Writing teachers will tell you that one of the keys to a good story is "show, don't tell." Rather than have a character tell you about something he or she did, it's better to have the reader experience it as the character does.
HBO's new series "In Treatment," however, is all about the telling. The show is set almost entirely in a therapist's office, and the patients who come there let their issues pour forth in great gobs of words. If you're looking for a visually arresting series, you'd best move on.
It's initially off-putting, all this verbosity. Yet "In Treatment," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Monday, slowly works its way into something that's much more than two people talking. Thanks to some strong and subtle acting by Gabriel Byrne as the aforementioned psychoanalyst and by several of his patients, the series gets more compelling as each night passes.
And by "each night," I mean each night. HBO has scheduled the show, a remake of an Israeli series, at 9:30 every weeknight for the next nine weeks. Each night will feature a different patient, corresponding to their regularly weekly session with Byrne's Paul Weston. Multiple replays, on-demand viewing and a Sunday-evening marathon of each week's episodes will help viewers stay current.
The every-night schedule is probably something HBO couldn't have tried even a couple years ago. But with on-demand service and DVRs proliferating (and I'm guessing the DVR user-HBO subscriber correlation is fairly high), viewers won't necessarily have to tune in every night.
In fact, it may make for a better experience to watch episodes in a block. The patients -- played by Melissa George, Blair Underwood, Mia Wasikowska (who was also in the Israeli show), Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz -- all have their own stories, but over the course of a week you see the cumulative effect they have on Paul. At the end of the first week, fearing he's starting to fail his patients, he seeks out a former colleague ( Dianne Wiest) for some counseling of his own.
What makes the show work (admittedly to varying degrees) is the connection between Byrne and his fellow actors. The episodes featuring George, a doctor who professes to be in love with Paul, and Underwood, a cocky Navy pilot recently back from a botched mission in Iraq, carry an intensity and spark as they play off Byrne, who's marvelous at conveying exasperation, fatigue or surprise with the flick of an eyebrow or the way he shifts in his chair.
Not every episode is as successful; as a married couple at odds over having another baby, Charles and Davidtz spend more time harping on each other, relegating Byrne to sideman status, at least early on (I've watched the first two weeks). And his conversations with Wasikowska, who plays a young gymnast whose parents fear she's cracking under the demands of her training, feel a little bit circular.
While the show is built around the therapy sessions, we do get glimpses of the outside world, which works both as a change of pace and as a peek into the characters' larger world. Paul's practice is based at his house, so we get glimpses of his kids -- one of whom is a classmate of Wasikowska's character -- and his wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes, late of "Battlestar Galactica"). A conversation between them in week two gives a frightening indication of just how much Paul might be holding back while he's working.
A good portion of "In Treatment" is fascinating, but by no means is it a fun ride. Like "Tell Me You Love Me," another HBO show whose characters make frequent visits to a therapist, it can be an uncomfortable experience, as if you're eavesdropping on the painfully intimate details of these people's lives. What humor there is ranges from rueful to gallows, and breakthroughs are slow to come, if they do at all.
"In Treatment" doesn't seem to be interested in that, though. Its heart lies in the process of therapy and the toll it takes on people who administer it. It may be all talk, but it's certainly not cheap.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun