Image B Sound B Extras B ("Tell Me You Love Me")
by Walter Chaw It's a show about the traditional mode of psychoanalysis--a nine-week, five days-a-week series detailing shrink Paul (Gabriel Byrne) and four patients, culminating each "Friday" in Paul's own session with former mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest). It's based on a popular Israeli drama that was the brainchild of such filmmaking talents as Eran Kolarin and Nir Bergman. And though it begins stilted and ends badly, its thick mid-section is the enabler of our obsessive, maybe ugly, voyeuristic impulses, gratifying the viewer with the sensation that, for all the dense verbal webs spun in these little progressive one-acts, the real expert is the viewer. "In Treatment" clarifies the role of the observer in this media, how the active participant is always involved in an anthropological exercise deconstructing the characters' motives and actions--and how that critical facility, eternally underused, is occasionally gratified by material that's not quite smarter than you, but appears to be.
Monday's Laura (Melissa George) is a doctor in love with Paul; Tuesday's Alex (Blair Underwood) is a combative Navy pilot working through a bad experience in Iraq; Wednesday's Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) is a gymnast who might have just tried to kill herself; and Thursday's Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz) are struggling with fertility in their fast-disintegrating marriage. The first week is rough: until you're used to the talkiness, it feels like a chore. George and Underwood, in particular, seem uncomfortable with their roles, forcing themselves into an acting situation crafted to be so intimate that it's impossible to fake natural behaviour. But then it starts to click (or you grow accustomed to its claustrophobic construction), and the storylines start to fall into place, and the performances start to gel, and, most importantly, you start to invest in solving the riddles of what these people are all about.
And for about seven weeks, the series defeats most every expectation. Paul is as petty and argumentative as his clients in his sessions with Gina; Laura turns out to be more than a nympho; Alex turns out to be more than an asshole; Sophie turns out to be more than a brat; Jake and Amy reverse psycho roles in a gratifying way; and, over there on the margins, Paul's wife (Michelle Forbes) confesses to an affair. Byrne is absolutely fantastic, Wiest matches him, and Wasikowska has made me genuinely giddy about the prospect of her Alice in Tim Burton's Wonderland. I thought initially that the weakest portion of the show would be Paul's handling of Laura's infatuation with him (and his infatuation in return), but ultimately the weakest part of the show is that because it's literally beholden to Freud, all roads in each case study--even Paul's--must lead to the Father. Laura's daddy issues make her attracted to father figures; Alex's dad is a freakin' psychopath, leading to his own insecurity complexes; Sophie won't acknowledge her rage at her father leaving the family; Amy's dad was killed when she was a poor little fat girl on her way for seconds of ice cream; and Paul's daddy issues have him gravitating towards damsels in distress. It's weak, too, that issues in every session surface as allegorical fodder for Paul's own awakening, though it's not clear if that's as obvious for Paul as it is for us. Structurally, in other words, "In Treatment" is simple-minded stuff fond of the pat solution and, most disappointingly in its last episodes, pastoral tableaux involving blown kisses and father-daughter reunions on the green.
There's no imagination in how the resolutions are handled; the commitment to producing sharp, surprising verbal jousts throughout the bulk of it gives way to visits from invisible children and a breaking of the single-set premise to swing by first a funeral, then a labyrinthine apartment. The claustrophobia you've adapted to through forty-plus episodes is replaced with various unrelated spaces. It's the Bradys finding a magic juju in Hawaii--the totem in "In Treatment" being Oedipal, mostly, the premise that everything can be traced back to that most reductive of pop-psych bogeymen. Which doesn't make it not true, necessarily, so much as it makes it boring and pat. I didn't want to feel resolved at the end of my time "in treatment"--I wanted to learn that the world is a fucked-up place full of fucked-up people and that the answers aren't answers so much as a desire to speak of things you don't wish to speak about with your loved ones, and be heard, and leave some baggage behind. More, I think I wanted confirmation that there are artists more interested in the conversation than in the solution--and to spend time in their company, admire the craft of their writing and performing, and discover avenues into myself and my relationships through the conduit of their art. This is a long way around of saying I thought "In Treatment" held a great deal of promise, thus it's hard when it turns out to be a mediocre product of parts that deserve better. Especially since HBO has a pretty sterling track record with these things.
Not that said track record includes the network's "Tell Me You Love Me", a "mini" series that reverses "In Treatment" by spending most of its time with the patients and only a moment or two each episode with the therapist--in this instance, a relationship counsellor (Jane Alexander) who's enlisted to repair the sex lives of three generations of troubled relationships. The young couple, Jamie (Michelle Borth) and Hugo (Luke Farrell Kirby), spend a lot of time fighting about stupid shit that young couples fight about, while the slightly older couple, Palek (Adam Scott) and Carolyn (Sonya Walger), are attempting to get pregnant and the middle-aged couple, David (Tim DeKay) and Katie (Ally Walker), are parents having trouble rekindling their intimacy. Tired yet? Neither as well-written nor as vigorous as "In Treatment", it also demands less of its audience, content to craft a more traditional soaper--if a sexually-explicit one complete with full-frontal nudity and copious amounts of simulated penetration. What's missing is the very taboo that it seems desperate to court with its frank sexuality; what's also missing is the sense that this is more than an updating of "thirtysomething" for pay-cable. It's hard to care about these characters overmuch, in that where "In Treatment"'s contrivance doesn't really emerge until the end of its season, "Tell Me You Love Me"'s is right up there at the very beginning, as it's not possible to conceive of these people as something they haven't been programmed to be. It's too pat by far (by far) and not nearly saved by an excellent soundtrack that features cuts from a personal favourite, Twilight Singers.
