Watching HBO’s series In Treatment is both fascinating and exciting and incredibly tedious. Which, as it turns out, is also kind of how therapy in general is. It’s a gimmicky premise, but one that works quite effectively: when it’s on television, it runs every night of the week, Monday through Friday, for 9 weeks, giving it a 45-episode arc. But each day of the week focuses on the same client. Like, every Monday’s episode is Laura, every Tuesday’s episode is Alex, and so on. Then on Friday, Dr. Paul Weston goes to see his own shrink and one-time supervisor, Gina, played by Dianne Wiest, who is always fun to watch. And if you know the intricate details of the therapeutic world, that last sentence should have raised a red flag: Dr. Weston’s shrink used to be his supervisor, which qualifies as a dual role, and is a questionable ethical decision, and thus, you have much of the tension of the show.
Not on this relationship specifically, though there is a lot of interesting tension between the two of them, but on relationships in general. In Treatment is actually written by a team of therapists, so apparently, what goes on in Dr. Weston’s office is very much like the true therapeutic experience. Problem is, being scripted, Dr. Weston is a brilliant psychotherapist and always seems to know exactly what to say to his clients. But what In Treatment does so well is slowly peel back the onion layers of each of his clients to painfully reveal their true selves. The show brilliantly presents the characters as often being one way in the beginning, but then proving that the only way to truly get to know someone, if that’s even really possible, is by spending a whole lot of time with them. In therapy is, theoretically, when people are supposed to be most themselves, and this can also apply to the doctors.
The most problematic client is Laura, a loose-cannon anesthesiologist, who is young, beautiful, highly sexual, and extremely damaged. She replaces intimacy with sex, and it is revealed in the first episode that she is madly in love with Dr. Weston, her therapist. While it is not immediately clear what Dr. Weston’s feelings are about this, it becomes so very soon. The idea of therapists and patients falling in love with each other (or at the very least being very sexually attracted to each other) is not a new one, and there is a whole code of ethics surrounding it, including how long therapists should wait to have a relationship with a client after terminating therapy (5 years), and so on. It is also soon revealed that Paul has plenty of marital troubles of his own, and away we go!
Having said that, however, there is no real plot to speak of on In Treatment. The tension and “stories” come from each client’s sessions, and their own unique development and arcs. It’s a whole show where people literally sit around and talk to each other on couches. That’s pretty much it. I don’t think you have to be someone particularly interested in the therapeutic process to enjoy the show, or be moved by it; you just have to be someone that is fascinated by people. It’s definitely the ultimate in character development.
In addition to Laura, there is Sophie, who was my favorite character, a teenage gymnast who may or may not have deliberately tried to kill herself and has some serious Daddy issues. She comes across as the most believable, and, to me, the most sympathetic, maybe because she’s a kid who has been taken advantage of by adults for her entire life and has a wellspring of rage and resentment to show for it. (And perhaps this is a good harbinger that in my own practice I should stick to working with kids; I think they’re inherently more sympathetic.) I also thought her arc was the most fascinating and rewarding.
But there is also Alex, the fighter pilot who accidentally dropped a bomb on a madras in Iraq, killing 16 school boys, and claims to have no guilt about it, despite the fact that before he started therapy he went running one day and didn’t stop until he had a heart attack. His is possibly the most surprising character, and even though his story ends pretty unsatisfyingly, it doesn’t feel arbitrary or half-assed.
Much like when you meet a person in real life, it took me a while to get into In Treatment, for the characters to grow on me, and for me to get invested in their stories. Of course the whole therapeutic process angle of it fascinated me, even if the characters made me crazy, but I guess that’s therapy for you. And it’s weird: when I finally finished the first season last night, I realized I’d spent only 4 hours with each character (less time with some of them), but I felt like I really knew them, and really understood them, and if I met them in real life I would have some idea of how to relate to them. And that, to me, is a powerful testament to therapy in general, and why I love this field so very much.