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Mind games forever! HBO's drama series "In Treatment" returns with rich storytelling and brilliant performances, while Starz's "Head Case" resurrects Dr. Elizabeth Goode, self-involved therapist to the stars!

Published April 5, 2009 10:47AM (EDT)

I know it's none of my business, but I have to level with you: You need therapy. Haven't you noticed how enraged you get over bad drivers? You take your anger out on strangers instead of finding appropriate ways to express your frustration and rage. Ever notice how you argue about politics and sports trivia with your parents, instead of airing deep-seated resentments and past injuries with a spirit of honesty and forgiveness? And just look at how you smother your dog in hugs and kisses instead of addressing your fear of intimacy! Every time you tell your husband his breath stinks, you're really trying to resolve recurring areas of miscommunication in your marriage!

No, of course it doesn't matter that no one in the world openly and honestly addresses all those things. The whole point of therapy is to be way too hard on yourself so that you'll finally recognize what a total wreck you are, which will, in turn, allow you to forgive yourself for being so damn hard on yourself all the time!

What do you mean, that doesn't make any sense? Obviously your defense mechanisms are protecting you from the uncomfortable realization that I'm totally right about you. The fact that I possess such an uncanny insight into your very soul is just too threatening to your ego to bear.

Oh, yes, right. I'm horribly arrogant and annoying. Luckily I have healthy boundaries, so I can forgive you for projecting your rage onto me. I'm centered and compassionate enough to see that you're in a lot of pain. I only pray for your sake that your journey toward healing will begin soon.

The doctor is in

Considering the fact that almost everything about therapy -- going to therapy, talking about what you learned in therapy, therapy offices, therapists -- is unsavory and deeply irritating, it's all the more impressive that HBO's "In Treatment" (premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, April 5) intrepidly conquers such perilous ground. The show's riveting second season, which begins with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday night and continues with three back-to-back episodes on Monday night, proves that the intelligence and intensity of the first season weren't a fluke. Even though each episode of this drama series depicts a therapy session at the office of Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), a format that should be unbearably monotonous, each half-hour segment has the emotional weight and authenticity to knock the feet out from under even the most skeptical viewers, leaving them laughing and sighing and sniffling their way through a big box of tissues.

When we rejoin Paul this season, he's left his wife and relocated from Baltimore to Brooklyn. Despite his impatience with his familial responsibilities during the first season, Paul seems utterly adrift and lonely without his family to keep him grounded. It's impossible not to feel sorry for the man, alienated from his kids and possibly regretting his missteps last season, but as always, Paul is shortsighted and ornery when it comes to looking at his own mistakes. Of course, Paul's flaws make him an excellent anchor for the rotating roster of characters that parade through his door: Like a real therapist, he alternates between acting as a wise and compassionate professional emotional guide and an angry, painfully inscrutable and at times openly condescending parental figure.

In fact, "In Treatment's" ambivalent take on therapy is a big part of what makes the series so engrossing. Even as the show's writers capture the narrow, un-self-aware perspectives of each character and celebrate the work of therapy, they also underscore therapy's shortcomings. The "healthy professional boundaries" of therapy are often exposed as unrealistic, demanding superhuman acts of self-restraint by Paul or any other therapist. Yet, viewers are also shown the countless perils of breaking those boundaries: Paul insists on keeping his personal life separate from his clients, but they constantly try to break down the wall, from busting into his kitchen to eat breakfast, posing direct questions about his love life or his kids, or asking him for a ride to the hospital.

But that makes sense because, like Paul, Paul's clients are each facing a personal crisis that they're ill equipped to understand: Mia (Hope Davis), a successful single lawyer of 43, is grappling with a future without the husband and kids she's always hoped for. During each session, she finds herself looking back and asking where she went wrong, while occasionally marveling at how she went from being desired to being feared by men overnight. April (Alison Pill), a student, has just been diagnosed with cancer but can't bring herself to start chemotherapy or tell her family (or anyone, outside of Paul). Oliver (Aaron Shaw), 12, who comes in for sessions with his divorcing parents, can't sleep at night, but he's sure that telling his parents the truth about how he feels will cause them to fight even more. Corporate CEO Walter (John Mahoney) is struggling with panic attacks, his company is under fire, and his daughter is involved in dangerous volunteer work in Rwanda, but he considers discussing his feelings about any of it an unnecessary indulgence, and he shows up each week only as a concession to his worried wife. As he did last season, Paul sees his own therapist Gina (Dianne Wiest) once a week to discuss his clients, his estranged father, and his looming anger and confusion over his new life in Brooklyn.

Obviously "In Treatment" is an actor's dream, and every episode features another great performance. Dianne Wiest won a best supporting actress Emmy and Gabriel Byrne won a best actor Golden Globe for their roles on the show last year. That said, the acting on this show is so incredible that it's hard to remember that there's any acting going on at all.

Alison Pill is absolutely mesmerizing and painfully raw as cancer patient April, while John Mahoney captures Walter's egocentric tics and unrelenting self-righteousness convincingly, all the while offering us occasional glimpses of the man's fragility underneath his gruff exterior. But my favorite of them all is Hope Davis, whom I've mostly seen in mousy, neurotic roles up to this point. Davis completely inhabits the role of Mia, her smugness and swagger leavened by a suspicion that she's too difficult to be loved by anyone, a potent mix of bitterness and skepticism and longing shifting across her face with breathtaking fluidity.

