Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Treatment Within a Treatment: review of In Treatment, Season one.

If you’re interested in psychoanalysis, character development and intense one act plays, then In Treatment is the ideal TV drama to stir your consciousness. Each episode focuses on one session of the psychotherapeutic treatment of a patient by the same therapist, Dr Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne. When the programme screened on HBO, there was an episode per working day every week. On the Friday instalment the tables are turned and the patient becomes the therapist himself who discusses his weekly experiences with his therapist, Gina, played by Dianne West. Season one had forty three episodes, so throughout the weeks the patients’ lives unravel gradually - for better or worse - before both their therapist’s and the viewers’ eyes. We watch the patients deny, accept, transfer, fall apart, mend, fall in love and even bleed on their therapeutic couch whilst we perch on ours. Then on every fifth episode we are handed the treat of becoming ultra voyeurs as we watch the therapist’s interpretations of the patients, alongside his own weary fears and doubts, as they are pulled apart by Gina the meta-therapist. We then get to decide whether we agree with her interpretations of his interpretations of all the patients, including him. After all, psychoanalysis is all about interpretation, isn’t it?

Trick or treatment? It’s a matter of opinion as to whether a therapist’s opinion is the correct one, especially as different types of therapist take different sorts or combinations of psychiatric approach: psychoanalytic (as appears to be in Dr Weston’s case), cognitive behavioural, neuro-linguistic, clinical or New Age, for example. In truth, there is no such thing as truth. Not only do we only see what we want to see to make our lives worthwhile but we actually don’t see everything there is to see even on an optical level. Actor Michael Riley, who, incidentally, introduced me to In Treatment, did some research which purported that the brain only takes in one billionth of the data which is actually available to it (see Michael Riley post). Even if we were to analyse our own emotive responses to the world correctly, those responses would only be to a fraction of that world, so our responses would always be partly misguided. What, perhaps, we can surmise from this is that there is no such thing as right or wrong interpretations. But if an individual begins to feel that they are not coping with the way they see their world, if the effects of this not coping begin to manifest themselves within the realms of their physical existence, then it makes sense to try to interpret their phenomena in order to eliminate the causation and its subsequent effects, however ‘real’ they actually are. The patients in season one are all compromised in terms of how to move forward with areas of their life because of their misunderstanding of themselves, which has lead them to initially seek therapy. Laura isn’t happy with her boyfriend and doesn’t know where to go with it, Alex says he feel no remorse for killing civilians in Iraq but doesn’t seem sure he wants to continue with his career, Sophie is recovering from a bad accident and it isn’t clear to her guardians or herself whether it was a suicide attempt and married couple – Amy and Jake - can’t seem to decide whether to have an abortion, a divorce or their baby. Then there is Dr Paul Weston who decides to return to his own psychotherapist and clinical supervisor after many years because he doesn’t quite know how to handle his particularly knotty stream of current patients. Of course, there’s more to all of these initial referrals both in terms of their motives and their awareness. Whatever the viewer’s opinions on psychoanalysis may be, it is difficult not to become engaged and entangled along with the twists and turns of each of these characters’ psyches.

One of the reasons the series is so gripping is because of the quality of the production in terms of the acting and scriptwriting. Despite the oober articulate and often sassy nature of the dialogue, the actors are still believable because of the way they phrase their renditions of their weekly experiences using naturalistic intonation and by keeping in unnecessary details. The latter is particularly important in order for the drama’s premise to work, as it is these details which individuals dismiss, which psychoanalysis often seeks to explore. It is also perhaps realistic that all the patients do talk about their lives so articulately as they are likely to be well educated and successful; otherwise how would they afford the $150 dollars an hour therapy fee (amount mentioned by Alex in an episode)? The length of the programme is the one thing which troubles me because surely it would work better if the therapeutic conversations unfolded as if in real time. As the programme lasts for half an hour but the sessions are supposed to be at least forty five minutes, it suggests that we don’t get to see the whole of the patient’s treatment, despite the fact that we otherwise feel trusted as permitted voyeurs. Perhaps, it is petty to expect such a degree of realism, but then it is the skilled naturalism of the drama which is what makes it so mesmeric and respected. In fact, Gabriel Byrne in particular is so believable that you forget he is acting at all and you half expect to look up and see him sitting there on the arm chair opposite you, as if it is you who is in therapy and the TV screen is just some twisted projection of your own troubles.

I guess, in some ways, it is. As humans we experience the same emotions but at different times and under infinitely varied circumstances and depending on our personalities. But we don’t always acknowledge what it is we are feeling or why. Whilst I engrossed myself in series one of In Treatment I found myself trying to apply some of the psychoanalytic terms used by the two therapists to my own life experiences. They talk about re-enactment of previous relationships, erotic transferral and projection. It is perhaps dangerous that I began to self-psycho-analyse and identify with these unconscious psychological devices, establishing them more consciously. Yet, whilst such educated realisations can work to curb the underlying problems within the space of real therapy, in TV ‘therapy’ they just bewilder, then hang around a bit without substantiation. So I gave up on them. But I don’t think I’d give up on Paul Weston if he was my therapist. But he isn’t. Paul’s interpretations of his patients seem astute and probable but they are just one person’s interpretation of the information which is provided to them within one hour of every week - with a little help from Freud and co. His interpretations are also ultimately imaginary; they are the writer’s (Hagai Levi’s) interpretations of what psychoanalysts do. They are fantasy. Yet they are also based on reality. And sometimes our realities are based on fantasy, evidently.

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