One person speaks to another in a low-lit, spacious office somewhere in Brooklyn. That’s it, just those two, for 25 minutes. This is how most episodes of HBO’s In Treatment air: we look in at a small, intimate conversation that takes place in a comfortable-looking office, lined with shelves of books and adorned with paintings and papers. The show’s episodes don’t last long, but it works. What is unique about it—and what makes it gripping television—is that it shows both sides of therapy: the confessions of the clients and their absorptions by the therapist.
In Treatment, now in its third season, is based on the highly acclaimed Israeli serial BeTipul and centers on the character of Dr. Paul Weston and a handful of his clients. Among the many are April, a young architect major who wants to keep her life-threatening cancer a secret from her family; Sophie, a teenager who is forced by social services to see Paul after a near-fatal bicycle accident; Walter, an overstressed workaholic; and Mia, a lawyer seeing Paul as her therapist again after a 20-year absence. Paul also sees his own therapist, giving the audience a glimpse into what it’s like to be a listener.
The Importance of Listening
Everyone knows the value of being listened to; but being a listener, we learn from the show, can be really irritating. In the show’s second season, Paul complains to his therapist, Gina, about his clients and their reactions to what he has to say. He feels as though he isn’t doing a good enough job as their doctor, as their Listener-in-Chief.
“But you encourage people to look at their lives, the pattern of their behaviors,” she soothes.
“They don’t want that,” Paul bitterly replies. “They want to be loved. People don’t have families anymore that they can talk to, and friends are quickly going the way of family.”
Irritating or not, we realize how important it is to listen to those around us. Not all listeners are therapists, but all listeners have the ability to do a good for those they speak with.
Not Black and White
One of the other strong points of In Treatment is the focus on the characters’ vulnerability. It shows us how we hurt ourselves, how we protect ourselves. No one is spared, not even Paul—and all of their frustrations, their anger, their hurt and their happiness—are made available to the viewer. The show isn’t as much an endorsement for therapy as it is an experience of catharsis, a show of what happens when people allow themselves to be completely vulnerable in front of each other.
Life’s not black and white, we learn from the show. We all have emotions—we all feel anger, we all feel sadness. There are no good guys or villains; we are all both. We all contain both. And we are healed, made well, by opening ourselves up to those we trust, if we allow ourselves to be.
A Painful—But Rewarding—Process
One of the stereotypes the show tries to lift about therapy is the idea of the therapist being in control—of meeting with clients and pulling out of them what needs to be fixed. Instead, Paul guides his clients as they do the work of pulling their emotions and their histories out of themselves to face and work on. It’s a painful process, not without resistance, but the rewards can be great. It takes Paul a long time to realize his role as therapist does not include role of Savior, a position, it can be argued, that is already taken.
“We can’t save people,” Gina reminds Paul in the last episode of the second season. “We learn humility.”
A nice reminder for all of us, every now and then.