TV REVIEW: HBO has a breakthrough moment with 'In Treatment'

The best show on television right now is HBO's "In Treatment."

Even if the recently concluded writers strike had not turned much of February and March into a desert of reruns, game shows and reality contests, I'd still be greedily gobbling up this show, which has gone from intriguing to enthralling.

I have a feeling that those who did check out "In Treatment," which debuted Jan. 28, might have stuck around for the first week of episodes (there are five half-hour installments each week, one per weeknight). The reaction probably went something like this: "Some of the people on this show are interesting, others are annoying, and I don't know if I have time to commit to all of this."

And it does require commitment - it's more enjoyable to see every episode of the show, preferably in order. For that reason, HBO is making many episodes available on its Web site and through frequent repeats on HBO2 and on the network's main channel.

It's well worth committing to "In Treatment," which features a clever substitution at its core. The show is framed around therapist Paul Weston's patients, but it's really about his collapsing personal and professional life. As Weston, Gabriel Byrne is giving the performance of a lifetime.

The novel premise of "In Treatment" is that we're seeing therapy sessions between Paul and several of his patients (Laura on Mondays, Alex on Tuesdays, Sophie on Wednesdays and Jake and Amy on Thursdays). On the Friday episodes, Paul sees his therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest).

The therapy sessions contain well-crafted tales and hard-won revelations and they're often emotionally gripping. But the underpinnings of the sessions are the clues to the ongoing midlife crisis of Paul, an empathetic, intelligent yet deeply repressed man.

Half the suspense of watching comes from knowing things Paul's patients usually aren't aware of. We know Paul's marriage is in trouble. We know his own therapy sessions are fraught with the tangled history he shares with his shrink, who is also his former mentor. We know that one patient's admission that she has romantic feelings for him has rattled him.

Byrne gives a masterful performance of a man who cares deeply - probably too deeply - for his patients. The depth of his concern may have cost him his marriage. Yet he doesn't know how else to help these people.

Though it is a convincing and compelling portrait of a man going through a midlife crisis, I don't mean to downplay the fascinating nature of the therapy itself. Though I've become addicted to all the patients, even the squabbling Jake and Amy, the sessions with teen gymnast Sophie (the brilliant Mia Wasikowska) are simply spellbinding.

"In Treatment" is a portrait of a man who may be too in love with his job - and who may use it as a retreat from his own messy life. In some ways, the best part of "In Treatment" has nothing to do with therapy: It's the artful depiction of a character who can't quite articulate the longings and frustrations of his own heart.