You gotta wonder.
At a time when the United States is undergoing the stress of change - second thoughts about Dubya and Iraq, uneasy acceptance of the post-9/11 world, a key and possibly culture-shaping presidential election under way and a recession looming - two important TV dramas are about typical Americans in therapy.
Both shows come from HBO, which has defined excellence in U.S. TV drama and which aims to air the most important, serious-minded and simultaneously entertaining television. First, of course, came The Sopranos which initially focused heavily on Tony's sessions with Dr. Melfi. Last summer came Tell Me You Love Me, a series about couples therapy that was unexpectedly raw in its depiction of emotional and sexual problems.
In Treatment (TMN, Movie Central, 8:30 p.m.) is the latest and again attempts to present a truthful look at how people live, what ails their souls and how they articulate their pain. Derived from a hit show in Israel, it isn't exactly fun and it isn't false either. It's demanding, talk-centric television that depends heavily on the script and on the actors getting it right - everything takes place in the home office of Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) and the actors just sit and talk.
The episodes are 30-minutes long, but written to approximate a 50-minute session with a therapist. It runs Monday to Friday and the idea is that each weekday, over the weeks of the series, Dr. Weston will see the same patients on the same days. On Mondays, it's Laura (Melissa George), a young woman struggling with issues related to relationships and carnal desire; on Tuesdays the patient is Air Force pilot Alex (Blair Underwood), who's dealing with something that happened in Iraq; Wednesdays brings Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a teenage gymnast with body and family issues; and on Thursdays in come Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), a couple who argue bitterly about having a child.
Then on Fridays, Paul goes to see his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest). There he talks about his patients and about his own troubled marriage to Kate (Michelle Forbes).
The small array of patients is obviously intended to be representative, not just of the population, but of key problems in the American soul. And then there's the significant matter of the therapist - the healer - having his own burdensome troubles.
The series opens tonight with an odd, unsettling episode. Laura's story about her fight with her boyfriend, and her attempt to find solace, becomes increasingly disturbing for Dr. Paul. Gabriel Byrne is required to do the most powerfully intimate kind of acting here - simply listen and react with his eyes, his facial gestures and brief questions. Tuesday's episode is much stronger, dramatically. The character Alex is confrontational, prickly and blunt about the fact that some people view him as a monster who murdered children in Iraq. You know it's going to take a long time before Paul gets to know Alex's true feelings about what he's done.
The episodes featuring Paul talking to his own therapist and former mentor, Gina, are essential to watch if you're going to follow the other patients. As Paul says to Gina, early on, "If patients could see what I think about them, really see inside my head, they'd head for the hills. They'd run for cover."
In Treatment is written by Rodrigo Garcia, son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who directed some episodes of Six Feet Under, and ex- Law & Order writer Davey Holmes.
It's neither easy to watch nor is it meant to be. But it's beguiling as an experiment in TV drama and as a series of eavesdropping sessions listening to all that angst and confusion.
Executives at HBO have been asked about the number of shows it now airs about therapy. The company's entertainment president, Carolyn Strauss, told USA Today: "The complexities of the human condition are often very mystifying to people. Somehow, therapy is a way to delve a little deeper into that; it fits into everybody's self-absorption."
Possibly, but watching In Treatment, you gotta wonder about the greater meaning of it all. On a day that also brings the State of the Union Address (multiple U.S. channels, 9 p.m.), is In Treatment another kind of bulletin about the state of the American people?
Check local listings.
Also airing tonight
Avalanche: The White Death (Newsworld, 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is about the newsworthy topic of avalanches and their causes. It has first-hand accounts from survivors of avalanches around the world. And, apart from the awe-inspiring footage of the natural phenomenon, it tells us about people who are trying to teach "mountain awareness" to those who go to the snowy mountains to play. There is a new Corner Gas (CTV, 8 p.m.), which features funny business about Hank taking up knitting and Oscar taking over the seniors' column in the local paper. On The Week the Women Went (CBC, 8 p.m.), we finally get to see the men of Hardisty do a bunch of chores and the women get a little wild as they celebrate being at a nice resort for a week. The Border (CBC, 9 p.m. ) is about a Belgian arms dealer stealing guns in Canada and trying to ship them to the United States. There is a subplot about a bitter ex-Airborne soldier.