The Final Analysis of the Rare Reboot that Worked
yesterday’s column I announced my joy that one of the best series of the past decade, Fargo, was surprisingly returning for a fifth season. Today I will discuss a series that I’ve recently learned will not be coming back for another season, despite the fact that I’ve advocated for it strongly in this column for much of 2021.
In Treatment, which I ranked Number 7 on my list of the best television of 2021 has recently been canceled for the second time by HBO. I’ll admit that in neither occasion did it come as an immense shock — this was never the kind of series that HBO was able to handle either now or in its original run starting in 2008. And while it was well ahead of its time in the late 2000s, it was slightly behind the curve when it debuted last May. But in both incarnations, In Treatment was one of the most radically different series that HBO has ever done. And despite its cancellation in its new incarnation, it showed just how much we needed, if not more.
In Treatment was billed as Season 4 of the series that premiered back in 2010 but for all intents and purposes, it truly was a reboot. The therapist at the center of the series, Dr. Brooke Taylor (the always magnificent Uzo Aduba) was supposedly linked to the previous series by being a colleague of Dr. Paul Weston, the therapist played by Gabriel Byrne in the original series. (Like Aduba, Byrne was nominated for an Emmy for the series, and actually won a Golden Globe for his performance in 2009.)
The format was more or less the same as it had been for the original series: each half-hour was a session with a patient that Dr. Taylor was seeing during the week, each a different case. Eladio (Anthony Ramos, who inexplicably was nominated for an Emmy for Hamilton and not this series) was a caregiver for a rich teenager suffering from cerebral palsy and who only was getting to see Brooke because the patient’s family was willing to pay for the sessions. Colin (the always exceptional John Benjamin Hickey) was a tech billionaire sent to a minimum security prison for fraud and was seeing Brooke as a condition of early release. Laila (Quintessa Swindell) was brought to therapy by her grandmother because she had caught her having sex with another girl, and seemed to go out of her way to shock Taylor with each session. The series followed on half hour session with them over a period of six weeks, with a fourth half-hour devoted to Brooke herself. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
All of the action was essentially lengthy dialogues between Brooke and her patient, which essentially made each episode a half-hour play. Just as in the original incarnation, I imagine this put off millions of viewers: what drama can we see simply by having thirty minutes of two people talking to each other? Well, if you love the theater (or indeed have been intense analysis) you know how dramatic this can be. Each successive week we got a deeper hint of the secrets the patients were hiding, as well as the barriers they put up that gave Brooke too much trouble to reach them. Eladio’s emotional intensity and problems with his mother had led to extreme difficulties with affection that would over time force him to shift his affection to Brooke. Colin claimed to love therapy but as Brooke slowly found out, he was a compulsive liar and a narcissistic personality that with each new session made you wonder if you could trust anything coming out of his mouth. Leila was a storyteller whose initial determination to shock Brooke masked deep anxiety about her future, combined with the already layered tension of being black in America. With Leila in particular, you really wondered in later weeks if she’d even come back the next week.
In the original incarnation the last episode of the week would deal with Paul’s own therapy, first in sessions with his mentor played by Dianne Wiest (who won an Emmy for her work) then in the third season with a therapist his own age, played by the always wonderful Amy Ryan. In those sessions we would see the tension that having to be a therapist forced on Paul — his marriage would eventually break up by the end of Season 1, and the reason he changed therapists by the end of season 2 was that he would have a major falling out with Wiest’s character.
In the sessions dealing with Brooke, she didn’t go to therapy but we saw the repercussions were far worse. Brooke had been a recovering alcoholic, but by the end of the first week we had seen her drinking again. Most of the first four weeks dealt with Brooke and her relationship with her AA sponsor Rita, who kept picking at the levels of her sobriety and all of her justifications which were more intense. Her father, a legendary in the California community, had recently passed away and she was dealing with the loss. As a teenager, she’d had a child that she’d given up for adoption. She told Rita she was trying to make contact with him now and he made clear he wanted nothing to do with her. And a college boyfriend who had been one of the constant forces behind her drinking in the first place (Joel Kinnaman, who would appear throughout the series) was back in her life, and despite the warning signs she still wanted to be with him.
All of this climaxed in the fifth week of the season when after Paul, who had promised to visit her, didn’t show up at her house. Brooke then proceeded to have the most intense therapy session yet — with herself. Dr. Brooke Taylor put Brooke under the microscope and forced her to deal with all of the issues about her life and her childhood that she’d been denying her entire life, including the fragility of her mother whom she’d to this point never mentioned. It should have been a pure gimmick but in the sure hands of the writers and Aduba the episode was, in my opinion, one of the great ones of 2021.
How exactly Brooke’s patients and indeed Brooke herself resolved their issues I will leave for the viewer to discover on their own. And I also know that In Treatment was far more capable of dealing with real drama then Succession ever has been and far more qualified to deal with the problems facing so many of today’s youth and addiction than Euphoria was. But just as in its original incarnation, In Treatment’s numbers were never that high and the only member of the cast to receive any awards nomination at all was Aduba who was nominated for Best Actress in a Drama by the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice. (I blame The Handmaid’s Tale in particular for taking so many supporting acting possibilities out of the hands of the incredible cast of In Treatment.) While Aduba’s work really had no chance against the extraordinary work of Olivia Colman in The Crown (who she lost the Emmy too) and MJ Rodriguez for Pose (who took the Golden Globe and is likely to win the Critics Choice) it was quietly as good as the rest of them.
There are two reasons why I don’t think In Treatment was a success in either incarnation. The first is scheduling. In none of the rollouts HBO did could they find a way conducive to work for viewers. In the first season, they aired one episode every day of the week. In the second, they aired three episodes on Monday and two on Tuesday. In the third and fourth season, they tried airing two episodes on two consecutive days. None of their attempts ended up getting viewers.
The other problem is the intensity of the subject. Many of HBO’s dramas are incredibly intense but they have the benefit of having action elsewhere to ease the tension. If The Sopranos had focused its entire first season just in Tony and Melfi’s sessions, it would never have become a cultural phenomenon. In Treatment put you right in there between the therapist and their patient. It’s both too private and public at the same time. Throw in the fact that it’s a half-hour drama — a combination that exists almost nowhere else on any medium, and it’s easy to figure out why it’s never been a big hit. For the longest time HBO’s slogan was: “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” And for all the groundbreaking series that have premiered on it in the last quarter century, there’s an argument that In Treatment is the best example of being true the first part of that phrase.
Was there ever a way that the show could have been successful anywhere? Could it have worked on a service like Netflix or Amazon, dropping all its episodes at once so you could pick and choose the patient you wanted to follow and then see every episode? Perhaps, but that might have involved too much and odd a commitment. Would it have worked on a service like Hulu or even HBO Max that dropped several episodes a week at a time without giving the whole thing away? I honestly have no idea. Maybe this series really was too experimental, in both format and drama, to ever really work.
All I know was that it took a great deal of courage for the programmers of HBO to try and reboot In Treatment. More than any other reinvention of so many series that are filling the airwaves, it completely justified its existence by its quality, certainly more than the new seasons of Dexter and CSI we would get in 2021. The fact that it didn’t end up a popular success does not negate the worthiness of the effort. We needed In Treatment just as much in 2021 as we did in 2008 — given the twisted psyche of the world these days, maybe more now than then. And while in a sense it didn’t work, in the final analysis it wasn’t a waste of time.