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October 24 2021 5:15 AM ˚

‘In Treatment’ thinks you could use a session

HBO
(Photo: HBO)
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America, even more than usual, has some stuff it could stand to talk through. Take the pandemic and its attendant fear, grief, insecurity and isolation; add police killings, a racial justice reckoning and protest movements; toss on political strife and a violent attempt to overturn a democratic election; and, collectively, we could benefit from therapy.اضافة اعلان

It is, in other words, a spot-on time for HBO to relaunch “In Treatment.”

The 2008–10 run of the drama was a kind of research-and-development prototype for television. Before the rise of streaming TV, it experimented with a bingelike format; in four to five half-hour episodes a week, therapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) would meet with different patients — whose treatment would unfold weekly over the season — each storyline converging in Paul’s weekly wrestling sessions with his own counselor.

It also returned TV to its theatrical roots. It was essentially a series of interconnected two-hander stage plays in which the only action was talk.

But what talk it was. Unlike many subtext-heavy HBO shows, “In Treatment” relied on characters at least theoretically saying overtly what was on their minds. But there were volumes of nuance in the nonverbal cues, the teasing out of deceptions, the riverine routes that conversation takes to find its path. Each session was part ministration, part duel, part dance.

The new season, beginning Sunday, is called Season 4, although in many ways it’s a reboot. Paul is replaced by his colleague Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba), the East Coast by Los Angeles, Paul’s shadowy Brooklyn brownstone (where he relocated after a first-season set in Baltimore) by a modernist jewel box with striking views. (In the four weeks of episodes screened for critics, Paul is an off-screen presence only.)

This being a therapy show, of course, not all is as it seems. That magazine-worthy house may look open and airy, but it is also a haunted cage. It was built by Brooke’s demanding father, whose recent death she is uneasily processing.

Brooke works from home — in fact, she rarely leaves at all — because she is still not comfortable returning to her office in a medical center post-lockdown. The series is set roughly in the present — that is, in 2021, as vaccines are beating back the coronavirus but not its lingering traumas.

The house is a fair metonym for the moment: It looks open, but look and feel can be two different things. And all of the patients who visit it, virtually or in person, are stuck in traps that Brooke must help them through even as she navigates her own personal maze.

At six weeks, this season is shorter than the first three, but it follows a similar structure. Brooke counsels three clients: Eladio (Anthony Ramos), a home health aide whose clients are paying for his teleconference sessions to help him focus on his job; Colin (John Benjamin Hickey), a white-collar criminal doing court-ordered counseling for parole; and Laila (Quintessa Swindell), an upper-class teen brought in by her grandmother for “choosing to be lesbian.” In the fourth storyline, Brooke fights to keep her own life together with the help of a confidant (not a therapist — HBO considers the specifics to be a spoiler, but tomato, tomahto).

There have been a number of efforts to make TV in and about the pandemic last year, more earnest than memorable. This new “In Treatment,” occasionally stilted but still fascinating, may be the most organic so far because while all of its stories are unmistakably influenced by the events of the last year, they are only occasionally about those events.

That dynamic was also what made Showtime’s docuseries “Couples Therapy,” which just concluded its second season, one of the perfect-for-the-moment highlights of pandemic-era TV. As its real-life therapist, the unflappable Orna Guralnik, pointed out, COVID-19 didn’t just create problems; it also made people and their relationship problems more intensely what they already were. As the news unfolds, life does too, and it is in the stressed-out continuation of that life — work, legal battles, family expectations — that the news finds its inevitable expression.

Eladio’s arc is the strongest, even though he and Brooke interact entirely through screens and telephones. In part that owes to Ramos, who turns on a light in his character, taking passages that could play like audition monologues and rendering them lyrical and natural. And his episodes (written by Chris Gabo) have a sharp understanding of class.

Eladio, bright and well-read, cares deeply about the disabled young man whose parents pay him, but he knows that he’s both “indispensable” and as replaceable as a “Hefty bag.” Money also hangs over his therapy itself. What good is it, he asks Brooke, for him to realize how he’s being taken advantage of if he can’t afford to act on it? It’s easy to say that self-insight is priceless; honesty requires recognizing how it can also be ruinous.

For all its plot-to-plot unevenness (which it shares with the earlier seasons), this “In Treatment” has great timing. It is precision-targeted to this hopeful-fraught moment when a society is stepping out bleary-eyed from its storm shelter and surveying the debris. You can quantify deaths, but as Ed Yong recently wrote in The Atlantic about late-pandemic trauma, “Mental health is harder to measure, and so easier to ignore.”

Not for Brooke, on the job or off. Late in the season, her boyfriend, Adam (Joel Kinnaman), who is both a grounding and destabilizing influence, tries to talk her into a night out. “The world is opening up again,” he says. “Don’t you want to rejoin the living?”

They stay in. Her closing line of the episode is, “I’m so tired.” A therapist is not a psychic, but she’s reading a lot of people’s minds there.

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