Granted, I may be a bit biased since psychotherapy is my chosen profession, but I think this first season of "In Treatment," which ended last night, was one of the best things I've ever seen on television. ( I know at least three therapists who watch the HBO series. I don't know, do lawyers watch lawyer shows? Cops cop shows?)
Anyway, "Paul" (played stoically by Gabriel Byrne) said good-bye to his first set of patients this week, and they realistically all left in very different ways: "Sophie" had a breakthrough, while "Jake and Amy" broke up; "Alex" couldn't face his guilt and pain and crossed over into the next life, while "Laura" faced-off with Paul in the bedroom, finally, but it was Paul who couldn't cross-over the line with his patient. (Instead, he had a panic attack!) And then there's "Paul and Gina," the Friday night installment where the therapist gets his therapy, often showcasing one of the richest segments every week, and with some very fine acting at that. Diane Wiest is brilliant in her role as Paul's flawed mentor, firmly but lovingly, with perhaps a touch of longing at times, challenging Paul to face his demons openly and with humility.
What I find unique about the show, however, is not only do those involved present real issues in the patients believably, but they unabashedly, and without judgement, show the weaknesses and humanity of the therapists, with an innate and in-depth understanding of the internal processes they go through. The skills of the therapists are often juxtaposed with their foibles, the series at once showing reverance for the intimate exchanges that take place and compassion for the challenges facing all the participants.
Here's an interesting aspect for me, though: while I have had some excellent real-life mentors in my 30 years of practice as a therapist, some of the best have been actors PLAYING therapists! Coming immediately to mind are Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People," Joanne Woodward in "Sybil," and Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting," for starters, and now, Mr. Byrne. Why is that, I've wondered? How is it that writers, actors and film makers are so able to portray the inner workings of this vocation with such clarity and courage?
Well, psychotherapy is an obsessively secretive profession, and not just for the sake of the patients, as one might be led to believe. Many therapists have gotten too comfortable with cloaking themselves in the "blank screen" - which is supposed to be for the purpose of allowing the patients to project their conflicts onto without undue influence. But the screen also ends up serving to protect the therapist from their own roiling feelings getting stirred up by the powerful exchange of emotions and energy in sessions with people baring their souls to them. The kind of treatment that leads to is merely... analysis (irony/pun intended). Analysis can increase awareness, and increased awareness frees up one's inner resources to some degree. But transformative change requires more than awareness.
All four of the actors-as-therapists I referenced above had one thing in common which contributed to the successful transformation of their patients in treatment - they, the therapists, got involved. They not only cared about their patients, but they shared themselves with their patients, and as Paul said so poignantly in one episode of IT, "No real therapy can take place without love." Judd Hirsch's character, as well as Ms. Woodward's and Mr. Williams', all told their patients that they were their "friends," truly, with the full range of feelings that implies - including love and anger, desire and contempt. They opened up not just their offices to their patients, but their homes and their hearts, their lives. That is the gift of a good therapist - knowing how to balance analysis with love, without relying too heavily on either, knowing how to use yourself in sessions without intruding yourself. That's what makes therapy a calling when it's done well, because it's more than the application of techniques or theory, more than a mental exploration, more than a science. It's an art, which is probably why artists can portray it so well. Mainly, therapy is a relationship, a powerful, focused relationship that requires each participant to reach for their highest selves.
"In Treatment" has captured the beauty and anguish of such relationships.
I can't wait for the next installment... though I am a bit exhausted!