In Treatment



9:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28

If you've always longed to be a fly on the wall during some stranger's psychotherapy session -- I think it's called voyeurism -- then welcome to your new obsession.

HBO's "In Treatment" feels uncannily like slices of dysfunctional lives in the throes of instability and crisis. Presented in 43 half-hours over nine weeks, it embodies an acting clinic for the exceptional recurring cast and possesses bracing writing and direction from Rodrigo Garcia (who also produces with, among many others, Mark Wahlberg).

Adapted from a hit Israeli series and set primarily in the therapy offices of Dr. Paul Weston (the superb Gabriel Byrne) or Dr. Weston's own exceptionally patient shrink, Gina (Dianne Wiest, spot-on as usual), the show hits the ground with heavy doses of bathos, titillation and melodrama but somehow doesn't come across as gratuitous or manipulative. The opening episodes are instead uniquely engrossing, stripping out the bells and whistles to showcase dialogue that packs an oft-wrenching wallop.

The "In Treatment" gambit has the series unfolding weeknights at 9:30, with each night focusing on a different recurring patient who is exclusive to that night -- much like a weekly appointment. But unlike the mega-racy HBO therapy series "Tell Me You Love Me" that premiered last year, this show eschews the graphic sex in favor of hard-core neuroses. It pulls off the analytic conceit with sharp character development and bare-bones style. The screen is bereft of anything that might get in the way of the emotional pull-and-tug and provocative interaction. Sure, it's more or less an ensemble soap cut up into bite-size pieces, but it's so intelligently wrought that you feel somehow enriched by the drama instead of diminished.

On Mondays, Dr. Weston -- who we will quickly learn is more screwed up than even his patients, trapped as he is in a marriage of profound ugliness to wife Kate (Michelle Forbes) -- meets in session with the young, gorgeous Laura (Melissa George), who happens to be in love with him in keeping with her pattern of clingy neediness. On Tuesday, he sees Alex (Blair Underwood), an arrogant Navy pilot whose traumatic war experiences have turned him overbearing and bitter. Our favorite unflappable analyst is joined on Wednesdays by Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a precocious teenage gymnast whose Olympic dreams recently have been dashed and who is having trouble navigating her life.

The couch is populated on Thursdays by Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz), a married couple who couldn't possibly be more contemptuous of each other. Then on Friday, Dr. Weston drops his shrink's hat to become plain old Paul in his own sessions as patient. The low-key demeanor disappears into an outburst of gripes and potshots. It supplies a brisk counterpoint to the reasoned, engaged, low-key dude who we witness the other four days of the week and showcases the effortless range that Byrne brings to the table.

It's rather impossible to imagine watching an emotionally exhausting show like "In Treatment" for the prescribed nine weeks in a row, night after night. On the other hand, the performances of the players are so uniformly terrific that you could do worse than to bring these deeply flawed characters into your living room on a regular basis, as this is a series for which TiVo was invented if ever there was one.

Credits (Episodes 1, 2 and 3):
Creators: Hagai Levi, Ori Sivan, Nir Bergman
Executive producers: Stephen Levinson, Rodrigo Garcia, Hagai Levi, Mark Wahlberg
Co-executive producer: Noa Tishby
Producers: Sarah Lum, Leonard Torgan, Joanne Toll
Writer-director: Rodrigo Garcia
Co-producer: Jim Hilton
Based on the series: "Be'Tipul"
Director of photography: Xavier Perez Grobet
Production designer: Suzuki Ingerslev
Costume designer: Barbara Marko Friedman
Editors: Lisa Bromwell, Beatrice Sisul
Music: Richard Marvin
Casting: Junie Lowry-Johnson, Libby Goldstein
Paul Weston: Gabriel Byrne
Laura: Melissa George
Alex: Blair Underwood
Sophie: Mia Wasikowska
Kate: Michelle Forbes
Jake: Josh Charles
Amy: Embeth Davidtz