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TV Review: In Treatment Is Back on the Couch

In Treatment — starring Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Paul Weston — may look like a cerebral series about psychotherapy, classy but potentially dull. It's not. Romantic and agitating in turns, the show can feel as suspenseful as 24, and over the years the HBO drama has, in its stealthy way, become one of the most experimental series on television. The excellent third season, the first to depart from the original Israeli series on which it's based, may be the best yet, with three new patients on the couch: an Indian widower (Slumdog Millionaire’s Irrfan Khan), a narcissistic actress (Debra Winger), and an acerbic, adopted gay teenager (Dane DeHaan).

The series starts this evening, running in sequences of four episodes, two each night, two nights per week. During the first three sessions, Paul wrestles with the angel of other people’s suffering — alternately challenging his patients, soothing them, and riding the flow of transference. On the fourth, the episode shifts to Paul’s meetings with his new therapist (Amy Ryan). There, Dr. Weston becomes himself again: an uglier and smaller man. He is depressive, rancorous, sardonic; he rages paranoically against his own mortality. In Byrne's remarkable performance, he's both a disappointment and a revelation.

And really, that's the secret of the series. Earlier dramas either celebrated therapy (à la Tell Me You Love Me) or damned it (as The Sopranos did very effectively by the series finale.) In Treatment never comes down on one side or another. Instead, it works its central quartet of theatrical, seductive, repetitive conversations into a near-musical meditation, a slow stir on a far greater existential theme: What kind of relationship is this?

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO