Couch Surfing

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Claudette Barius/Courtesy of HBO

’Tell me,” says the furious wife (Michelle Forbes) to her world-weary husband (Gabriel Byrne), “when did you become such an asshole?” This, perhaps, is unfair. Byrne is stuck in the role of Dr. Paul Weston, a psychotherapist who has been sitting still for other people’s troubles for so many years that his empathy has either hardened, like a missile silo, or attenuated, like the signal from a dying star. He is practically punch-drunk from the dreadful neediness of his patients. Whatever they say is enciphered; he must crack these codes to get at commitment problems, sexual abuse, pregnancy fears, and warrior guilt. Yes, he has failed to notice that his wife is having an affair, and he has lost track of his own children, but the last thing a groggy Paul needs is homegrown horns and grief.

As befits a series about “the talking cure,” In Treatment is almost entirely conversation. But while Paul’s patients are only expected to show up once a week, HBO asks the rest of us to tune in Mondays through Fridays, as if to Letterman or Leno. Mondays, for half an hour, Paul fends off the erotic advances of Melissa George as Laura, an anesthesiologist who watches too much Animal Planet. Tuesdays he is verbally assaulted by Blair Underwood as Alex, a Navy pilot choosing to be numb rather than guilty about his bombing missions in Iraq. Wednesdays it’s Mia Wasikowska as Sophie, a 16-year-old gymnast equally traumatized by two broken arms and her intimate relationship with a coach as old as her father. Thursdays is couples therapy, with Embeth Davidtz as Amy, a career woman inclined to terminate her inconvenient pregnancy, and Josh Charles as Jake, her songwriter husband with a different agenda. Fridays Paul sees his own therapist, Dianne Wiest as Dr. Gina Toll, who used to be his mentor, who subsequently betrayed his trust, but who knows how to push his id-and-ego buttons.

What astonishes is how flexible and perceptive Paul is in all these sessions, in spite of his exhaustion. He sees around corners, into closets. It’s a kind of jujitsu. Like his patients, we lean on him and then suddenly are thrown head over heels, tumbled into deeper meanings and surprise perspectives. Which is to say that In Treatment has loftier aspirations than VH1’s voyeuristic Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew (D-list substance abusers) or HBO’s prurient Tell Me You Love Me (yummy-yuck). But it doesn’t leave much time for Paul’s wife Kate, which is why she’s furious. As wounding as Paul’s trench war of words with Alex may be, as mesmeric as his decipherings of Sophie, as squirmy as his grapples with lusty Laura, scariest of all are the confrontations between husband and wife: scenes from an Ingmar Bergman marriage.

In Treatment demands a great deal of prime-time attention, and it’s an open question how such a talky production will wear on us. But intelligence isn’t to be sniffed at. Generally speaking, television likes shrinks, from Allan Arbus in M*A*S*H, Elliott Gould in Sessions, Peter Strauss in Moloney, Carolyn McCormick and JK Simmons in Law & Order, Adam Arkin in The West Wing, and Lorraine Bracco in The Sopranos, to Stanley Kamel in Monk, Lili Taylor in State of Mind, and Stephen Fry in Bones, not to forget Bob Newhart in his group-therapy days, Tracey Ullman in Ally McBeal, Kelsey Grammer in Frasier, and Dr. Katz in Squigglevision. Why this is so I can’t say for sure, although I’ve suggested that TV is predisposed to believe that all our problems are intimate and that most of our monsters live at home, under the bed, instead of outside in politics or history or collateralized-debt obligations and the subprime-mortgage mess. TV thinks small, on a couch.

In Treatment
HBO. Premieres Monday, January 28 at 9:30 p.m.

Couch Surfing