Why the new HBO drama In Treatment will make your head hurt.

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Jan. 28 2008 5:52 PM

Crazy Talk

Why the new HBO drama In Treatment will make your head hurt.

Gabriel Byrne and Melissa George in In Treatment 
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Gabriel Byrne and Melissa George in In Treatment 

Adapted from an Israeli drama titled BeTipul, In Treatment (HBO, weeknights at 9:30 p.m. ET) follows Paul Weston, a psychotherapist played by Gabriel Byrne with the kind of conviction that can only come from an actor faced with ambitious hogwash. The show's controlling gimmick dictates that it will air nightly for the next nine weeks, with Paul keeping regular appointments with the same patients each night of the week, except for Fridays, when he goes to see Dianne Wiest's Dr. Toll, the Kupferberg to his Melfi. His nonadventures straddle the realms of the scarcely credible and the incredibly boring.

If Weston were a real psychologist, he would be in danger of losing his license three or four times over—because of conflicts of interest, because of physical skirmishes, because he speaks in terms so titanically sappy that it must constitute malpractice in itself. "I can't treat somebody that I don't love," he tells Wednesday's patient, a teenage gymnast. The girl, who has food issues, is a suicide risk and seems capable of accomplishing the task by overdosing on her own brattishness. In the sixth week, she orders a pizza to Weston's house so that it's waiting when she arrives. The relationship is contentious because all of Weston's relationships are contentious, hammily so. The sticking point between him and Alex (the Tuesday patient, a hot Navy pilot grieving about civilians he's killed) is that Alex is dating Laura (the Monday patient, a hot anesthesiologist with a father in failing health), for whom Weston is hot. Alex calls Laura a "crazy slut." Weston throws his espresso cup at Alex. Don't you wish your shrink had an espresso machine?

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In Treatment involves even more talking than you would expect from a drama about talk therapy, but not quite so much sitting as you'd hope for. People stand up and wander the room a bit, as if they were not so much patients seeking help as actors reciting audition monologues. The dialogue does not dispel such impressions. "So you're saying that I'm with an underachiever because I lack self-esteem?" asks a beleaguered wife one Thursday, couples therapy night. The doctor replies: "Well, perhaps that's a way that you don't have to deal with negative feelings about yourself." Is he supposed to be a mental-health professional or a used copy of Co-Dependence for Dummies?

To break up such nattering, In Treatment offers occasional spurts of in-session violence and mistily lurid confessions. When Laura decides to break off treatment, she finally gets around to mentioning that she lost her virginity to her father's best friend. "Have you read Lolita?" she asks. "Sure." "It's amazing 'cause pretty much the same thing happened to me." These people clearly have not read Lolita. Nonetheless, Laura goes on to sketch out her work as a young seductress, and then she and Weston stand, for a while, over by the espresso machine, next to the rain-streaked window, and she chokes up talking about how she had dreamed that, this week, the two would begin their future together: "I'll tell him that I love him, and he'll tell me that he loves me, and the session won't be 50 minutes, it'll go forever." I'm sorry, but our patience is up.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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