“In Treatment” has always felt a bit like work.
The HBO series about therapy drops multiple episodes per week. (In its first two seasons, starring Gabriel Byrne as the central therapist, that number was five; Byrne’s final season and the new, Uzo Aduba-led installment keep it to a relatively sensible four.) It features chunky, occasionally hard-to-swallow language, a reminder that the therapeutic process is one in which the patient grapples towards the truth, and that said grappling can be painfully laborious. And it asks the viewer to do something complicated — extrapolate nuanced truths about a doctor from their interactions with their patients — with some very simple tools. Aduba’s Dr. Brooke Lawrence sees three people, each broadly drawn personality types built around fairly rudimentary “twists.” They present one way, and we quickly and easily see that they’re really something else. They’re often, in fact, the opposite of how they seem!
And yet there’s something fundamentally satisfying about the series. “In Treatment,” in its fourth season (its first since 2010), does not hit the heights of insight into human nature for which it aims; it does not justify airing four episodes a week. But it makes the case for its own existence thanks in substantial part to the performance of Aduba, who is proving to be one of the essential actors of the 21st century. For the first time in a TV lead role after Emmy wins for “Orange Is the New Black” and “Mrs. America,” Aduba makes “In Treatment” a success by force of will.
HBO has made clear that they consider a fundamental fact about the character of Brooke to be a spoiler; this fact is so central to her character that it’s hard to write about her, or Aduba’s performance, otherwise. Suffice it to say that Brooke is a hard-driving pro who, in the wake of a loss, attempts to deal with various unresolved relationships in her life — including with an on-and-off boyfriend played by Joel Kinnaman and, enigmatically, with Byrne’s character from the first three seasons. The show serves up the cliché that therapists are the ones in need of healing with so much zeal that it’s hard to be annoyed: Aduba’s own therapeutic process, which she undergoes in the fourth episode each week with a character played by an extremely strong Liza Colón-Zayas, is one defined by Brooke’s prickly defenses and her skill at lying to herself.
In her own sessions, though, Aduba is the show: Her performance is an event, an operatic piece of work that fearlessly tracks each swerve in the life of a woman coming undone. Unlike the more recessive Byrne, Aduba doesn’t consistently feel like a therapist, which is the point: Her willingness to confront her patients is a sign of her professional resourcefulness, unless it shows us that she’s stepped beyond professionalism entirely.
I’ve never been compelled by the idea that the “In Treatment” format is even necessary. In order to keep the show’s real-time conceit but to keep it from dragging or growing slow, all manner of reality-pushing cheats come into play. A weekly, hourlong series in which a therapist encountered various patients cut together over the course of an hour could accomplish much the same thing without testing audience patience. And, here, the increasing incursion of Brooke’s life into her work is welcome for us at home, as the therapy she conducts varies in interest. A character played by John Benjamin Hickey seems like an attempt to cram in every hot-button issue of the moment it was written — he’s a tech-world white-collar criminal with complicated views on race and gender who considers himself a victim of cancel culture. Hickey does his best, but he’s playing a provocation, not a person. These sessions exist uneasily next to more carefully written episodes about Anthony Ramos’ home health aide character, who either is exhibiting drug-seeking behavior or is caught in the mental health system. Somewhere in between lies the teenager played by Quintessa Swindell, escaping the pressures of school and home into a life of fantasy.
Swindell has appeared on “Euphoria,” and at times her issues, and the way she describes them, can feel ported in from that show’s say-everything creative universe. Like Hickey, she is given a great deal of weighty dialogue about the stresses of 2020s life, all of which serves the show’s overarching idea: That it has been a hard year. Plenty of shows have commented on the COVID era, but “In Treatment” feels oddly built for it — it is reactive to a period of intense trauma in a way that resolves some of the purposelessness of its earlier seasons. The show’s clumsiness, viewed generously, tends to get at the ways in which many in the audience may have lost their social graces over the course of an isolating stretch of time. All of the concerns of this moment appear to encroach at once, hence the Hickey character; the novelty of life under pandemic conditions has made conversation challenging, hence the flat explanations of how and why in-person therapy is able to happen in Brooke’s home.
That’s the most intriguing detail in this flawed, ultimately worthwhile show: That Brooke is working out of her home not because that is where work traditionally happens for her, as was the case on Byrne’s “In Treatment,” but because she is unready to face the outside. Her enclave, an architectural marvel bathed in golden Los Angeles light, is a the ultimate safe space — and each episode, she lets the world come in, with all its possibilities and perils. The fact that her patients are often laughably blind to defense mechanisms she, and we, can easily decode is irritating and gratifying in turn; it also turns Brooke’s safest space into a staging-ground. (Her stunning irritation when the Swindell character’s grandmother attempts to see private areas of the home is an early sign of just how besieged Brooke feels.)
Brooke cannot escape herself: In often rudimentary ways, every problem a visitor presents comes back to Brooke’s own issues. Similarly, the show’s missteps — the fundamental and alienating fact of its too many episodes, the obviousness of writing asked to do a subtle thing — ultimately serve a story of a woman who, suddenly, can’t put a foot right. By the show’s 16th episode, the final one given to critics, Brooke is in a state of catatonic weariness, having pushed herself past her own limit. Aduba sells this, and this time, the show helps her along: To what is ultimately and narrowly the show’s credit, if Brooke is exhausted, we’re right there with her.
“In Treatment” premieres May 23 at 9 p.m. ET.