Of course the thought of fidelity is going to send the youngsters into a panic; of course the middle-aged ones are going to sweat the difficulty of maintaining the spark; of course the interim ones are going to wonder if they'll ever have a baby like all their evil yuppie friends. Of course the elderly therapist's healthy sex life will provide the reassuring counterpoint by affirming that at the end of the road, there's that golden age where these issues are "things we worked through a long time ago." Of course the guys resist therapy, of course the girls look nuts to the guys, of course, of course, of course. "Tell Me You Love Me" is at its essence about fucking and making love and the difference between the two. It's about exploiting sex, indulging in sex, enjoying sex, hating it, faking it--sex as an act, sex as a lie, sex as a promise, sex as a blanket. None of it's insightful in the least because, like "In Treatment", the series gratifies the viewer for its expertise in human affairs; and when it comes to sex, there's finally very little the show can illuminate. Failing revelation, "Tell Me You Love Me" contents itself with replication; the only thing separating it from countless other "adult" dramas is that it doesn't use any euphemisms for copulation. In truth, there's more revelation to be had in contemplating the categories for sorting titles in a pornshop. If you make it through the full ten episodes, you'll have witnessed couples falling in, falling out, seeing the therapist alone to punish the partner, and intercourse as metaphor, diagnosis, and moral. It's tedious. Not entirely unlike spending ten hours discussing relationships.
Season 1 of "In Treatment" docks on DVD in a big fat box housing all nine weeks (43 episodes/22 hours) on nine discs. The crystal-clear 1.78:1 anamorphic image demonstrates a remarkable amount of fine detail (it's possible to read the titles on Paul's bookshelves) and reproduces the warm colour palette in appropriately autumnal hues. The DD 5.1 tracks aren't asked to do much more than distribute voices across the front and centre channels; rarely but ably, the surrounds are utilized for atmospheric touches like traffic noise and footsteps elsewhere in Paul's house. For what it's worth, the basic mix is quiet enough that when the light piano score does intrude, it's inordinately distracting and didactic. There are no extras of any kind.
"Tell Me You Love Me" comes in a regular-thickness, slip-covered set--optimistically and inaccurately subtitled "The Complete First Season"--with identical technical specs. It looks great, as a recent series on HBO should, and the accompanying DD 5.1 audio delivers the largely-diegetic indie hits with aplomb. (Like "In Treatment", this is a dialogue-driven affair.) Spread across four discs, the series boasts the same number of commentary tracks, the first attendant to the pilot courtesy creator and executive producer Cynthia Mort, wherein she says that the original title for the show was "Fuck Me, Please". Smug, right? She describes the casting process as "arduous" and says things like "as a writer" and "thematically, this scene says a lot" while admitting that her inspiration for the concept was being haunted by conversations she had with her friends. Soon enough, Mort lapses into long silences you wish were longer when she, embarrassed by a sex scene, justifies it as sex between committed partners, forgetting later encounters--like a fuck in an industrial kitchen--where it's not. It's the last shovelful of dirt on the project.
A yakker on Disc Two teaming actors DeKay and Walker is free of any information but brimming with chemistry and bonhomie. I liked, too, DeKay's remembrance of working with episode director Rodrigo Garcia (who went on to mastermind "In Treatment") on "Carnivàle". Walker declares that everyone's a terrific actor and DeKay agrees. All in all, it's the best show that's ever been. Disc Three pairs Kirby and Borth at the mike; kind of dozy and uninvolving, they offer stuff that's not interesting concerning stuff that's similarly uninteresting whilst cracking jokes that aren't funny and generally demonstrating that they think a lot of themselves. Lots of play-by-play in this one and a bit of plot regurgitation from previous episodes, too, which is even worse than narrating the action. Fuck me, please. Scott and Walger, speaking with a nice British accent like she has on "Lost", contribute the final yak-track--also on this disc--and display, again, a nice chemistry. I like the vulnerability here as Walger expresses shock that her subplot was described in a review as "toxic," because she'd become protective of her character's arc. It leads to a nice analysis from the actors' perspective of the actor's process that, surprisingly, serves as a useful, noble discourse despite giving the series' writing more credit than it's due. Oh, and we learn that a stunt penis was used. The HBO reel cues up on startup of the first disc and represents the last of the special features. Originally published: July 6, 2009.
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