shrink-y dialogue can make for a bumpy initial adjustment, but by week three the characters and their relationships with Paul lock into a register as compelling as it is constructed.
It takes nothing away from the show's bedrock of extraordinary performances (Byrne and a young actress named Mia Wasikowska are standouts) to suggest that its heights are ultimately owed to writer and executive producer Rodrigo García. As the individual storylines start building onto themselves and then tunneling toward each other, with Paul's psyche and those of his wretched patients melding un-, sub-, and self-consciously, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a mind-effing maestro at the helm. García, a veteran film director (Nine Lives) and the son of Gabriel García Márquez, is clearly a master of episodic narrative—there is true artistry behind the transformation of these babbling constructs into living beings—but he must also be a chair-throwing crusader: To get a show this messy, this flawed, and this exhilaratingly smart on the air feels like a minor miracle.
Michelle Orange is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook, a story collection published by McSweeney's.
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