The Talking Cure

2010 December 15
by kvanaren

After putting it off for a while, I’ve just finished the first season of In Treatment, which I completed in a remarkably short period of time given that there are over forty episodes. It took a long while to get used to how different time, plot, character, space – really, everything – works on this show, but I chalk up my voracious consumption the fact that I found In Treatment compulsively (and counter-intuitively) watchable.


I say counter-intuitively for fairly obvious reasons. Compared to nearly any other show I can think of, In Treatment is willfully devoid of the sorts of things that tend to make shows addictive. Every weekday, Paul sits down with a patient and talks with them about whatever they want to talk about, and then the next day it’s another patient, and another on Wednesday and on Thursday, and on Friday he goes to see his own therapist of sorts, Gina. It takes a while to get into the rhythm, particularly in that first episode where we leap into an intense session of Paul’s therapy with Laura even though she’s already been seeing him for a year. So it’s the first episode, and Laura’s weeping and her makeup is all smudged and she’s wearing extremely sexy clothing. She begins recounting a torrid anonymous sexual encounter from the previous night and then starts complaining about David even though we have no idea who he is, and just as her world starts to form into some coherent shape, her appointment is over. Not only is her appointment over, but there are four whole episodes where the exact same thing is going to happen all over again (with Alex the traumatized Navy pilot, Sophie the traumatized teen gymnast, Jake and Amy the traumatized angry couple, and finally Paul’s session with Gina to recount all of that trauma) before we even get to return to Laura.


Aside from the show’s unusual weekly procedure, which alienates you from characters as soon as you get to know them, the whole set-up and pace of In Treatment is oddly disconcerting. The sensation that you’re staring at someone too closely and for too long is pervasive, but what other option do you have? The overwhelming majority of the show is just Paul and another person, sitting across from each other and talking. And the pace is limited by that same restriction – it is perpetually, almost wearily conversational. No plot can happen unless either Paul or his patient brings it up, and certainly at first, watching characters meander through various life stories and random memories feels like sifting through a lot of potentially unrelated material in search of a plotline, even though you don’t really know what that plot looks like. He mentioned his friend is gay – is this going to be a repressed sexuality thing? Is it a daddy issue? Are we talking about guilt? As the show returns to characters three or four weeks in, it becomes easier to see the recurring patterns, the sore points and nagging fears, but even then, it’s hard to know.


In Treatment is constantly under threat of being derailed by an anecdote. Paul tells them frequently (often as a way of reassuring or hinting), but it’s really about the patients, who tell anecdotes about their childhoods, odd moments they had in a coffee shop, a weird association they had with a pair of shoes, a vivid social encounter, or any mundane detail of the day. Tiny stories accumulate, pulling the narrative toward sex or suicide or shame, and it feels like each therapy session is an opportunity for one story or another to suddenly lurch into dramatic, irrepressible significance. Aha, the lunchbox! It was a sign of absent maternal nurturing; no wonder you still carry it around with you!


With all of this evidence mounting against In Treatment’s compulsive watchability, it looks as though I have to resort to the obvious answer, which is that voyeurism is indeed engaging. It is hard to deny the sheer transgressive pleasure of a show built entirely on gaining unobserved entry into a person’s most private self, but I’d like to believe it’s something more. Until I figure out exactly what that might be, I’m sticking with the second most obvious answer, which is that In Treatment is an academic’s wet dream. There’s a reason English departments still read Freud when no one else does, and there’s a reason so many major theoretical movements in the past several decades have distinct psychoanalytical bents. We like analysis, and we especially like close reading, which is exactly what Paul does every hour of the week. It’s funny, he’ll note, that you use the same words to describe your mother as you do this random stranger you met on the train. Isn’t it odd, how you pause every time before saying the word “best”? He’s just sitting there gathering enough verbal evidence until he can persuasively argue his thesis on why you quit your job. It’s so satisfying and populated by the possibility of a correct answer.

Er, that’s what I’m telling myself. No analysis, please.

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