Talented as these actors are, they're still lucky to be working with such great material. At a time when even the most emotionally rich narratives on TV and the big screen often feel hopelessly reductive for the sake of moving the plot forward, "In Treatment" pulls off a real trick: Keeping viewers captivated with savvy storytelling, all the while honoring the impossible complexity of its characters.

When Mia brags about her sexual conquests one minute, flirts with Paul the next, then admits that her ego has been injured, possibly beyond repair, by a culture that treats 40-something single women like lepers, we're pulled (somewhat reluctantly) through the folds of her psyche. It's easy to feel angry and dismissive of her one minute, charmed by her wit the next. And then -- this happens at least once per episode -- everything slows down. The camera pans closer to her face. Soft strains of Chopin drift into the background. "My god, that poor woman, she's so lonely! She doesn't even see how her relationship with her father has colored her feelings all these years." Cue the waterworks!

Yes, in other words, "In Treatment" could make the Marlboro Man sprout breasts and run off to an artists' colony in Santa Fe. If you don't want to question your assumptions about your emotional health -- and consider returning to therapy one second, then curse all therapists the next -- you probably shouldn't tune in. Also, if you don't give the show your full attention, like therapy itself, you'll just find it irritating and soapy at best, maudlin and melodramatic at worst.

But that would be a real shame, because, outside of "Six Feet Under," I can't think of a more deliciously smart, unapologetically complicated, heartbreaking TV series. Watching this show with real focus and devotion is an experience that approximates the harrowing, often thankless therapy process itself: You laugh, you lament, you question it all, you feel angry, you cry, you feel devastated, and then you look at everything around you in a new way. Crushing and unsettling and heavy as "In Treatment" can be, like the best art, it offers a chance to see the world through fresh eyes.

Crazy love

Starz's half-hour therapy comedy "Head Case" (10 p.m. Fridays), on the other hand, offers a chance to see L.A. through a self-involved, deeply ill therapist's eyes. At the start of the second season, Dr. Elizabeth Goode (Alexandra Wentworth) is so obsessed with her upcoming wedding to agent and notable jackass Jeremy Berger (Rob Benedict) that she can't focus on her celebrity clients or their problems. But that's nothing new. Dr. Goode interrupts Macy Gray's session by asking her if she'll sing at her wedding, calls Tori Spelling's second husband, Dean McDermott, "Charlie" (that's Tori's first husband), and demeans "Survivor" host Jeff Probst by scoffing at the fact that he works for some "reality show." Meanwhile, fiancé Jeremy is obsessed with celebrities and drools over all of his future wife's clients like a hungry dog.

Admittedly, "Head Case's" manic improv and nonstop celebrity cameos feel a little dated. It's two parts Hollywood farce mixed with one part twisted, mean-spirited, fast-talking romp. Imagine the absurdity, the heartless, self-centered characters and the gross-out humor of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" blended with the over-the-top self-parodying celebrities of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and you're in the ballpark. The notion of a self-involved distracted therapist is a good recurring joke, particularly considering that Dr. Goode caters to the most self-involved, distracted clientele in the world. And Wentworth is great as the overzealous bride-to-be, squealing about her big day and tasting wedding cakes and champagne while holding a Skype therapy session with a depressed Tate Donovan, or interrupting her session with Spelling and McDermott to discuss her nuptials with her very pregnant, very irritable wedding planner (or "wedding foreman" as she calls herself).

Is there enough here to warrant tuning in week after week? Yes, but it's the smaller, more subtle touches, not the over-the-top shtick or crude jokes, that make this show worth watching. Every time I see the enormous picture of a crying toddler's face hanging over the receptionist's desk in Dr. Goode's office, it makes me chuckle a little. Likewise, although scenes where Berger sits on the toilet, gleefully reading the star-studded wedding guest list, or "Heroes" star Greg Grunberg professes his undying lust for Dr. Goode in the middle of her wedding are so overplayed that they're only mildly amusing, some of the mumbled, throw-away lines in the more subtle scenes are sheer genius.

Macy Gray: I'm in love with Barrack Obama. I'm in love, like, I want to get married and have his kids.

Dr. Goode: He's a very charismatic man.

Macy Gray: No, like, incredibly charismatic, like I want to give him a roofie and take him home, like he's my man. I was thinking, where the fuck was I, like, when he was in Chicago, why wasn't I in Chicago? Why am I not Michelle? You know what I mean? Like, who the fuck is she? Why can't I be her?

Dr. Goode: That would make you a first lady. And you know what a first lady does? You talk to heads of states, you pick the china. You're gonna have to wear a Chanel suit!

Macy Gray: What do you mean?

Dr. Goode: I mean, if you're first lady you can't (pantomimes smoking pot).

Although Starz is a very young, relatively obscure cable channel, "Head Case" demonstrates that viewers with a taste for absurd, oddball comedies no longer have to wait around for the same old stale network sitcoms to hit the air. Edgier fare, some that's even funny, can be found across the cable dial.

But of course you don't believe me, because you can't trust anyone's opinion but your own, since you're overcompensating for your deep-seated insecurity with a myriad of defense mechanisms, from a kneejerk contrarian stance to a well-honed superiority complex. Obviously you'd rather keep scampering along on the same little limited emotional hamster wheel than open up your heart and mind to the possibility of real growth in your life. I'd feel so sorry for you if I hadn't evolved beyond the reach of such constraining human emotions!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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