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The adaptation of the Israeli BeTipul was never the network’s biggest hit or awards player (despite winning a pair of acting Emmys), but it could be the perfect show for our current moment on both thematic and practical levels.
On the practical side, the premise is ideally suited for COVID protocols. Since each episode is a therapy session, it’s a show that’s fundamentally two people in a room talking to each other from a respectful distance. The efficiency goes beyond that, since its unique format — four half-hour episodes per week, focusing on a revolving group of four patients — fills a tremendous amount of programming real estate, even if HBO is doubling up episodes Sundays and Mondays.
Thematically, it’s even better. We’re only beginning to understand the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of people who spent 15 months in various degrees of isolation, some only able to get much-needed treatment in a virtual capacity. The experiences of the patients in the new season of In Treatment are individually unique, but something in most of their situations is universal.
This all leads to a sense of vitality that carries these new In Treatment episodes over bumpy patches that definitely aren’t specific only to this season.
New showrunners Jennifer Schuur and Joshua Allen have given the show a full overhaul. Gabriel Byrne’s Paul Weston is gone and the location has shifted from New York City to Los Angeles. The new fulcrum is Uzo Aduba’s Dr. Brooke Lawrence, who’s seeing patients from her architecturally ambitious home in Baldwin Hills, a residence designed by her father, a stern man whose recent death is just one of her issues. Each week’s fourth episode is centered on Brooke, who, instead of receiving onscreen treatment herself, has regular visits with concerned friend Rita (Liza Colón-Zayas) and regular booty calls from boyfriend Adam (Joel Kinnaman), who seems to enable some of Brooke’s worst tendencies.
Brooke’s patients: Anthony Ramos is Eladio, an in-home health aide with a bipolar diagnosis and availability to do therapy only via phone or streaming; John Benjamin Hickey is Colin, a white-collar criminal tech mogul whose early release is contingent upon Brooke’s approval after four mandated sessions; Quintessa Swindell is Laila, a troubled teen whose domineering grandmother has concerns about her sexuality and her coping mechanisms ahead of college.
For both HBO and viewers, In Treatment is a big commitment. The new season is 24 episodes — so six weeks — and critics were sent the first 16 episodes. That’s probably the deepest into an In Treatment season I’ve ever gone without missing an episode. Normally, I’ve felt like the show was designed for some amount of in-progress triage, which explains how I watched every episode with Mia Wasikowska, Alison Pill and Irrfan Khan from earlier seasons, but there are definitely some storylines I sampled for only a few episodes (and I won’t tell you which ones those were, because I’m sure they were somebody’s favorite).
There are always different reasons to want to stick with a storyline.
Here, the episodes with Colin settle into a familiar rhythm in a hurry, with the newly released self-described progressive misleading and dissembling for 20 minutes to Brooke’s growing impatience before a climactic shouting match. One thing In Treatment does that I don’t love is treating therapy as a Columbo-esque game in which the therapist is trying to go for one shocking emotional reveal per session and the Colin stories do too much of that. However, Hickey is so mercurial and cagey as an actor that I loved watching his wheels spinning as well as the powerhouse back-and-forths with Aduba.
Swindell and Laila are harder to read and the revelations come more slowly, so I appreciated the lack of grand, explosive twists every 30 minutes. But it was only by the fourth episode that it seemed to become clear what the point of the storyline was, other than letting Brooke, as audience stand-in, express veiled shock at the things that are the matter with kids today. In a casual, non-reviewing situation, I might have dropped out after two.
The clear standout for me was Ramos and the Eladio story, which has the perfect In Treatment combination of centerpiece performance, deliberately presented character arc and reactive material for the therapist. Ramos keeps you guessing as to whether Eladio is manipulative, in complete denial or repressing significant trauma — and since the character doesn’t know either, it’s a satisfying journey. He brings out maternal instincts in Brooke that play into her backstory and make her interestingly out of control. You can understand why this was the storyline the writers chose to play out in virtual conversations between characters — inability to get in-person therapy has been a key struggle of the pandemic — because the pull of the plot is easily able to withstand not having Aduba and Ramos in the same room.
I wish I felt more invested in Brooke’s stand-alone episodes. In an effort to make her compelling as a character, she’s been weighed down with personal demons HBO doesn’t want spoiled. There’s a “people in glass houses” theme to Brooke’s frailties that’s mirrored through the marvelously designed and thoroughly symbolic house with a view that covers half of Los Angeles. I got it, but what I really found myself wanting was an onscreen catalog of Brooke’s furniture and where it could be purchased, which meant I was getting distracted.
Then again, those moments of distraction were limited, the result of great actors being steered through emotionally wide-ranging writing by directors — Michelle MacLaren and then Julian Farino — who keep the show from ever feeling stage-bound. This is a show meant to feel of-the-moment to any moment it’s in. That, more than ever before, is true for this In Treatment in our not-quite-post-COVID world, as we begin to assess our nonphysical wounds.
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