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by Walter Chaw Where the first season ended with at least lip-service to ambiguity and frustration, the second runs a disturbingly cheery course of happy horseshit and the worst kinds of Dr. Phil-isms while canonizing our Sainted Paul (Gabriel Byrne) on the cross of other peoples' problems. Taking up where the series left off, we find Paul divorced, relocated to New York, and in the process of being sued by the cartoonishly belligerent father (Glynn Turman) of a patient from Season 1 who killed himself. This 35-episode batch follows sessions with Mia (Hope Davis), a lawyer and former patient who owns the insult of the term "hysterical"; April (Alison Pill), a college student with a saviour complex and a nasty cancer; Oliver (Aaron Grady Shaw), a chubby adolescent enduring his parents' divorce; and Walter (John Mahoney), a powerful CEO on the brink of a fall. Then there's Paul, of course, who's dealing with single parenthood, the possibility of losing his practice, and another woman patient who wants to jump his analytical Irish bones.
It's possible that two seasons is too much for this show's premise, but more likely that "In Treatment" falls on its face this second go-round because the writing is pat and unimaginative. (Coincidentally or not, Warren Leight replaces previous showrunner Rodrigo Garcia.) While there should be endless intrigue in the uncharitable vagaries of human psychology, the series chooses to take the Oprah route to instant therapeutic gratification. In Week 6, Paul's therapist/mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest) responds to Paul's self-loathing by telling him to grow a pair. Then, in Week 7, his patients, every single one of them, take turns telling him how great he is and how much of a difference he's made in their lives. Even a voice from last season shows up in a blog post to declare that Paul Weston saved her life, leading to a season finale in which Paul, puffed-up and re-energized, learns that everything is, in fact, going to be okay. Not a great fan of unearned pathos, I'm even less thrilled when sap is earned at the expense of something that's genuinely complex and deserving of a detailed, respectful conversation. Distilling these various troubles down to a pat, simplistic happy ending for Paul makes me want to spit up.
Mia is a shrill, ball-breaking harridan. The sort of psychopath men complain about when they're exaggerating about their ex-girlfriends, she makes hard passes at her therapist, whom she blames for an abortion she had under his care many years before. Childless, involved in an affair with one of the partners at her law firm, she becomes sexually reckless and experiences a psychosomatic/hysterical pregnancy. To say that she's unpleasant is to understate it a bit--that is, until her parting session, during which Paul, wielding Freud like a weighted shillelagh, breaks through Mia's defenses and discovers that it's all because of her Daddy issues. Of course it is. See you next week. Paul has Mommy issues (and his da dies in the course of this season), April has the same, both of Oliver's parents are useless, and it all boils down to this unfortunate idea that psychoanalysis is very literally about finding out what exactly you're holding against your parents. That's pretty reductive stuff--and pretty astounding that Paul is able to get at all of it in six short weeks of crinkle-eyed, level truth-talking. It's therapist-as-magician--the reason Dr. Phil sells books and gets television ratings--and it's such extraordinary bullshit.
April is also nuts; Oliver is surly and as uninteresting as his ridiculously self-centred parents (leading to a dumb moment where Paul offers to be a phone-buddy to Oliver after Oliver begs Paul to adopt him); and Type-A Walter, as played by the great Mahoney, is alternately raging and weeping, a character who, like the rest of them, is more straw man than multi-dimensional. Edited with discretion and mostly unaugmented save for occasional moments when the score intrudes to further narrate what is already almost exclusively expository, the season becomes an incredible chore as it reveals itself to be interested in presenting not so much complexity as a throughline for Paul. Taking for granted the idea that good conversation is better than good sex, there's a reason that good porn is well-edited--sex isn't even consistently interesting while you're having it. "In Treatment" goes from its slightly-better-than-mediocre first season to a real low in its follow-up, making some calculation that what the audience for something as determinedly niche as this series really wants is a feel-good resolution for its most visible figurehead. Insulting and, in its way, demeaning, it panders to an audience it's underestimating. Why is this on HBO instead of Showtime?
HBO brings "In Treatment: Season Two" to DVD in a fat, seven-disc box set housing the platters in a plastic flipbook case that slides into a fingerprint-attracting glossy slipcover. The 1.78: 1, 16x9-enhanced video looks predictably clean and crisp given the show's HD origins on the pay channel. Probably not a lot of money was given over to its production (thus explaining its longevity), but not much is necessary. I was initially intoxicated by the opening credits' replication of what appears to be one of those Zen-wave things people used to put on their desk to stare at in lieu of lava lamps and working, though it comes clear that it's a better commentary on "In Treatment" than at first thought. The DD 5.1 audio is similarly workmanlike in its reproduction of the endless chitchat; the series makes a couple of hollow feints at leaving its one-room environment a time or two, to unexceptional effect. (I can't wait for Season 3, wherein Paul discovers a Hawaiian juju in a volcanic cave.) There are no special features save the weird, vaguely creepy HBO trailer reel that opens each disc. Originally published: March 22, 2011.