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In Treatment

Feb 08 2008 Posted by in entertainment, writing | Comments Off on In Treatment

“There are way too many autobiographies. I mean, who cares?” – Paul Weston

By now, you know the premise for this HBO series: one therapist sees five patients, each with their own half-hour session once a week, a new episode every weeknight for nine weeks. Two episodes in, I was intrigued. After ten, I’m sold more than The Black-Eyed Peas’ souls on the floor of the Satanic Stock Exchange.

The frequency alone is an innovation for dramatic television (though first by its Israeli version). Its true genius, though, is in its programming: a completely modular show that embraces today’s time-shifted viewing habits. It begs for DVR or On Demand viewing. If only one of the patient threads interests you, tune in once a week like a regular show. Or record and watch all of that patient’s episodes back-to-back. Or hold out for the inevitable DVD set and choose from any of the 45. The most immersive option of all is on their HBO Signature channel, where each episode airs at the prescribed time of its patient’s session (the threads are named by their times, like “Alex – Tuesday 10:00 am”). Of course, the only viewers with that kind of couch-time flexibility either can’t afford HBO or are trophy wives bouncing from gym to plastic surgeon.

None of this would matter if the show itself weren’t compelling, and it absolutely is. The patients confront issues each of us can relate to, even if we mostly identify with one specific character. The acting is top-shelf, supported by writing equally praise-worthy. Emmy bait, all. Poor Gabriel Byrne. As therapist Paul Weston, he’s in every episode – that’s one thousand pages of dialogue! Friday’s sessions are a recap of sorts, as we flip point-of-view and learn how much these patients impact Weston’s own troubled life as he visits his therapist, projecting just as much evasion and defensiveness as he receives on his own turf.

As for production, they shot one episode every two days, in chronological order, on one consecutive schedule. Byrne says that he never read beyond the current episode (who’d have time?) so he could approach each one naturally, like the doctor who might need a slight refresher after being away from a patient for a week while treating others in between. It also helps with the onion-peeling effect, not knowing too much until it’s time. The actors portraying patients, however, needed at least an outline of their entire arc to inform why they might reveal current information in the way they do.

Both in writing and directing, In Treatment is a master class in dialogue scene-making, as each episode is basically a one-act play, with no action to lean on. Because there’s so little of it, my eye was drawn to the coverage (camera angles), and it’s textbook, for those students of the craft. They employ subtle tracking and pushing as we’d expect, and the angle and lens length are selected based on emotional weight. The more intimate the revelation, the more on-axis we are (the actor looking almost directly into camera). Lighter convo goes wider and further off-axis. They also effectively break the 180 line, by either going really wide or tracking behind the actor, and then re-establishing it on their other side. Of course these shifts are completely motivated either by subject transitions or shifts in balance of power in the conversation.

The first 15 episodes are available for free online.