'In Treatment' Has Some Issues

When, exactly, did HBO decide it was more interested in respect than viewers?

Certainly, in terms of sheer form-tweaking audacity, it's hard not to be impressed by HBO's latest salute to psychotherapy, "In Treatment."

Adapted from an Israeli hit, this intensely claustrophobic drama is less notable for its story than its unusual structure: It runs five nights a week for the next nine weeks, each night devoted to a different patient of therapist Paul (Gabriel Byrne).

Byrne is terrific, and the experiment is interesting -- but the show, unfortunately, is less so on both counts. Though plots do overlap, "In Treatment" plays essentially like five unequal short-run series linked together, and the static, talky episodes themselves feel like tiny, amateurishly written, one-act plays.

It's a very theatrical concept, one likely to be even less popular on TV than it would be in a theater -- despite its reported success in Israel, which earlier this season gave us NBC's fast flop "Phenomenon."

If you're so entranced by therapy that you can't resist re-creating the experience, you're at least given multiple opportunities to do so:

On Mondays, you check in with Laura (Melissa George), a beautiful young woman whose sexual foibles include her crush on her doctor.

Tuesday is Alex (Blair Underwood), a combative Navy pilot there because he bombed an Iraqi school by mistake.

Wednesday is would-be Olympic gymnast Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), the most empathetic patient.

Thursday is Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), an extremely unhappy, extremely wearisome married couple.

On Friday, rather than resting, Paul talks to his retired mentor, Gina (Dianne Wiest).

And scattered in among his sessions, he fights with his bitter, jealous wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes), though you'll have to wait a week for those battles to begin.

Byrne's battles with Forbes can approach a searing heat, and Wiest makes her cat-and-mouse sessions a show highlight. But a few scenes do not a series make. It's hard to imagine anyone sitting through this show in anything close to its entirety outside of Byrne's immediate family, and even some of them would lie about it.

Unfortunately, even at its sporadic best, "In Treatment" comes across as no more than an actor's exercise, one likely to be best remembered for providing future acting students with a large supply of two-character scenes for class projects.

You never lose the sense of stars parading their stuff, or a struggling network beset by more-praised competitors embracing an idea just to prove how brave and special it is.

Every HBO series can't be as popular as "The Sopranos" or as good as "The Wire"; heights like that are not easily scaled. But subscribers should be able to expect a better mix and better treatment than they've received of late.

Put a little less effort into impressing us and a little more into entertaining us, HBO, and we'll all be better off.

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