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One Good Thing: HBO’s In Treatment will soothe your shattered nerves

The series about a therapist has 106 episodes of quiet, enthralling television to get you through a rough patch.

In Treatment on HBO.
Gabriel Byrne stars in In Treatment.
HBO; illustration by Amanda Northrop/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I think about HBO’s In Treatment, I think about the sound of rain.

In and of itself, “the sound of rain” doesn’t seem all that impressive. But the TV series, which ran three seasons between 2008-2010 and will return, rebooted, in 2021, captured perfectly the way that quiet conversation is somehow improved by the soft fall of raindrops pattering against windows. And in a series about talk therapy, those quiet conversations held immense weight. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) would ask one of his patients a question with his baritone lilt, and they would talk and talk and talk. And outside, underneath, would be the sound of rain.

Not every episode featured quiet precipitation outside; indeed, most of them didn’t. But when I think back upon In Treatment, I remember the subtle way it used the hum of everyday life — rain or traffic or the sounds of children playing outside — to underscore the enormous personal revelations its characters were undergoing. (It wasn’t just me; when I talked with a longtime TV director in 2009, as the show’s second season was airing, he told me how blown away he was by the perfect subtlety of the sound design.)

In Treatment aired for 106 episodes in three years, thanks to its unusual structure: In the first season, the show aired from Monday to Friday. Each day was devoted to one of the multiple different patients in Paul’s life. If you tuned in every Monday while the show was on, you would see one patient, then a different patient every Thursday. (And lest “106 episodes” sound like a lot, they’re each just a half-hour long, though, yes, that’s still a lot of TV to watch.)

HBO split up the final two seasons differently, airing blocs of episodes on particular nights. However, the show kept to the “one day/patient per episode” formula, no matter when HBO was airing it, and it featured new patients for Paul to treat at the start of a new season. Paul himself was always the patient in the last episode of the week, which would focus on his sessions with his own therapist (played by Dianne Wiest in the show’s first two seasons and Amy Ryan in its third).

The conceit was brilliant, as it allowed viewers to pick and choose which patients’ stories they were most interested in, while also rewarding viewers who watched every single episode with revelations about how Paul’s interactions with one patient might inform how he treated another. You’d have patients you preferred watching to others each season, even if you watched every episode, but the joy of the series was seeing every patient have some kind of necessary breakthrough that season.

The series was based on the Israeli show BeTipul, and In Treatment stuck fairly closely to the stories of the original series where it could. But the longer the series ran, the more it began to strike out on its own. Its intimate setting — nearly every episode was a half-hour chat between two people in Paul’s home office space — gave the show a heavy likeness to a stage play, which meant that some amazing playwrights were drawn toward it.

Both then-up-and-coming stage writers like Sarah Treem (who would go on to create The Affair) and Adam Rapp (a Pulitzer finalist for the play Red Light Winter) and true theater legends like Marsha Norman (a Pulitzer Prize winner!) wrote several episodes.

Head director Paris Barclay, one of TV’s all-time greats, never let anything feel claustrophobic or stagey, staying out of the way of the actors but still offering several beautiful shots per episode. And every other technical aspect of the series was perfect for its unobtrusive pleasure.

But the reason many In Treatment fans remember the series is the performances. The cast was an embarrassment of riches. Blair Underwood, Glynn Turman, Hope David, Alison Pill, and Debra Winger all starred in one season or another. A young Mia Wasikowska (later Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie but also a tremendous performer in tons and tons of riveting indie movies you probably haven’t seen) made her American acting debut during the show’s first season, as depressed teenager Sophie.

John Mahoney (Frasier’s dad!) showed just how good he could be at dramatic work in the show’s second season. Irrfan Khan followed up on a memorable role in Slumdog Millionaire with a terrific turn in the show’s third season. And I’m still not close to listing all of the great actors the series featured over its run.

Byrne, meanwhile, quietly held down the show’s center. His work was doing one of the most difficult things for any actor to do onscreen, with hour after hour of quiet contemplation and listening. (That Byrne makes watching somebody watch other people as interesting as he does is a high achievement.) Wiest and Turman both won Emmys for their work, and Byrne was nominated for the first two seasons of the show. If you savor great acting, this is the show to watch.

HBO announced last week that it will be rebooting the series in 2021, with Uzo Aduba in the therapist’s chair. This news feels perfectly suited to a time when social distancing has led Hollywood to try to find projects that can be produced with minimal numbers of actors and plenty of ways to keep sets as sparsely populated as possible. And Aduba, who has an amazing listening face of her own, is the perfect choice to follow Byrne, at once similar to him in her ability to express empathy onscreen and also very different in acting style. (Byrne is a relentlessly internal actor; Aduba is incredibly external.) Now is as good a time as any to watch the first three seasons to get prepared.

I only have two requests for this reboot: that 1) Gabriel Byrne play Aduba’s character’s therapist in the new series, and 2) the show doesn’t forget about the sound of the rain.

In Treatment is available on HBO and HBO Max. A new season will air in 2021. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.