Why In Treatment Is The Best TV Show

A day without playing any game at all had me panicky about what to write, but fortunately I was saved by season 3 of In Treatment. It may also have saved my soul along the way, who knows. Returning to the psychological adventures of Paul and his patients has made me extra happy about watching as much TV as I do. Plus, I haven’t written about TV in a while.

In watching it, I wondered to myself why it’s such a good show. I wondered, too, whether it’s the best TV show I’ve had the pleasure to watch. There are many others that are special, after all: The Wire, Deadwood, the first season of Eastbound and Down, Peep Show, Carnivale, The Sopranos, and so on. All of those shows share at least one characteristic, which is that you don’t know what’s going to happen (unless you’re rewatching the season, as we do). They share that, maybe, with movies from the 70s/80s.

One thing they don’t have in common with In Treatment to any special degree, I don’t think, is a kind of character-ambiguity. Many of the great contemporary TV shows are unpredictable in their narrative arcs, but by and large we’re able to decide pretty early on both who we’re rooting for, and what kind of person each character is. Omar is a lovable, terrifying bad-ass. Al Swearengen is a tyrant with at least a nugget of gold in his heart. Kenny Fucking Powers is crass and vulnerable. Even the more complicated characters, like Tony Soprano, say, are ultimately comprehensible quite early in the piece.

In Treatment is essentially based on learning about the complexities of the characters presented. Aspects of their lives are revealed gradually, and your opinion might be polarised one way and then the next over the course of five minutes. As such, I feel the show holding me in a kind of exquisite limbo on who these people are, whether they’re the good guy or the bad guy, whether I like them, hate them, respect them, or feel disgust. Further, and better, it’s not like this is ever resolved – In Treatment allows the characters to be people instead of characters, I think.

In no other show do I find myself so constantly reasoning and re-reasoning about characters’ motivations and actions. In the first show of the third season we meet a young Bengali man, his white American wife, and his father who has recently moved to New York from Kolkata and is depressed. Despite the availability of at least one “obvious” interpretation and thus set of allegiances between the viewer and the characters (she’s a bitch, he’s a pushover, and the father’s misunderstood and grieving), it quickly becomes clear that it’s way more complex (she’s at a disadvantage culturally, he’s torn, the father’s full of contempt). You can’t just settle into liking one person, feeling they’re right or righteous, you just have to sit and observe who they are.

Which is amazing.

28 November 2010
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