Finishing Therapy, by John Ostrander
Spoiler Alert: This column will be reviewing HBO’s In Therapy series and more than a few of its secrets are bound to get spilled along the way. If you have the show TiVoed for future viewing, you may want to delay reading this week’s installment.
I’ve just finished watching HBO’s nine week, 43 half hour episode series In Therapy wherein we follow a bunch of patients as they have sessions with their therapist. Each day, Monday through Friday, is devoted to a different client/patient with Friday devoted to the therapist’s sessions with his own therapist. In theory, you could watch just one patient’s sessions, such as X on Wednesday, and wind up with a complete narrative. The show is also designed, however, to have an over-all über-narrative that emerges if you watch all the episodes. It is itself based on an Israeli show, Be Tipul, and the episodes of In Therapy are adapted from specific scripts in the Israeli series.
The series boasts some fine – in some cases, superb – acting with a topnotch cast. At the center of it is Gabriel Byrne as therapist Paul Weston. Weston’s office is a room in his own home that has separate entrances and exits from the rest of the house. He’s about 50, very respected and successful in his profession but things are starting to crack. His marriage to his wife, Kate, played by the always incredible Michelle Forbes, is cracking. He barely knows his children anymore. One of his patients has fallen in love with him and he may be falling in love with her as well.
It was a demanding series, not the last for its length. 43 episodes is a major commitment to ask of viewers. Also, the bulk of the series happens in Paul’s office as we sit in on the sessions. That means a lot of talk with folks sitting. Perhaps better suited for a play, one might think, or a book, or a radio play. For television? Doesn’t that call for something that is more visual?
For myself, the length didn’t put me off. In the theatre, I’ve watched both parts of the staged production of Nicholas Nickelby in one day and a staging of all seven plays in Shakespeare’s War of the Roses cycle in one weekend. At the dame time, both had more movement, more spectacle, than did In Therapy. Perhaps the more important question is – did each individual story require the episodes devoted to it? Did each one add up? Did the whole series, all of the stories together, itself add up to something that was, frankly, worth the time and commitment to watching it? Do I regret spending the four hours or so with each character?
There were some sessions I could have missed and some that were enthralling and some that were maddening. The latter could still be worth watching if you get over the tendency to throw things at the screen. The best sessions for me were the ones with Sophie, the teen gymnast. Sophie appears to be “accident prone” but they may, in fact, be suicide attempts. Her parents are divorced and Sophie idolizes her absent father and abuses her mother. She’s slept with her gymnast coach. She’s very much a teen-ager – adult and child-like, intelligent, moody, funny. Sophie is a wonderful character and brilliantly captured by the young actress playing her, Mia Washkowska.
Gabriel Byrne’s Paul, as the therapist, is at his best with this patient and we get the best example of the therapeutic process itself and it works best as a dramatic entity in these episodes. Things are peeled back as we get deeper and Sophie herself becomes more aware of what is driving her. It all leads to the final episode where Sophie’s father (actor Peter Horton) shows up, wanting – demanding – to be allowed to sit in on his daughter’s therapy session. The outcome is dramatically rich and satisfying.
The second most interesting set of sessions involved the fighter pilot, Alex, played by Blair Underwood. When it starts, Alex is arrogant. He claims to have higher standards than others and no boundaries. He claims that a recent brush with death and a mission that resulted in innocent deaths have no emotional impact on him. Despite Underwood’s dazzling smile, I started off really disliking the character but here, too, the therapeutic process becomes an excellent tool to reveal character.
Warning! Danger! Spoiler Alert! I Really Mean It! As the episodes proceed, Alex confronts the fact that he is what everyone else wants him to be – especially his father – but he doesn’t know what he wants for himself. At the end, he returns to fighter pilot status despite Paul’s misgivings and we learn subsequently that he was killed during a routine training exercise. The implication is that Alex may have committed suicide. The last two episodes in the arc take place at Alex’s wake and then, in the final episode, Alex’s father (played by Glynn Turman) visits Paul to try and learn what his son was thinking. The meeting is explosive and heart-rending.
For Paul, there are additional implications. He has never had a patient die on him while in therapy and, at the wake, he feels awkward, introducing himself to the grieving family not as Alex’s therapist but as a friend. The limitations of what he can do are brought home and add to his general disillusionment.
