In Treatment: A Course in Listening and Lies

In Treatment: A Course in Listening and Lies
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HBO's In Treatment, recently described by cast member Amy Ryan as "the perfect storm" of acting, writing and psychoanalytic therapy - is such a mesmerizing combination of all these highly wrought disciplines that it's hard to call this show entertainment. But of course it is, even though it's now a real-life teaching tool for analysts.
Like that seductively wavy/washy/watery opening graphic - a closeup of one of those '80s water and oil wave machines in a bottle- In Treatment both slows everything down for a more detailed and pleasurable study and also selectively combines three very distinct but co-dependent conceits- drama , writing and psychology.
"There is a lot of really good therapy on the show" says Claire Basescu, a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and teacher at the William Alanson White Institute in New York., "We can be proud of it."
Basescu, herself the daughter of a therapist and an actress, is actually teaching a course on In Treatment at the White Institute and says Gabriel Bryne's portrayal of psychoanalyst Paul Weston offers all kinds of teaching moments. "So often portrayals of our profession have been mortifying or embarrassing, "she says, "but we get so much pleasure out of this."

Basescu and co-teacher Don Greif require that students watch each week's episode and come to class with answers to questions like"" Pay attention to any strong reactions you have to particular clinical moments. Your emotional responses to the show will provide a crucial jumping off point for our discussions." And "What are the conscious and unconscious motivations of patients and therapists?" And "As far as content: each therapist has some working theories about development, personality, motivation. Can you identify, infer, or speculate about Paul and Adele's theories? What do they each believe makes people tick? What do they believe are the fundamental human needs and strivings? What are they hoping to help their patients realize about themselves?"

Basescu is aware, however, that the show enjoys some problematic dramatic license. "One of the biggest issues we worry about is how the public perceives Paul," she says, "He is in so much turmoil himself - is this realistic?

In other words, she asks, "Are therapists as troubled as he seems or not?"

Another concern, shared by other analysts I spoke with, is that the sessions follow too theatrical a structure and compress weeks of work into one half hour episode.
In a recent NPR Fresh Air on In Treatment the show's format was basically summarized by co-executive producer and writer Anya Epstein as a two character, three act teleplay - the patient gives his or her version of what's going on, then Paul addresses the problem and bores in on what they're really there for and basically the third act is Paul's summation or analysis.

"As far as good therapy," says Basescu, "He overdoes the summing up."

Dan Futterman, In Treatment's co-executive producer, writer and show runner is himself an actor (A Mighty Heart, Judging Amy), and screenwriter, (Capote)and is also the son of an analyst. "My mother always asks me 'why did he say that?" he says, "It's a great conversation to have, all my therapist friends are obsessed...half the fun is criticizing what Paul does. He's fallible."

Which seems to be the key to the show - our hero's uneasy relationship with his vocation.

"Paul is not the first person you think of when you think of an analyst," says Futterman, who tributes the show's original creator Hagai Levi with this critical dramatic twist, "He's not removed or uninvolved...we're creating a character whose Achilles heel is that he gets over-involved, even when he is aware of this and can't help it. Hagai is always asking us 'how is Paul going to be tempted to cross boundaries, create moral confusions?'"

"Without this tension," he continues, "it's just someone telling their story and there is no energy coming from the other side of the coffee table."

This season's characters each tests Paul in their own way. " Francis (Debra Winger) awakens Paul's own issues of aging, the inevitability of illness and his fears of loneliness" says Futterman, "He overidentifies with Sunil (Irrfan Kahn) - they are both immigrants, lonely and disconnected and Jesse (Dane DeHaan) tempts him to be a father as he has done with other young patients in conflict."

There are two other big themes at play in this show as well as in real life analysis and acting, according to both Basescu and Futterman.

Listening and lying.

"Listening is the sine qua non of therapy and I think they do a great job of portraying that on the show," says Basescu, " I find myself watching the NON-verbal acting even more than the verbal--the facial expressions of both therapists are fabulous, and Byrne uses his hands a lot, as well as his whole body. Adele tends to be quite still...and I am noticing a lot about silence, and the power of silence, and different kinds of silence"

She acknowledges the intense concentration required by therapists to pay close attention to patient's words, tone, facial expressions, body movements, as well as the monitoring of their own emotions, associations, and sensations is what makes the job so challenging and so fulfilling.

" It is also impossible to sustain in some perfect way," she adds, " But the listening, and the trusting of one's own responses, is what leads to effective interventions."

Futterman says In Treatment has shown him that listening is the common thread to all three distinct art forms. "You find yourself listening to others in a different way," he says, "This is really what art is all about - teaching us a new path, a new way to listen and hear. It's what writers, do. And actors. And therapists."

But this is a television drama on HBO, starring Gabriel Bryne. And that's where the paths diverge....

"I think one major thing that interests me about acting and writing and reading good writing is the ways in which people lie," says Futterman, "Either overtly or unconsciously - then being called on those lies by somebody. That can be both off-putting or extremely intoxicating to have someone see you clearly - those elements run though all the episodes especially with Adele who sees him the most clearly. That becomes very seductive to him - to be seen clearly by somebody"

Futterman says he and his wife Anya Epstein are extremely grateful for the caliber of talent the show has drawn. "Actors come to the show attracted by the writing and challenge doing a one-act play, "he says, "but the real draw is to work with Gabriel and see how powerful he is."

If you just pause, (wavy visual here!) and think about it there are so many terms that apply to both acting and therapy - role playing, leading roles, acting out, active listening, deceit and drama you need to realize that what's real and what's, uh, play-acting, ends up being irrelevant on In Treatment - these are teachable moments for everyone.

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