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In Treatment’s third season debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

In Treatment was legitimately the best show absolutely no one was watching last spring, a series devoted to the simple pleasures of listening to people talk. In its own way, the series is as formulaic as any CBS procedural. In the first couple weeks, Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne, in a career-best performance) will learn what he needs to know about the back story of the patients he’s seeing that season. In the middle handful of weeks, he’ll push them until they begin to confront the real issues underlying their problems. And in the final weeks, he and the patient will reach a point of catharsis, opting to continue their work together or parting ways, usually gracefully. Every week, Paul will also visit his therapist, prickly, testy Gina (Dianne Wiest) in the first two seasons and abrupt, to-the-point Adele (Amy Ryan) in this season. Since the show doesn’t dabble in exotic, overly dramatic psychological issues, the range of issues these patients confront is necessarily fairly narrow. It’s easy to see how this series could paint itself into a corner.


And yet, In Treatment remains one of the best shows on television in the opening week of its third season. What’s more, because of the simple fact that the show’s setup IS fairly formulaic, it’s the easiest of TV’s current great dramas to jump on board at the beginning of a new season, rather than having to start over from the beginning (and with nearly 80 previous episodes, it’s easy to see where trying to watch all of the show’s back catalog would be necessarily daunting). If you begin watching In Treatment with tonight’s one hour premiere, you won’t be missing any necessary information. Much of the richness of the show comes from watching Paul’s slow evolution over the years, from seeing how his interactions with his patients slowly unlock the man himself. But even if you don’t understand every nuance of what Paul says, the simple interactions between him and his patients should be more than enough to lure in any quality TV fan.

Look at it this way: Like those CBS procedurals, In Treatment is fundamentally a mystery show. But it’s not a mystery where the clues lead viewers further and further in pursuit of the plot. It’s a mystery show where the clues lead viewers deeper and deeper into the lives of these characters. There’s a certain comfort to watching a procedural crime drama, to seeing the same friendly faces solve the same kinds of crimes week after week after week. That same comfort will be present for fans of In Treatment with this week’s episodes, as just spending time with Paul and working with him to puzzle out what makes these people tick is an immense pleasure. In Treatment is one of the best shows on TV at observing how people talk to each other. The talk is elevated, to a degree, since therapy so often consists of people telling a neutral observer stories, trying to recall every detail, but it still resonates. The best episodes of this show feel like beautiful, tiny short stories or one-act plays.


Another reason it would behoove those who’ve been resistant to In Treatment’s charms to jump on this season would be the fact that the show now requires watching one less half hour of TV per week. In its first, shakiest season, the series aired one half hour of TV on every week night, providing a tiny oasis of calm in a writers’ strike-decimated season dominated by crass reality programs. In its second season, the series aired the same number of half hours, but over two nights, instead. Somehow, this viewing schedule felt even more hectic. This season, the show airs on two nights (Monday and Tuesday), but with only one hour on each night, the viewing schedule feels more manageable.

It also helps that the show has nailed down a terrific cast yet again. It would be hard to top season two’s ensemble, which was fantastic across the board, but the series matches that ensemble, if not surpasses it, and it does so with two actors who won’t be immediately familiar to most viewers. The week’s episodes lead off with Sunil, played by Irrfan Khan, best known for his work as the policeman in Slumdog Millionaire. Sunil’s story, partially plotted out by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, follows a recent widower who’s moved to New York to live with live with son Arun (Samrat Chakrabarti) and daughter-in-law Julia (Sonya Walger). His recent, obvious depression has his family concerned for his well-being and dragging him to see Paul. (And if there’s a false note in this opening week of episodes, it comes from the too-obvious way the show writes Julia as dismissive of her father-in-law.) It’s not immediately obvious that Chakrabati and Walger will stick around for future episodes, but Khan is wonderful in the opening half hour, where he spends half the running time barely saying anything.


