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‘In Treatment': The doctor is in, again

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Apparently HBO wants to make addicts out of its customers, at least when it comes to the psychotherapy drama "In Treatment," which returns for a second season on Sunday with some noticeable casting and scheduling tweaks.

The unusually-designed serial featuring monologues delivered to a shrink played by Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment" aired five nights a week in its first season, imitating the schedule of the hit Israeli series it was based on. This season, however, there will still be five "sessions" weekly, but the episodes are now loaded onto just two nights, Sunday and Monday, starting at 9 p.m. EDT each night.

They must do some research over there at HBO. The channel's publicity department delivered 10 episodes, or two weeks' worth, to my home ... and we watched all 10 in one night.

It should be noted that while its explorations of the human condition rarely sound a false note, the reason "In Treatment" is so habit-forming is that it occupies an entirely artificial realm in which people are helped in record time through a kind of psychological triage that is breathtaking in its speed and accuracy.

But we may not realize this because we are reminded often that Paul, the extraordinarily gifted psychologist Byrne plays, has a personal life that's in shambles.

In the off-season Paul moved to Brooklyn; his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes) did not. The fracturing of their marriage that began last season is now complete. As if that weren't enough, Paul faces repercussions from the death of the Navy pilot Alex (played last season by Blair Underwood) and will revisit old business with Mia, a patient he saw 20 years ago (Hope Davis).

The rest of his patients this season just walk through the door at his new practice: a chubby kid named Oliver (Aaron Shaw) caught between feuding parents; Walter ("Frasier's" John Mahoney), a CEO who wants to know why he's not sleeping and wants answers now; and the most compelling head case of this season - with the possible exception of Paul himself - a 23-year-old student, April (Alison Pill, last seen in "Milk"), who's just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The one-person-shows these recurring characters put on each week are what give "In Treatment" its vitality, and of course it helps that HBO can draw from top stage talent.

So we get someone at the cusp of adulthood, another in middle age and yet another as they're rounding the bend and heading for home. Each is in tremendous pain that they barely understand, let alone want to acknowledge. And from there the "In Treatment" formula proceeds: Establish the problem and its complexity, provide immediate relief, probe deeper, expose more problems, treat, repeat. By the end of Monday's fifth episode, all will seem hopeless; a week from then, not so much.

In this respect, "In Treatment" is not unlike an episode of "24," which tricks you into thinking that events "occur in real time." Only here the artifice is harder to spot, until you realize how much progress doctor and patient have made in 20 minutes. ("In Treatment" is also like "CSI" in its glorification of science as a tool that can crack the toughest cases.)

Just when you think the show is taking itself too seriously, in walks Gina (Dianne Wiest), Paul's confidant, conscience and counselor, whose weekly appearance makes a useful bookend to the sturm and drang of "In Treatment's" week.

Gina is the pleasant, professional and candid antidote our neurotic Irish shrink needs on his weekly Amtrak trips to see his daughter. She also provides moments of comic relief that the viewer needs. "Isn't it fun to be in therapy!" she exudes at one point.

Of course, while Gina's expertise may help Paul keep his equilibrium, I can't say I've seen Paul improve appreciably in her care. That may be the most realistic portrayal of life in treatment that we see here.

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