In Treatment Is Back. Is TV Ready for it now?
A theme that I have come back to repeatedly in this column is that is not the success stories that need to be rebooted or brought back but the series that either didn’t quite work or had a cult following. Over the past decade we’ve seen a couple of examples of this: Arrested Development was brought back by Netflix for two daring but increasingly uneven seasons and Veronica Mars which fans brought back for a movie and came back on Hulu for a season that ultimately horrified the fans who had been faithful to it. But never has a network actually brought back a series it has cancelled. Until this Sunday.
To explain what’s happening, I’ll need to go into a bit more detail than I usually do. In 2008 HBO introduced a series called In Treatment which had one of the most radical approaches to TV even for a network known for it. From Monday to Friday, the network would air one half-hour episode that focused solely on a therapy session between Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) and one of his patients. These included a teenager who had a crush on him (Melissa George) a couple going through a marriage problem (Josh Charles and Elizabeth Davidz) and in its most brilliant case, a pilot undergoing a major case of PTSD (Blair Underwood). The Friday session dealt with Weston’s own therapy with a mentor of his (Dianne Wiest). Week after week, we just watch each half-hour session as Weston tried to unravel the psyche of his patients. Sometimes it work; sometimes it went very badly. Underwood’s character would kill himself by the end of the season. We would also see the cost on Weston and his wife (Michelle Forbes); by the end of Season 1, they would divorce.
This was an approach TV was utterly unused too, and critical response was favorable. It received four Golden Globe nominations and Byrne would triumph for Best Actor. In 2008, Dianne Wiest would take an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress. The major problem with the series was that HBO had no idea how to schedule it. The show would stay on the air for two seasons, but the network would keep changing how they aired it. In 2009, they put it on two nights a week, one day having three sessions, the other day having two. In 2010, they would cut it to two half-hour episodes for two nights. But despite continuing to have brilliant actors giving great performances (future seasons would feature John Mahoney, Amy Ryan and making a return to acting Debra Winger) the ratings never worked out and in 2010 In Treatment was cancelled.
The phrase ‘ahead of its time’ is used so often that its practically clichéd, but in the case of In Treatment, not only is it true, we also know exactly how far ahead of its time. I am generally opposed to binge-watching any series, but in the case of In Treatment, I actually think that it would have worked much better had it debuted on Netflix or Amazon five years later. One can easily see how someone who liked one character more than another could simply choose to watch every episode that character appeared and decide to ignore the rest if they so chose. And for those who might make the argument: “Who just wants to see two people talk for thirty minutes?” the answer is everybody. Therapy shows have become more popular in the past several years — Showtime’s reality series Couples Therapy has become a phenomena for the network — and it is far more engaging than most of them.
HBO seemed to realize that, so in a rare mea culpa for the network they announced earlier this year the ‘return’ of In Treatment. Technically, they are listing as Season 4, but considering that the therapist is completely different, it’s essentially a reboot. They are sticking to same format that they did for Season 3 — two episodes on Sunday and Monday. Two questions remain: does the new version work and will people be drawn in this time?
There are some fairly different changes. The first version of In Treatment took place in New York; the new version takes place in California. This version also changes the therapist: this time, it’s Dr. Brooke Taylor, an African American woman. It may tell you something — it may even tell you enough — that she is played by Uzo Aduba, one of the great television actresses of the past decade. She’s won three Emmys in the past six years; two for playing her signature character Crazy Eyes on Orange is the New Black; one last year for playing another icon, Shirley Chisholm in Miss America. If the difference between the two major roles wasn’t enough to show her range, Aduba is completely different from the previous performances; she is calmer, warmer and compassionate. And unlike the early days of the previous incarnation, we get more of a look into her psyche even before she goes into therapy. After dealing with one particularly difficult patient, she goes into her kitchen (like Weston, she seems to operate out of her home, but there’s more to that which I’ll explain in a moment) selects a bottle of Scotch and swallows a healthy amount. The series also acknowledges the reality of Covid in this world; for one patient, she sees him from a video chat; for another, she has to go through paperwork acknowledging he’s been vaccinated.
The patients offer varying cases. On Sunday, we met Eladio (Anthony Ramos) who called her late at night after a nightmare. When they had their regular session, we learn that he’s a caretaker in quarantine with a patient with MS and has been suffering from severe insomnia. Initially, he pushed her for medication, but as he opened up, we learnt he had been diagnosed as bipolar and hadn’t revealed it to the people who’d hired him for this job. He is deep to Latino written fiction and heavy sci-fi and we almost casually learn, he has problems with his parents and that he’s gay.
The second session dealt with Colin, a tech billionaire who had been discharged from prison because of overcrowding, clearly has anger issues and is attending these sessions as a necessity for his probation. Colin’s sessions are by far more the fascinating, in part because he is playing by the mesmerizing John Benjamin Hickey, one of the most underrecognized actors of the new Golden Age. He plays a character not that far removed from the one he played on The Good Fight (he was the founder of Chumhub, that world’s Facebook), but from the start, we can tell he keeps deflecting everything. He loves therapy, he was an ex-hippie — and he’s also very clear got anger issues, relating to sex and possibly race. He spends much of his session trying to fend off Brooke’s questions, but we know she isn’t fooled for a minute.
On Monday, Brooke has therapy with Laila, an eighteen year-old on the verge of going to college whose grandmother hauls her into therapy because she doesn’t like that she’s a lesbian. Laila (Quintessa Swindell) goes out of her way to try and shock Brooke, saying casually that she’s a sex addict, that Brooke’s generation let the world burn and that she has no use for anyone. Casually Brooke managed to get her to admit that she is having sex with a fourteen-year girl and Laila doesn’t really seem concerned about it. How much of her attitude is a front we can’t tell yet.
The last session was traditionally the therapy session. Here, it turned on its head. Brooke is about to hook up with an old boyfriend when Rita shows up upset because she didn’t honor a commitment. As you’d expect we learn the most about Brooke in this session. Rita isn’t her therapist, she’s her sponsor, and Brooke was an alcoholic whose been sober for ten years — until we saw her take a drink during Colin’s session. Brooke’s father has passed away, and the man she’s going to meet Adam (Joel Kinnaman shows up near the end) was one of the major factors in her becoming an alcoholic in the first place. As you’d expect in this ‘session’, Brooke reveals the most and we see her at her most raw. The façade is gone, and we can tell even more than with Paul Weston just how close she is to an explosion.
I can understand why some critics and indeed some viewers will have problems with In Treatment; this is still not typical television, even for HBO. There are still problems that have not been neatly resolved, but as anyone whose been under therapy, your problems don’t get resolved in a week, or a month — or maybe ever. What holds it together is the exceptional work of Aduba, who will be a revelation for those who only know her from Orange is the New Black. The coolness she shows running sessions compared with the rage she shows in her own is the greatest example of her range the date. It will not shock me if Aduba immediately launches herself into the frontrunners among Best Actress for an Emmy.
As for the questions I asked at the beginning, yes it does work. I don’t know if it’ll connect with audience the way it did with critics now or then. This is still not a series for fans of Peak TV; it’s still more like those who prefer theater. But considering that we’ve spent the last year in a complete absence of theater, In Treatment will fill that void. And in that sense, it’s good theater too.
My score: 4.25 stars.