(*) Note: with these picks, I'm trying to skip the obvious stuff (Breaking Bad, The Wire, or even a lower-rated show I've written a ton about like Freaks and Geeks or Terriers) in favor of things I maybe haven't been beating you over the head with for years, and/or that might not be in the top 100 from TV (THE BOOK), which I hear is available for pre-order now.
Because I'll be at press tour next week – and because my latest choice has a lot of episodes to get through – I'm doing two entries this week, and going with another completed series, this time with the unusual, remarkable In Treatment.
What is it? A drama, adapted from the Israeli series Be'Tipul, that follows therapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). In the first two seasons, In Treatment presented five episodes a week – four focusing on Paul's sessions with different patients on different days, the fifth with Paul on Friday seeing his own therapist, Dr. Gina Toll (Dianne Wiest) – before the third and final one down-shifted to four episodes (three patients plus a new therapist in Amy Ryan as Dr. Adele Brouse). Each 30-minute episode is presented mainly as a therapy session, though occasionally there are glimpses of what Paul does when he's not in with a patient.
Where can I find it? All three seasons are available to stream via HBO GO, HBO NOW, and Amazon Prime, and also On Demand for many cable systems.
Where should I start? This is a tricky one. The quasi-anthology nature of the show meant that certain patients were more interesting than others, and I recall at the time some viewers deciding quickly each season to stick with only some of the patients. But the show is primarily about Paul, and his relationships with each patient reveal different things about him, which would keep pick-and-choose viewers from getting the whole picture. For instance, the show's very first patient, Laura (Melissa George), wasn't one of my favorites, but her attraction to Paul (and vice versa) drove much of the conflict in that season in Paul's work and home lives. Also, those personal life vignettes (say, Paul interacting with his teenage daughter Rosie, played by Mae Whitman) pop up at random, and are hugely important. There are also occasions where one patient's story intersects with another (mainly in season 1), when the order of patients/episodes switches for that week (though in skimming HBO GO, it appears at least some of those instances are properly labeled, whereas it would be surprising if you tuned in that night), or when the patient doesn't show up at all and their episode is devoted entirely to Paul talking with someone else.
Even at a half-hour each (with many clocking in at closer to 20 minutes than 30), 106 episodes is a lot, particularly for a show this talky and introspective, but you need to be willing to sit through some of the patients who are particularly abrasive (season 1's couple-on-the-rocks Jake and Amy, played by Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), or whose problems never entirely come into focus (Debra Winger in season 3 as aging actress Frances) because Paul's interactions with them ultimately prove as important as, say, his incredible bond with younger patients like gymnast Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) or college student April (Alison Pill), who refuses to get her cancer treated.
What are its strengths? The acting, starting with Byrne himself, is ridiculously great. Even the patients who don't fully click are still wonderfully played, and each episode unfolds like a powerful one-act play between two or three characters. Despite the brisk running time of each episode (shorter than a real therapy session would be), the conversation never feels rushed, and the build-up from small talk to huge emotional breakthroughs develops naturally. Much of the show's strength comes from watching the relationships develop between Paul and his patients, but even actors who turn up for just an episode (say, Glynn Turman, who along with Wiest won the show its only two acting Emmys) can be devastating.
The show is, of course, an exaggerated version of what an actual therapist-patient relationship would be, and not just because Paul so often crosses boundaries (not only in the flirtation with Laura, but his paternal attitude with the kids, or the way he gets particularly chummy with season 3's most fascinating patient: Irrfan Khan as Bengali widower Sunil). Paul's life is in a perpetual state of crisis throughout the series, and the same is true for nearly all of his patients. Walter, a CEO Paul treats in season 2 (magnificently played by John Mahoney), is facing a potentially career-ending scandal, for instance, while also battling huge emotional demons. Byrne is great enough – particularly at being interesting while listening, which is both an essential skill for a show like this and one that's hard for many actors – that a version of the series where Paul helps patients through more straightforward problems might still work, but the extreme nature of the issues confronted here (divorce, suicide, cancer, PTSD) eliminates any feeling that this is just a navel-gazing show where people complain about their mothers.
What are its weakenesses? See above about the variance between patients. (Though season 2 is without a weak link, and one of my favorite drama seasons ever.) There's also some repetition in the kinds of problems each patient is facing, so that after a certain point (particularly in the final year) it feels like the writers are mixing and matching character traits from previous seasons. And because the show proved so draining to make that each head writer (first Rodrigo Garcia, then Warren Leight, then Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein) only did one season – despite the continued presence of certain junior writers, notably future The Affair creator Sarah Treem, plus the steady hand of lead director Paris Barclay for the bulk of the series – you may feel some subtle shifts from year to year that you wouldn't ordinarily get from a series of this caliber where the original showrunner stuck around for the whole thing.
I'm still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn't make In Treatment sound like a show for you, it probably isn't. But here's one of the series' most powerful scenes, near the climax of Paul's treatment of Walter. It's much more effective if you've seen all of the build-up to it, but the work Byrne and Mahoney are doing here speaks to how amazing all of the acting on the show is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org