In Treatment/The Treatment

by Walter A. Davis

Richard asked me to say a few words about the new HBO series “In Treatment” in hopes of kicking off a lively discussion of a fascinating and significant TV show.

I assume most of you know of the show and have seen episodes. But briefly: the show is derived from an Israeli show called Be ‘Tipul which was a megahit on Israeli TV. (75 episodes have been aired there. HBO air 45 episodes. ) The show runs in half hour segments 5 nights weekly Monday through Friday. Each episode represents a session between the analyst Paul and one of his patients (Monday-Laura; Tuesday-Alex; Wednesday-Sophie; Thursday-Jake and Amy; Friday-Paul sees his analyst, Gina.) What’s remarkable in terms of TV drama is that each episode (with some exceptions) is composed solely of the conversation between analyst and analysands. Serious representation of analysts in American TV and movies is rare. (The only TV one I can recall is a series long ago with Roy Thiness.) Indications are that this series is a big hit. And as a result many audiences will have their views of therapy shaped and/or altered by this series. Many analysts are already receiving tapes of the show from clients. (I not only gave mine tapes but also a VCR so she can watch it.) I have an analyst friend in NY (from Israel) who plans to write on the show. I suspect she will not be alone. I also hear that the show is being used for teaching purposes—though to illustrate what an analyst should or shouldn’t do depends on the teacher. The show raises so many fascinating issues. I want to try here to outline some of them from some of the different perspectives from which the show can be approached and discussed by us.

As many of you know I wear a number of different hats (whether well or ill is another question) and that may put me in a position to outline the conflicting issues raised by the show.

First, as an actor I’m overjoyed at the possibilities that this show provides for a wonderful cast. Perhaps the deepest desire of any serious actor is to explore the depths of their own psyche, to unlock all that you’ve buried in yourself and use that to realize the emotional conflicts of another person—the character you’re playing. (I recently was offered and agreed to play the part of King Lear for a Shakespeare Company here in Michigan in April 2009 so I’m currently wrestling—in fear and trembling—with the demands of the previous sentence.) What is great about “In Treatment” is that it offers the actors deep explorations. Two (or sometimes three) people sit and talk to each other for about 25 minutes and the audience discovers that this can be far more dramatic than shows full of pseudo-action. (I experience each episode as lasting about 5 minutes so intense is the talk.) But here’s also the problem. Each of these actors is, in effect, being told to act a character with a profound and unconscious disorder, a disorder that will only become apparent in the course of the series. I was amazed recently to learn that the actress who plays Laura has never been in therapy and now is thinking, after playing this part, of trying it out.

(However, being an actor is doing psychoanalysis in another way and the difference between good and bad actors is the difference between those who do it and those who don’t.) I assume that all cast members in the show have been doing research about therapy. And I think they’re all doing magnificent work. (I think the deepest work in terms of creating a psyche that the character reveals by concealing is being done by Embeth Davidtz, the character who plays Amy.) But this is a topic we can discuss because as analysts all of you are making your own interpretations of the characters, which I suspect are often quite different from Paul and Gina’s interpretations.

That of course is the big hook and big problem for analysts watching the show. Is Paul an atrocious analyst? Is he a good one in spite of his own deteriorating psyche? Is he an example of the kind of thing Stephen Mitchell etc. leads to? (In his first session with Gina his own therapist she makes a disparaging reference to his allegiance to “Mitchell and that New York crowd.” ) And apparently we’re to see her as a more traditional follower of Freud? Bollas also gets referenced early on. And yet recent episodes suggest to me that a lot of Lacan is going to find its way into the series. Moreover, and this is something I love about the series given my own theoretical position, sexuality is at the center of everything here. I don’t know whether the writers will be able to sustain this in the traumatic directions they’ll have to go with it (especially in terms of Amy, Sophie, and Laura and the specter in all 3 cases of sexual abuse in infancy.) There’s also an issue here of the representation of women in this series. And here Paul’s wife—played brilliantly by Michelle Forbes—may be the most important figure.) But I suspect we’ll only get to these topics after we deal with the topic of Paul as a therapist. (An aside: Gabriel Byrne has the hardest role and must hold the series together but for my money he is doing far too much “indicating,” which all actors should avoid. I.e., when through gestures etc. he tries to tell the audience how they should respond.)

I want to throw a qualifier into that topic. You may all know of the film made of an analysis some years back and how utterly dull it ended up being. There is a major “suspension of disbelief” necessary to appreciating “In Treatment.” (1) It is understood that a session last 50 minutes but the episodes truncate this into about 24 minutes. And so a lot is cut out. This is not finally a naturalistic representation, but a dramatic heightening. At the same time each episode aims to be representative of what happens in an analytic session. And especially of what “shrinks” do. One of the fascinating cultural aspects of this show is that it is the first time therapy has become a successful show. (Sorry Dr. Phil.) That is, many people in the culture at large are going to have their view of what analysis is determined by this show. For some this will be positive: “wow, I’ve always wanted to do something precisely like that.” For others, negative; “Yeh, that’s what shrinks do. They project their problems unto patients and everybody ends up more screwed up than before.” Etc.

This issue also relates to what patients are like and how they behave. One of the things striking to me in the series is how aggressive all of these patients are toward Paul. Assault seems to be the primary way in which they engage in analysis. Is this a flaw deriving from the desire for “drama”?of the need for dramatic heightening? Or does it also reveal a conception of pathology and of what patients are and what they do or should do? Many issues here. I don’t think we can fault the show for not getting all the details of analytic practice down. For if it did that it would bore all of us. But there are a number of major ideological issues—about analyst, patient, and analysis that this show is communicating to an audience who have their own ideological agendas with respect to psychoanalysis? (Yes, indeed, one could argue that this show ain’t about psychoanalysis at all, but about some of the ways it has been popularized, perverted?)

And then there’s what may be a fascinating paraphraxis. In his communications about the show Richard has referred to it as “The Treatment” not as “In Treatment.” That may be a simple mistake, but it is also an invitation to the discussion we can have. Is psychoanalysis being subjected to “the treatment” in this series—the treatment being perhaps the way in which the entertainment industry necessarily falsifies even when it has the best intentions. Also it seems that “The Treatment” suggests finality, that something is being organized from the perspective of the end, the termination if not of analysis, of the series. Whereas “In Treatment” suggests a process—even the possibility of unanticipated discoveries.

We thus have a reference here to two kinds of writing. The kind of writing I hate—when the writers have all the answers ahead of time and control everything accordingly. And the kind of writing I try to practice—where writing is inaugural because I don’t know where I’m going except that I want traumatic possibilities to take me there. Is this show the first kind of writing or the second? My hope is that it’s the second and that the series will run for many a year.

There are so many other fascinating issues we can get into about this show. My hope here is simply to kick off the discussion.

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