I wrote about the following story in another article, but I just can’t resist reiterating it here (with some embellishment). I once heard a rumor (or started one) about a man who was convinced he was dead. Despite the arguments of his friends and colleagues to the contrary, he remained steadfast in his conviction. Eventually, out of sheer desperation, a friend took him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, a gentle soul with a proclivity to golf on the weekends, patiently listened to the man rattle on before taking out several books on how doctors ascertain death. As the two poured over page after page, the psychiatrist showed the man that it was impossible for dead people to bleed. “Based on this evidence, do you agree that dead people don’t bleed?” he asked the man. After a moment’s reflection, the man confidently replied in the affirmative. “Yes, I see now that dead people don’t bleed.” “Good,” said the psychiatrist as he pulled out a small needle and proceeded to prick the man’s finger. As a small drop of blood surfaced, the man looked to the psychiatrist and said, “What do you know, dead people do bleed.”
Humans are a funny species and if your own relationships didn’t already give you enough fodder for fascination, the wonderful (unfortunately cancelled) HBO drama In Treatment certainly will. Since watching the pilot episode earlier this year, the show has since become one of my favorites. And before I eulogize it any further, I should probably tell you a little bit about it, eh?
In Treatment revolves around the practice and life of psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston (played by the beguiling Gabriel Byrne of The Usual Suspects fame). Each episode is essentially a session with one of his clients, every season features about four different clients (who either come individually or as a couple), and the first season alone has a whopping 43 episodes. So, you can do the math. But don’t be too hasty, nerds: Paul also regularly sees a psychotherapist in separate episodes to discuss his own feelings and thoughts about his clients and life.
Whatever the numbers add up to, I can assure you that by the time you reach the end of a season (unfortunately and/or perfectly, there are only three), you feel a high degree of attachment to the characters, and you care. Immensely. Nobody likes a blogger who wears his e-heart on his e-sleeve, but let’s just say that I have cried on many an occasion. All in all, the show is perhaps the most rewarding journey I have ever had with a group of television characters, not unlike watching The Wire. Little wonder both shows are on HBO.
The show mirrors for the viewer a very genuine psychotherapy experience, from the perspective of the psychotherapist. Most episodes are set entirely in Paul’s study – where he conducts his sessions – and rely almost exclusively on dialogue (aka sparse usage of non-dietetic sound). All we know about the clients is based solely on what they divulge and the manner in which they do so during the session; we are presented with the same raw material that Paul is given for his analysis and, inevitably, begin to engage in pseudo-psychotherapy in a similar vein to how we become pseudo-detectives in a whodunnit. After a while, you become increasingly attentive to the nuances of each client – how they enter, what they talk about first, what provokes them – and with this increased attention naturally comes reservoirs of empathy.
Each client comes to Paul with some presenting problem: marital discord, some form of indecision, harmful tendencies et al. Like most of us, they usually think they know the cause of their problem and get defensive when alternative explanations are suggested. “The customer is always wrong,” jokes Paul on one occasion about therapists’ perspectives on patients’ self-assessments. Paul’s job is help them understand the subterranean psychic soil from which their concerns actually arise, and to enable them to recognize why they feel, think, and act as they do.
With all its psycho-therapeutic vérité, you’d be right to wonder how the show is any different from sitting in on a real patient-therapist session. In other words, what is the television appeal? The short answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that the question assumes that mirroring reality in art is boring; that only programs that transport us from true human experience are worth the attention span. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of escapism as much as the next honcho (“Men in Black III” was pretty enjoyable). So why all this fuss about a show that seems to do little more than show us what we already know and are familiar with?
That’s the thing. In Treatment, like Paul, like psychotherapy itself, shows us just how much we don’t know about life. It does open up a new world to us. Not in the sense of taking us to an entirely different one, but in the way a pair of corrective glasses or a hearing aid might – by at once magnifying reality and making us wonder how we ever lived so impoverished an experience previously.
And of course art has a very special and mysterious power in accomplishing all of this. In Treatment benefits greatly from its artistic construction – the range of client cases chosen (from a man who bombs a village of civilians in Iraq to a teenager who needs a clear mental health bill after allegedly attempting suicide), the acting (every member of the cast is fantastic, with especially incredible performances from Gabriel Byrne and Mia Wasikowska), and the plot (just imagine the possibilities for brilliance in having various clients visiting a psychotherapist who in turn visits a psychotherapist) all work in tandem seamlessly. The result is a sturdy mirror indeed.
The show has had such an effect on me because it reveals a great deal of complexity and detail about the human condition that I had missed. Even more, it has shown me much about myself. Such is the power of a mirror: we think we perceive reality, but without some reflective device, our view of reality doesn’t include what we look like, what we are. After all, the customer is always wrong. No television program I know has got this so right. In my book, that’s as good a reason as any.