Sunday, February 3, 2008


The new HBO series In Treatment was barely out of the gate when Huffington Post blogger Adam Baer was already declaring its failure. This is certainly consistent with the way things work under what Edward Jay Epstein has called "The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood." Under this logic any film that does not command the lead in box-office revenues during its opening weekend is automatically declared a failure; and plans are immediately engaged to recoup expenses through international and DVD distribution. So, confronted with a new series in which the episodes play out every week-night in half-hour doses, Baer seemed more interested in the scheduling as a strategy for HBO to get its viewers back "on the hook" than he was in what viewers would actually be watching. His bottom line came down to this:

The one thing I didn't like about it as a formal experiment is that observing just one session of a patient with one therapist at a time isn't satisfying.

Now I certainly think it is fair to call In Treatment an experiment (even if it happens to be an experiment that has already been run in Israel) and just as fair to recognize that not all experiments succeed. However, before declaring failure, we should first step back and recognize what the experiment is and why it is, at the very least, so challenging.

As I see it, the problem comes down to this: We pretty much take it for granted that narrative is a linear structure. That structure tends to follow the linear flow of time; but there are no end of literary and cinematic forms that have experimented with departing from the "direct time line" approach. The narrative structure of In Treatment, on the other hand, is two-dimensional. While the series has been structured in such a way that the episodes follow one another in the normal order of time; the structure also allows (and, to a great extent, encourages) us to view each doctor-patient engagement as its own narrative with its own time-line. This is achieved by giving each such engagement its own day of the week; and, beginning in the coming week, each new episode will be preceded by the episode for the previous week's session for the same patient. We are thus brought into a web of multiple linear flows, all of which are then woven together by the "natural" passage of time.

Does this work? I think the honest answer is that it is too soon to tell. Baer admitted that he used On Demand to take in the first week of sessions in a single sitting. My own feeling is that, if HBO decided to make it possible for us to watch the series this way, then there is nothing wrong with doing so; but I wonder if something might be lost in experiencing that two-dimensional structure this way. Also, Baer's strategy struck me as a quest for immediate gratification that stands to undermine the narrative by interfering with the way it was designed to unfold.

My own feeling about the series is that those half-hour "doses" fit very well with the intensity of the text, the way in which nothing is superfluous because every word and phrase is charged with both denotation and connotation. This demands far more attention than most viewers expect (or want) from television scripts; and this is probably why the ratings numbers for this series are some of the worst that HBO has ever experienced. It also reflects that Baer is far from alone in his desire for instant gratification, refusing to grant that understanding will only emerge after several of these episodes (or, perhaps, the entire series of episodes) accumulate. (This was certainly the case with Tell Me You Love Me. This was far from my favorite television viewing, but I was still fascinated by what the production team was trying to do.) There is even the possibility that understanding will not emerge, that, at the end of the series, we are deprived of "closure" or "answers" and are left only with questions. This is how I felt at the ending of John From Cincinnati; but I did not feel that lack of closure was sufficient to write it off as a failure (knowing full well that the HBO bean-counters probably disagreed with me very firmly). The thing is that there is nothing wrong with being left with questions, if those questions impact our own introspective reflections; but, in an age in which the unexamined life is the status quo, such an approach is never going to score at the box office or on the machinery of television ratings.

So, at the very least, I am now ready to embark on my second week of In Treatment. When I watch the episodes will have to do more with our household schedule than with a preference for On Demand over scheduled airings. I do not even know yet if I shall honor the strategy of preparing for any individual session by what happened exactly a week ago. This is the kind of narrative that invites the "reader" to work out his/her own strategy; and I have no problem with doing that. I know that what I say and do will not register with HBO when the next round of decisions gets made; but, as I said in my reflection on Jimmy Breslin, one of my more important life lessons is "Keep reading the good stuff." That applies to the movies and television, too; and, having found some "good stuff," I intend to stick with it!

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