Despite leaps in production budgets over the years and an effort to give dramatic series the textural richness of film, television still rarely relies on visual storytelling. Many shows are so exposition-heavy that you could watch them with your eyes closed and still thoroughly comprehend the plot - and if you miss something, characters often return from commercial breaks repeating what's already happened. I'm not necessarily complaining: When there are chores to get done around the house, certain shows act as ideal audio books.
Couch detective Gabriel Byrne with Monday's patient, Melissa George (Click to enlarge)
You would think HBO's new nightly half-hour drama In Treatment would be that kind of series, too. You rarely see more than two people in a room talking. And one of those people is always the same: psychotherapist Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne. In the Monday-through-Thursday installments, Weston meets with a different patient each day, and every Friday he meets up with his former supervisor (Dianne Wiest) to discuss his own problems. These invariably touch on the people he counsels as well as his own quietly disintegrating personal life. But even though the series is devoted to the back and forth of talky therapy sessions, and is set almost entirely in one well-worn home office, I watched In Treatment as intently as I listened to it.
That's because In Treatment, adapted from a hit Israeli series created by Hagai Levi, is like a room-bound, cat-and-mouse thriller that uses faces, bodies and speech patterns to explore the tension and release of someone concealing something and someone else trying to find that hidden thing. It makes all the actors' movements - a glance, a gesture, a way of sitting or moving - part of the key to cracking the multilayered behavioral detective story of the characters' private lives.
And the people under Weston's microscope definitely have issues. Tuesday's patient is Alex (Blair Underwood), a perfectionist Navy pilot who projects a suspiciously controlled, calm front even though he led a bombing mission in Iraq that mistakenly hit a madrasah, then later, back in the states, suffered a heart attack. Wednesdays we meet Olympic-gymnast hopeful Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), who is out to prove to everyone that there was nothing emotionally hinky about an accident in which her bike hit a car. Of course, little is calm or simple about her relationship with her parents or her coach. Weston's Thursday session with a married couple, Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz), reveals an opposites-attract duo whose opposition is overwhelming their attraction.
Oddly enough, as much as I like In Treatment and its theatrically deft interplays, it doesn't get off to a great start with its Monday patient, Laura, a tall, beautiful and flirtatious doctor with a needy boyfriend, who develops a case of therapist infatuation. The problem is that the show needs to overcome viewer suspicions that its claustrophobic nature and sophisticated subject matter will only encourage drama-queen acting, and Melissa George's weighty retelling of a fraught sexual escapade too often veers into the artificial highs of an acting-class monologue, as if the series has reached a crisis point before it's been deserved. George eventually acquits herself (even further in subsequent weeks), but it's Byrne's veneer of integrity and sedate authority - and the actor's superbly weary way of conveying the sensitive rigor of professionalism in an admittedly breakdown-prone setting - that ultimately save the first episode.
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It's an unfortunate opening clunker, because the first show has to set in motion the series' intricate web of emotional dominoes, and once you dip into the other episodes - especially the unpredictably nurturing, taut and combative end-of-the-week sessions with Byrne and Wiest, in which the physicians sometimes find it hard to heed the heal-thyself admonishment - the series starts to take its prickly, tantalizing shape. One note: Although the series divides up its sessions nightly, you might be tempted to latch onto a favorite patient and watch only his or her story. But I get the impression that over the course of its nine-week run, In Treatment will most reward completists. Apart from a few notable Sopranos episodes that showed how Dr. Malfi's notorious weekly appointment affected her outside life, it's not often that depictions of the therapeutic trade examine the toll the job takes on the one contemplatively asking the questions. Like any mesmerizing rabbit hole into the mind, In Treatment relishes both the discovery and the discovery that deepens that discovery.
If TV's fictional characters all lived in the same universe, I'd consider high-powered San Francisco lawyer Eli Stone - of ABC's new drama of the same name - a no-brainer candidate for Weston's couch, too. A messiah complex, this one has. Eli, played by Jonny Lee Miller, has been thrown off his game lately by hallucinations of George Michael singing the pop hit "Faith," which, combined with memories of his dad telling him he was meant for great things, a shocking medical diagnosis, and being susceptible to the fuzzy spiritual pronouncements of his holistically inclined Chinese acupuncturist, Dr. Chen (James Saito), lead Eli to believe he might be a prophet. (And if he were being followed by Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf," would he think he had to get on all fours and growl at everyone?) In any case, there's no need to expect a disturbing psychodrama about a Master of the Universe on the precipice. Eli Stone is another lawyer hour disguised as feel-good rehabilitation fluff, with Eli now compelled to use his sharklike courtroom mojo to take up the causes of wronged underdogs against the kinds of heartless corporate clients his blue-chip firm typically represents. Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that his boss (Victor Garber) is also the father of his fiancee (Natasha Henstridge). Complicating matters for me was seeing an accomplished, veteran character actress like Loretta Devine stuck in the cliched role of Eli's cutely caustic secretary. Couldn't she be a lawyer? Hers is an underdog case I wish Hollywood would have a change of heart about, perhaps to the tune of Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T"?
IN TREATMENT | HBO | Mon.-Fri., 9:30 p.m.
ELI STONE | ABC | Thurs., 10 p.m.