The patients are new, the setting is new, but the doctor is still in
Sitting on the couch, all the clients on HBO's "In Treatment" claim they really don't want to be in therapy. They put up a stone wall to keep Dr. Paul Weston out, acting like children being forced to eat their broccoli. But still they show up for the fight each week, and gradually, reticently, brilliantly, they reveal their stories to Paul, and to us. Their truths unfold.
"In Treatment," based on the Israeli series "B'Tipul," returns to HBO this Sunday night at 9 with all the extraordinary emotional wisdom that made the first season so compelling. Each of Paul's new therapy clients, including John Mahoney as a panicky Wall Streeter and Hope Davis as a lonely lawyer, is holding a fascinating and closely guarded back story in his or her clenched fist. And each week, like a Sherlock Holmes of the psyche, Paul picks through their inadvertent clues and red herrings for insight and answers.
"In Treatment" has an expanded locale this season, with Paul (Gabriel Byrne) having left Maryland to practice out of a Brooklyn apartment. Paul is bitterly divorced from Kate - we saw their marriage crumble last season - and, as we learn in Sunday's opening scene, he is facing a malpractice suit regarding last season's death of Blair Underwood's Navy pilot, Alex. Once a week, on Fridays, he takes the train to Maryland for his own therapy sessions with Gina (Dianne Wiest) and to visit his children. Still, despite the East Coast ramblings, the better part of every episode - in groups of two on Sunday nights and three on Monday nights - takes place in the neutral sphere of a therapist's office.
Because the first season of "In Treatment" was so consistently good, I was prepared to be disappointed this time around. And I prepared in vain. The writers continue to make each episode into a lovely half-hour piece of music, proceeding with a sequence of different tempos and movements as the characters lead us further into their pain. The characters start a theme, drop it, then pick it up again more passionately, with conspicuous silences in between. Meanwhile, Paul provides the resounding bass notes, with his probing questions and observations. This season as much as last, "In Treatment" brings us into more intimacy with its characters than almost any other series on TV.
Indeed, the "In Treatment" scripts - so steeped in delusion and self-awareness, defensiveness and vulnerability - are a gift for the actors, who are consistently able to hold our attention through an inordinate amount of talk. As a college student with a secret, Alison Pill is perfectly prickly and shows how manipulative over-apologizing people can be. Mahoney, all baggy eyes and scowls, will make you forget his years as the father on "Frasier," as he woefully accepts misery and sleeplessness. And young Aaron Shaw, as a boy whose divorcing parents are breaking him in half, is sweetly sympathetic. All of these characters are in relatively familiar binds - Davis is the prototypical woman who sacrificed her personal life for her career - and yet the series endows them with so much detail that each seems unique.
Ultimately, though, "In Treatment" belongs to Byrne, who won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for best actor last year. It's almost incongruous that Byrne spends most of his screen time sitting down and watching, since his performance is so rich and dimensional. Even while he listens to clients, you can see his mind working, stifling impulses and gauging his tone. When Paul is faced with a client whose situation reflects his own personal strains - the boy and his divorcing parents, for instance - Byrne simultaneously conveys heightened attentiveness and caution. Byrne makes the huge task of appearing in almost every scene of this series seem effortless.
He makes even his most casual lines ring out. In Episode 4, he is leaving a message on his daughter's voice mail: "I haven't heard back from you yet and I just wanted to confirm that you still - are coming up this week." Byrne inserts a slight pause after "still," as if he's about to say "I just wanted to confirm that you still - love me." This season, Paul will face not only his divorce but his darkest, most private feelings about having lost a client. And I have no doubt that Byrne will make the confrontation as riveting as a car chase or an exploding building.