The second half hour features award-winning actress Debra Winger as Frances, an older actress who comes to Paul after a recent problem with learning her lines for the play she’s starring in. Paul treated Frances’ sister 18 years ago, and she hopes he can do the same good he did her sister. Winger’s been slowly re-entering the world of screen acting in recent years, but this might be her best work yet, as she turns Frances’ every utterance into something worthy of a puff-piece interview, keeping Paul from finding the truth.

Dane DeHaan leads off Tuesday’s episodes as Jesse, a troubled gay (though, blessedly, not troubled because he IS gay) teenager who’s already deep into therapy with Paul when an unexpected phone call sets him reeling again, plunging into a world Paul’s certain should not be the place for a 16-year-old. DeHaan’s had some success on stage, but this is his first significant TV role, and he slips into the part of a boy whose moods shift like quicksilver with ease. Amy Ryan rounds out the cast as Adele, the woman Paul goes to when he wants to re-up his prescription for Ambien, though he finds she won’t let him get his sleeping pills as easily as he’d like. Ryan, of course, is a TV pro, and though Gina is ever-present in the show’s mind, Ryan makes sure viewers will be just as intrigued by her relationship with Paul as they were with Wiest’s wonderful performance.


At the center, of course, is Byrne as Paul. Byrne’s had several memorable on-screen roles, but this is the one he seems born to play, at turns world-weary, at turns almost achingly paternal. Byrne intuitively understands the power of silence, the power of an eyebrow quirked just right while listening to a patient’s story. Put simply, this show wouldn’t work without him. Too many other actors would overplay the moments in each patient monologue where Paul begins to find the strands he will pull together to build a portrait of what has this person in agony. Byrne makes them seem simply intuitive. The show’s brief glimpses into Paul’s private life – mostly dealing with his troubled relationship with his kids, his relationship with a younger woman, and his health concerns in this season – become all the more fascinating for the way they let us see Paul without his mask up, so we can better spot it when it slips in his sessions.

As mentioned above, yes, there’s an element of formula to this. Longtime viewers of the show will immediately recognize elements of John Mahoney’s performance as Walter in Khan’s work or of Mia Wasikowska’s work as Sophie in DeHaan’s. And, yes, getting past the exposition necessary to begin the real work of therapy feels less and less necessary every season (which is why Jesse’s session is such a nice relief). But at the same time, puzzling out who these people are and who they were remains deeply moving, and the show’s understanding of how people communicate with each other in quiet conversation is second to none. Paul’s quiet prodding bumps up against Sunil’s flowery language, Frances’ pre-digested sound bites, Jesse’s acid-laced sarcasm, and Adele’s to-the-point wit. None of these people sound alike, nor do they sound like former patients, even if they suffer from similar issues. New showrunners Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein (Futterman wrote the screenplay for Capote) have made sure of that. In the tradition of the previous two seasons, they’ve kept the show recognizably itself but have also made it their own.


Therapy, ultimately, is pretty self-involved work. It suggests that one’s own problems are so significant as to be able to sit in a small room and talk quietly with someone who is paid merely to listen to you as if the weight of the world was on your shoulders. Certainly, people suffering in Darfur or the Congo cannot afford this same luxury. And yet In Treatment – even with its unrealistic “we’ve gotten to your core issues in seven weeks” format – understands the simple pleasure of having someone listen to you, of being able to go into a room and unburden yourself of everything you’ve been carrying around. And even though the bulk of the series’ run-time is devoted to sitting in this one, small room, it also understands that the true work of therapy is not carried out in these sessions, that the true work begins outside, in the greater world, where life, eventually, must be lived.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to In Treatment coverage here at TV Club. There were only a few of us tracking this show last season, but we saw one of the great seasons of the last five years, and I hope we get as much pleasure (or even half as much) this year. To that end, I want to ask how you’d best like to see this show covered. Clearly, I have a lot to say about it, but in future weeks, would you like to see one post on Monday and one post on Tuesday or just a weekly recap on Tuesday? I’m fine with either approach. (This week, however, I’ll likely just bump this post tomorrow night to provide a discussion space for tomorrow’s episodes.)