Imagine if infuriatingly fraudulent reporter Scott Templeton were the lead character of HBO's "The Wire," appearing in nearly every scene, infecting the lives of all the characters.
That's the way things are with network-mate "In Treatment," which has drawn a cadre of passionate supporters who don't seem to mind the endless violations of ethics and good judgment by its lead character, Paul (Gabriel Byrne). Its fans maintain that Paul's crumbling existence is the stuff of great television — the show couldn't ask for a much better champion than Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, who writes, "The voyeuristic thrill comes from both the fascinating revelations of the patients and from our intimate knowledge of the repressed Paul’s own fraying emotions."
Though I've watched every minute of "In Treatment" so far, I continue to find the show more vexing than thrilling. I certainly have no rules against making an antihero the central figure of a series, but I am struggling to find satisfaction in a universe where all the characters behave in such profoundly flawed ways that it's not clear the writers realize it.
The latest in a long list of breaches to surface came last week, during an episode in which Paul recommended that teenage gymnast Sophie, who has attempted suicide, should resume training with her coach. Paul's decision hinged on whether Sophie's psyche stood to benefit more from resuming her routine, or whether the stress would be counterproductive. Oh, and there were issues about whether Sophie would trust Paul as her therapist — that sort of thing.
At no point is it considered that hey, maybe the fact that Sophie's coach molested her should be factored into the deliberations.
Events like these do more than make me unsympathetic toward Paul; they make me deeply hesitant to put my faith in the show. A best-case scenario for "In Treatment" is that the writers (who have adapted the series from an Israeli version) know exactly what they're doing, and the choices they have the characters make are part of a polemic against an entire world of therapy that they consider irresponsible, a farce. (It's worth remembering that with the possible exception of Laura, every patient on the show is overtly hostile to therapy, Gina has abandoned it as a profession and Paul is on the verge. Believe it or not, some people in this world are actually enthusiastic about the practice.)
A more likely scenario is that the writers aren't really in control of the world they've created. It's not that they don't think about what they're doing, but they make their choices based on convenience of plot rather than toward delivering a greater truth.
Contrast this with how David Simon and friends have done on "The Wire." Scott's judgment and excesses are every bit as loathsome as Paul's. In one sense, Scott (Tom McCarthy) benefits in a comparison to Paul from not directly endangering the mental well-being of the people he is victimizing, although Gus (Clark Johnson) is lucky he's made of tough stuff. But Scott is putting other people's careers — their livelihood — in jeopardy, all out of his own laziness and greed. He's an awful man, lacking in almost any redeeming qualities.
But "The Wire" gives Scott's actions context. We are confident that the world he lives in has an understanding of right and wrong, regardless of whether Scott himself has that understanding. The good moments that periodically come on "In Treatment" are negated by a universe that doesn't really seem to have any coherent value system. Paul doesn't have one. Gina, the mentor/therapist who counsels Paul though she knows their personal baggage invalidates such an arrangement, lacks one as well.
Of course, Scott is hardly the only flawed character on "The Wire." In this respect, the grandest offering in the series' final season has perhaps been Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who committed all kinds of legal and ethical violations in bringing a dynamic end-justifies-the-means strategy to the police department's investigations, and who is now enduring the consequences in Shakespearean fashion. Truth be told, I find myself more sympathetic to McNulty now than I did at the start of the season. His world's about to crash down on him, but wherever he went wrong on the police side, the constant was his pursuit of a greater good. Paul's selfishness on "In Treatment," however believable, is selfishness for its own sake — and yet this is the program's lead storyline. At the end of the series, short of some profound insight into the plight of the egotistical, what will have been the point?
"I think 'In Treatment's' only real requirement is that it is good fictional drama," Ryan wrote in response to a comment of mine on her blog. "As I said, I've been shocked by some of his actions and the way he's dealing with his patients. No way should he be seeing Gina. Agreed on all fronts. But that's the stuff that's interesting — watching these signs of his arrogance and stupidity come out. All that makes him more intertesting — not necessarily a good therapist, but a deeply conflicted and believably complicated man."
The passion of people I respect toward "In Treatment" frequently makes me wonder whether I'm being too harsh on the show, but I'm still not convinced that being "interesting" is enough. There's no way I could watch "In Treatment" five nights a week if it weren't compelling television. But compelling doesn't always mean satisfying. Good fictional drama, even if its characters aren't responsible, needs a responsible author, and there's still too much evidence that "In Treatment" doesn't quite have one.
— Jon Weisman
(More on Sunday's episode of "The Wire" can be found at Cynthia Littleton — On the Air.)