tv review

In Treatment Plays Therapy Like a Game of Cat and Mouse

In Treatment returns to HBO with a season-four revival focused on a new lead character, played by Uzo Aduba, and a new Los Angeles setting. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/HBO

The structure of In Treatment has always had a contentious relationship with its medium.

The HBO series, which ran for three seasons from 2008 to 2010, has been revived with a new lead character played by Uzo Aduba, and it’s been relocated from Baltimore to Los Angeles, but the structure is fundamentally the same: Each episode is one therapy session with a patient. In this new fourth season, the first episode is Aduba’s character, Brooke Lawrence, treating a young man named Eladio (Anthony Ramos) who works as a home health aide. In the second episode, Brooke sits down with Colin (John Benjamin Hickey), a tech entrepreneur who’s gotten in legal trouble. The third episode is Brooke beginning sessions with Laila (Quintessa Swindell), a wealthy teenager whose grandmother brought her to therapy. Eventually, the weekly treatment cycle begins all over again. There’s a new episode with Eladio, and then Colin. Throughout, the only explicit connection between any of them is Brooke, who focuses entirely on each patient sitting in front of her, but who is always the returning point-of-view for how we experience them. We see each patient through her lines of inquiry, all the things that bother or please her.

It’s a structure that pulls against and plays with the way episodic television works, to fascinating ends. In Treatment does not follow the self-contained episodic plotting of a procedural, and it has none of the the propulsive, mostly linear thrust of a serialized drama, either. (I say “mostly” because serial dramas love to play fast and loose with flashbacks; In Treatment’s highly regimented structure also prevents any of that time-sliding bagginess.) It would be possible to watch In Treatment in a more familiar way. You could choose to only watch the Eladio episodes, for example, and end up with something much closer to a typical television season, where each episode is self-contained, but every episode’s developments pick up directly on what happened before.

And it’s tempting to do it that way, especially when a patient like Eladio is played so well by the wildly charismatic Ramos. If one patient in particular hooks you, In Treatment thumbs its nose at your investment. You want to know what next week looks like for this lovely, sad young man, but you have to sit through three more completely unrelated episodes before you can get back to him. Once you do, you’re now several episodes into other peoples’ stories. You’ve lost the intensity of the focus on one person; you’re now stretched, almost uncomfortably, across multiple intimate relationships. So the therapist character becomes the anchor, the voice you hang onto as the constant. The patients, meanwhile, are in an implicit dialogue with one another; not a season-long arc, but a braid, with strands that stay separate from one another and yet look different as a unified pattern than they would as disparate pieces.

I have admired that structure since the show first debuted in 2008, in spite of (because of) the way it actively deflects viewers from the natural impulse to follow one character thread at a time. I was struck by the way the In Treatment structure reshapes how the therapist character is developed, how subtle and compelling it is to try to suss out whatever’s happening behind this implacable therapeutic presence as it responds to different interlocutors. In Treatment always seemed to have the same appeal as a good psychological mystery story, the gradual collection of clues, the slow reveal of someone’s inner life and the things that drive them, the red herrings, the close ties between the detective and the criminal. In a mystery, the detective pursues the criminal while the reader chases after the author, trying to see beyond everything that’s on the page to get at what’s being hidden underneath. In Treatment is like that, too. The therapist peels apart the patients; the viewers peel apart all the set dressing and performance that shows but also conceals who this person is. Nothing says a fun TV time like a cat-and-mouse game of inner-life analysis!

For all of those reasons — the intricacy of that braided structure, the way analysis is framed as pursuit, the intensity of it all — the fourth season revival of In Treatment is beautifully appealing and inevitably a touch disappointing. Aduba is excellent as Brooke, a woman who is careful about the external appearance of everything: her home, her clothing, her meticulous makeup, her thoughtful active listening face. Brooke is also struggling with a whole world of her own hidden chaos, and Aduba plays that just as well, especially in the moments when Brooke cracks and lets the inside slip out, or when she has to gather herself and put the facade back on.

The patients are great, too. Ramos is particularly remarkable as Eladio; it’s one of those performances you watch and think, “Well this person is going to be an enormous star.” (Related: Keep an eye out for Ramos as the lead in the upcoming In the Heights.) But John Benjamin Hickey really leans into his role as Colin, and there’s messy, sincere stuff happening with that character, a self-aggrandizing narcissist who chafes at what he feels are the new guidelines for reasonable behavior, even as he insists on his own left-leaning political bent. (Hickey’s episodes are written by Zack Whedon, brother of the filmmaker Joss Whedon, and wow would I love to watch an in-depth dive into that writing process.) The fourth season of In Treatment is in general much more attuned to the zeitgeist than the earlier seasons starring Gabriel Byrne were, and blunt topicality shows up in each character’s story, most especially Colin and Laila. It feels overly direct, but in a way that makes cultural sense for 2021, a time when it’s really tough to not be constantly placing oneself inside of giant sociopolitical movements.

There’s some meta-narrative happening there, too. The fourth season of In Treatment has been recast with a Black woman in the lead role, and gives her a chance to talk about stuff like cancel culture and wokeness and police violence. It’s often done well, but it’s also hard to overlook the self-awareness of it. The show’s structure says “chase me,” but it’d be a better story if the themes played harder to get.

The Big, Important Themes also get a little heavy-handed in the way this season weaves Brooke’s personal story together with the intertwining plait of her patients. Without saying too much about what we gradually learn about Brooke and her past, there’s an anxiety in that storytelling. It’s as though the writers approached Brooke with the impression that viewers would need a big, loud plot to carry them through, something to worry about in every single episode regardless of who she’s treating, as though the show would be too structurally precarious without it. It would’ve been better with a lighter touch, better to not make it feel like Brooke’s story could drown out the others if it gets out of control.

Nevertheless, it’s great to have In Treatment back. It’s a reminder that TV can do strange, form-bending things, that it can challenge viewers in ways that are more interesting than “here is something very violent” or “betcha can’t even see what’s happening in this night scene.” And it’s never the wrong time to watch performers like Ramos and Aduba really hit their strides.

In Treatment Plays Therapy Like a Game of Cat and Mouse