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TELEVISION REVIEW

Patients and patience

‘In Treatment’ demands, rewards commitment

Gabriel Byrne appears in every scene of HBO’s four weekly episodes. Gabriel Byrne appears in every scene of HBO’s four weekly episodes. (Claudette Barius/Hbo)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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It takes a very long time to finish writing a play, I believe. And when I think about that, I become even more awed by “In Treatment,’’ the therapy drama that returns tonight for a third season. Each episode of this series is written like a tight little two-person play, a 30-minute piece of serious theater that includes almost no changing scenery and no action — unless you think of Freudian slips as a form of swashbuckling. This season, the HBO show will deliver 28 half-hours, at four per week for seven weeks. Really, that’s a feat.

Also a feat: The fact that Gabriel Byrne is in every minute of the show, delivering one of TV’s most faceted and intriguing performances. As therapist Paul Weston, now divorced and living in New York, he is a wellspring of compassion, anger, fear, and arrogance. Watch Byrne carefully, even during the periods where he barely speaks, and you’ll see his character emerging through slight eye movements, hand gestures, and shifts in posture. He’s invested in every moment of the show, so much that at times his clients — this season, they include Debra Winger as a stressed actress and Dane DeHaan as a gay teen — seem like projections of his own issues. It’s remarkable TV acting.

Which brings me to yet another “In Treatment’’ feat: The camerawork. We wouldn’t see the subtlety of the acting on the show, which returns with two episodes starting at 9, were it not for the way the camera discloses it. The sensitive, intimate filming style always finds a way to complement the script and the performances — to zoom in slowly at the right instants, or to circle the room anxiously, or to put both therapist and client at opposite sides of the same frame. While the “In Treatment’’ characters are mostly sedentary, the camera tracks their emotional movements.

More feats? I could go on and on, and focus on this season in particular. All of the new characters promise to engage as their stories and backstories begin to unfold. It’s a great pleasure to be able to watch Winger on a weekly basis, as she digs into her character, Frances, who is in rehearsal for a play (“Night of the Iguana’’) and has been forgetting her lines. She is one of Paul’s new clients, and in her first session she unintentionally provides an excess of information about herself. The “In Treatment’’ writers and producers, who include Dan Futterman (“Capote’’) and Anya Epstein (“Homicide’’) this season, know how to capture the way people tell their secrets when they work to withhold them.

Another fascinating client, Sunil (Irrfan Khan), is a recent widower who has just moved to New York from India after being forced to retire. He is lost in grief for his wife, and his homeland, while he lives unhappily with his Americanized son and his American daughter-in-law. With his wide, steady eyes, Khan is affecting in the role, gentle and yet, even as he unwraps candy, passively aggressive. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (“Interpreter of Maladies’’), who has written extensively on Indian immigrants in America, serves as a consultant on the story line. Sunil is a lonely man cast into the melting pot, and Paul empathizes.

Jesse, a 16-year-old who is hostile toward his adoptive parents and crudely sexualizing everything and everyone, is particularly problematic for Paul, whose son is also undergoing turmoil. Played like a young Leonardo DiCaprio by the riveting DeHaan, Jesse keeps people who care about him on edge with concern for his well-being. The character makes me think of teen gymnast Sophie from season one, as Jesse, too, is braver than he knows, and more fragile than he knows, too.

And Paul is a client as well — that’s the jewel in the crown of “In Treatment,’’ adding another layer to all of the show’s psychological complexity. We see Paul in the same vulnerable position as his clients every week, and then we can watch his struggles play out in his sessions with them. This season, Paul starts up with a new therapist, played by Amy Ryan, and he brings with him lots of remnant fury from his decades-long work with Gina (Dianne Wiest, who is no longer in the cast). He feels imprisoned by his life, and he puts Ryan’s Adele in the position of warder.

“In Treatment,’’ which will air two episodes on Monday and two on Tuesday every week, isn’t for everybody. It requires, and then rewards, commitment, attention, and patience, as people strut and fret their half-hour upon the stage — on TV.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

Photos
Memorable TV therapists

Memorable therapists

Alas, therapy can be really boring. Unless it's on TV, and then it can be crazy, funny, scary, and dramatic.

IN TREATMENT

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Irrfan Khan, Debra Winger, Amy Ryan, Dane DeHaan

On: HBO

Time: Tonight, 9-9:30, 9:30-10