Laura (Melissa George) was the Monday night set of episodes and her story was problematic for me. She was convinced that she was in love with Paul and that he loved her as well. Is Paul in love with her as well? Maybe – although it comes across more that he is in love with the idea she is love with him. There was no sexual sizzle that I could feel between the two.
Paul won’t end the therapy because he doesn’t “give up” on his patients despite the fact that he is no longer effective as a therapist with Laura because of the situation between them. She seemed manipulative and a potential train wreck; her history was dotted with bad sexual choices on her part. Paul seemed impotent as a therapist and indecisive. This story could have been done in half the time and been better for it but, because of the overall structure of the series, it couldn’t be. They had eight and a half episodes, ultimately, to deal with Laura and they had to use them.
My least favorite therapy session had to be the couple’s therapy done on the Thursday night slot with Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz). He’s a rarely employed musician and she’s upper class and a business woman. They have one son and were working on another but she’s debating having an abortion now that she was pregnant. As it turns out, she’s also considering an affair with her boss. Jake’s controlling, angry, suspicious and wound very tight. Amy’s a liar, brittle, and inclined to destroy relationships. What starts as a question of whether or not to have the child Amy is carrying at the start of the episodes comes down to whether or not they should divorce by the end.
The answer, coming very soon in the episodes, is Spoiler Alert Again “Omigod, yes, please, divorce, and put yourselves and us out of this misery.” There was a gradual, glacial dramatic progress but I didn’t care much for the characters and so I didn’t much care what became of them. But, because of the structure of the series, we were stuck with nine episodes of them, even if some were not full half hours but, rather, twenty to twenty-five minutes.
In the overall structure of the series, Jake and Amy underscored Paul’s own deteriorating marriage. He’s become distant from his children and his wife is having an affair. Paul seems strangely detached from it all – it does pain him but he seems unwilling to do much about it.
What drives him to begin his own counseling sessions again with Gina (played by Diane Wiest) is Laura’s declaration of love. Gina and Paul have not seen each other for years after a professional falling out. Paul’s also a terrible patient – arrogant, argumentative, presumptive, petulant, defensive, questioning Gina’s actions and motives and methods, even questioning the therapeutic process itself. Wiest and Byrne are terrific actors and work extremely well together; Wiest, in particular, makes listening an action. She is superb. And when they’re joined by Michelle Forbes, as Paul and Kate try a little joint counseling with Gina for a few episodes, the trio are memsmerizing.
My problem is that the Paul in the sessions with Gina is so little like the Paul in the other sessions. They seem like two different characters. I understand that doctors can be terrible patients but this seems arbitrary. It’s not a Paul we see in therapy with his family or, indeed, usually in interactions with his family. It feels arbitrary and, thus, untrue.
That’s one of the problems that I have with the series. Another is that all of the women’s problems seem to overlap. They all seem to make bad sexual choices (with the exception of Gina). They are all damaged sexually (except Gina). All the characters have issues with their fathers. Yes, the mothers figure into it as well but it’s more centered – male and female – on the relationships with the father.
The structure itself is also a problem. For eight weeks, there is one episode a night, five nights a week, each night a different patient. For the final, ninth, week, there are only three episodes. As I’ve mentioned, at last two of the arcs became repetitive in the middle because they kept circling the same territory. While that’s true in the therapeutic process, this is a dramatic version of the therapeutic process and drama has its own rules. Primary among them is what happens next. When the structure of the story – how the story is told — is more important than the story itself, you have a problem. In Therapy has a problem.
Balancing that are some very fine performances. There is not a bad performance in the bunch and some were gems. The show was challenging and demanding and that alone deserves praise.
Overall, am I sorry I watched it, that I stuck through it? Not at all. Would I watch it all again? Probably not although I might pick my favorite arcs and tune in for them. Would I watch another season of it, if HBO were to do one (unlikely, if what I’ve heard about the ratings are true) – I’m not sure. I don’t know as I would commit nine weeks again. I might tune into the first week to get a reaction to the characters this time and then decide.
Overall rating: three stars. Less for some segments, more for others. I probably will try to avoid “must see” TV for a little … wait. You say Battlestar Gallactica is back for its final season starting Friday? And the new season of Doctor Who follows very shortly?
Famed GrimJack / Munden’s Bar / Suicide Squad / Star Wars: Legacy writer John Ostrander thinks television is his friend.