HBO Gets the Treatment
Shrinking a Cable Giant
By: Charles Giuliano - Feb 02, 2008
We have just finished our first intensive week of therapy. For a half hour, starting at 9:30 PM, we have nightly appointments, Monday through Friday, with the therapist Paul (Gabriel Byrne) and his four patients. On Friday nights the shrink gets shrunk in what proves to be the most riveting and absorbing session as he unloads what has been absorbed during a harrowing week that is causing him to loose his grip both personally and professionally. Just as we have always suspected it is the therapist himself who is truly mad. Physician, cure thyself.
Given that for the past six months HBO has been mostly a post Sopranos basket case it is little wonder that it ended up on the couch. Once a powerhouse with the leading dramatic series on subscriber cable the cupboard has been rather bare of late. We surely miss "The Sopranos" "Deadwood" "Rome" "Oz" and "Six Feet Under." Only this season, for lack of anything better, did we catch up with "The Wire" and now that we are fully committed the Baltimore based crime and corruption show is down to its final absorbing episodes. And, sorry folks, "Larry David" and "The Entourage" are fun but hardly leave us craving for more. Right now, you can cancel HBO with impunity and, if you miss anything, pick it up from Netflicks a year from now when it comes out on DVD.
For now, we are going to hang in with those nightly sessions of "In Treatment" which is a redo of a popular series on Israeli television which is surely an interesting twist. The American version is being produced by the ever more substantial Mark Wahlberg who also produces "The Entourage" for HBO.
For those of us who can afford them, which is probably 80% of middle to upper class America, the pace and rhythm of those therapy sessions with Paul will be all too annoyingly familiar. The difference is that, unlike you and me or Joe Sixpack, all of Paul's clients have amazing credentials and personas. The weepy Laura who appears on Monday (Melissa George) is in the midst of "erotic transference," in other words, wants to shag the shrink. Laura we learn eventually is an anesthesiologist. Time will also reveal that Alex (Blair Underwood), whose appointment occurs on Tuesday, is the love interest about whom Laura can't make her mind up. He is a top gun, fighter pilot who inflicted collateral damage in Iraq by blowing up a school with sixteen students. On Wednesday, Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) a teenager training for the Olympics, has a thing for the coach and a bit of a death wish. Through an "accident" she got hit by a car, almost killed, and has broken both arms just months before the Pre Olympic Nationals. The couple Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz) will remind you of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor snarling and clawing through scenes in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." On Friday, after a lapse of eight years, Paul makes an appointment with his now retired, former mentor, Gina (Dianne Wiest).
All of these high profile clients have come to Paul, at $150 an hour, not for "therapy" but rather answers to questions. Laura wants to know if she should stick with Alex. While Alex wants a straight answer as to whether Paul will advise him on a decision to join a group which will visit that school he bombed. One hitch is that there is a price on his head, among Jihadists, for this war crime. Sophie wants him to sign a document certifying that she is "not crazy" so she can qualify for the Olympics. The couple, Josh and Amy, want to know whether she should abort the baby that it took five years of fertility treatments to conceive. He wants the child and she doesn't.
Those of you who know the drill of Dr. Sigmund Freud's "Talking Cure" will understand that therapists never give answers. They ask us how we feel and why we want those answers. Most people get rather angry that they are paying all that money, pouring their hearts out, and getting little solid advice in return. The usual response to getting angry and frustrated is to hear "You seem to be getting angry and frustrated. Perhaps we should talk about that. Next week."
Backed into a corner by an aggressive and rather unlikable Josh the therapist Paul violates the most basic ethical rule. He states that Yes, Amy should get an abortion. They are both stunned by that. Immediately Paul regrets having lost professional distance and taken a side in the couple's argument. He tries to put a spin on it which doesn't really work. Shortly after they depart we see Paul reaching for the phone and making an appointment with Gina. Clearly it has been a desperate and difficult decision.
The meeting with Gina is by far the most absorbing of this first week. It was a shock to see how much the wonderful actress Wiest has aged since her last regular appearance as the District Attorney on Law and Order a few seasons back. She is now 60, as Gina informs us, and looks it. In some pleasant initial exchanges with Paul, who complements her for looking good, she responds that for most of the day she is youthful but by evening she feels old and tired. Now retired, she lost her husband and is alone to write the occasional scholarly article or perhaps a novel.
After an exchange of pleasantries the encounter turns sharp. We notice Paul acting with the same pique and impatience that we have witnessed in his patients. He blurts out that he can't stand his clients and wishes that they would just go away. But now instead of that shrinky, professional reserve, and the mediated, almost saccharine responses, we have heard all week, Paul verges out of control and attacks Gina. But in an exchange of professional fencing she appears to have the faster foil. She wants to know why he is back after cutting things off eight years ago? And why he didn't have the decency to attend her husband's funeral? Paul, it appears, is a bit of a shit and Gina skewers him about his lust for Laura as an indication of the failing marriage that he admits.
Yes the first week was a bloody mess. The reviews have been mixed; supportive and engaged in the Wall Street Journal, but trashed by the New Yorker. But isn't that exactly how one feels after a therapy session? There never are answers or fast resolution of issues. There is always the next week, another meeting, and a constant search for answers. So, for the next seven weeks, we are making a daily appointment. After that we will have to decide whether we are cured of our HBO malaise.
What I like most about these nightly therapy sessions with Paul is they don't cost us his fee of $150 for a half hour. But the really important question is whether with this tight little, low budget drama, just two sets, two nightly characters, and two camera angles, HBO is giving subscribers their money's worth? We'll talk about that next week.