Sunday, July 6, 2014

In Treatment, and the Art of TV Storytelling

Recently a lot of HBO television shows became available on Amazon Prime for free, and so for the last few weeks I've been watching In Treatment, a show about a psychotherapist and his patients which takes place almost entirely "in session."

It's hard to imagine that a story which unfolds almost entirely with two people sitting and talking in chairs could be riveting, but I just finished the first season and I tell you, I'm brimming, to the point that I must write something here simply to decompress emotionally.

I'll abstain from a detailed review, though it's tempting to spend all day writing about it. Let me just say that the show is a true work of art.

As a fiction writer I find it to be, in terms of style and structure, an incredible feat of storytelling. It airs five days a week (for 9 weeks), and has the therapist, Paul, meeting with one particular patient each weekday (i.e. he meets with the character "Laura" every Monday). On Friday, Paul meets with his own therapist and former mentor, Gina.

Each of these five relationships and its corresponding course of therapy constitutes a fairly self-contained story, and yet they do connect. These connections, sometimes intuitive and sometimes completely unexpected, surface just frequently enough to remain believable and keep all the stories relevant to each other. The impeccable pacing ensures that this five-ball juggling act doesn't prevent each story from resolving fairly and faithfully in the final week.

What truly has me reeling, though, is the complex of acute, authentic emotions it evokes: In Treatment is at turns surprising, illuminating, maddening, exhilarating, funny, devastating, and joyful. But always beautiful. Always deeply human. At one point, when I was about halfway through the season, I encountered a stretch of gloomy days and forced myself to take a break from watching it, for fear I wasn't well-enough equipped to manage the emotional intensity.

And now that I have finished, I wonder if I'll ever be able to brave watching the second season, for fear it will not measure up to this one. Or that it will, and that two doses of this experience will be too much.

Art so moving it intimidates? That's usually a good find.

In Treatment is actually an American adaptation of a show that originally aired in Israel, a show which has also been adapted -- mind you, not just aired, but translated, culturally modified, and re-filmed with an entirely new set of actors and directors -- in twelve different countries.  Wow.

Even if you haven't seen the series, this interview with the original Israeli show's creator, Hagai Levi, is a great read.