Monday, August 12, 2013

The Best Half Hour of (Recent) Television You've Never Seen

When I hosted a party for New Year's Eve '09/'10, as midnight came around, we tried to figure out what we should toast about the soon to be departed, not so beloved, mostly low and dishonest decade. We came up with the rise of the Latin American left and the whole (second?) (third?) golden age of television.  Now of course I would never compare television to a world changing historical event that gives you renewed hope for the future of the planet, but you may have noticed I'm a bit of a sucker for this whole whichever  golden age it is and I guess I'm marginally more qualified to discuss it, so.

Most fans of this stuff have their own pick for the best show of the '00s that hasn't gotten it's due. In Treatment is mine. But really, when I say this, what I mean is this one episode. It doesn't have a proper title, but Pine Barrons, the Suitcase - think like that.

When I was about twelve, I decided I wanted to be a psychologist. I was fascinated by adult emotions, by the seemingly inexhaustable complexity of their emotions, actions, and words. I thought it would be great to be able to hear everyone's secrets, that everyone would have to be honest with me. (Ha!) Probably this fantasy was a safer version of what I really wanted: an idealized version of the patient experience, to feel absolutely listened to, understood. This was pretty much the same reason I got interested in literature, but that's another story.

In Treatment had a gimmick-y sounding structure. It aired every night of the week when it was on HBO. Each of the first four nights, the therapist, Paul, saw a different patient. Then, on Friday, he saw his own therapist. The sessions of course moved a lot more quickly with a lot more immediate high points than a normal therapy session would, but everything on display - the sensitivities, the hesitations, the false starts, the defensiveness, the sometimes circular and sometimes associative logic - are instantly recognizable for anyone who's spent any time in on the couch. (We can still call it that even though we sit up now, right?) And of course Paul uses all the same evasive moves on his therapist his patients have been using on him.

It was a perversely market-unfriendly set up, and I haven't had much luck persuading friends to watch it from this description.  And for some strange reason, "It was based on an Israeli series!" "It was created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's son!" "There's now something like 10 versions!" haven't done the trick either. I suspect it's that most people find the thought of listening to other people's therapy sessions unbearable, like listening to other people's dreams. Which I actually love listening to, so, maybe my twelve year-old self was onto something.

But really, the reasons people should watch it are all in that episode.  (I guess I should say this paragraph has "spoilers," though that seems odd in the context of this show.) One of the patients in the first season is Alex, a navy pilot.  His therapy raises some of the same questions as Tony Soprano's, though to my mind in a more morally complex and interesting way.  Like Tony, he comes into therapy for a narrow, self-serving reason (do we all?):  to be function better, to relieve stress without changing anything central about his life. Like Tony, he does a more aggressive and asshole-ish version of the testing most new patients do. Tony insults therapy and brags about his money and young girlfriend; Alex makes it known he is the "best of the best," probes his therapist's credentials, and insults his sub-par coffee maker.

Most essentially, both Tony and Alex have killed innocent people as part of their jobs. Neither of them want to confront this in any real way; both want to continue to do their jobs effectively. Understandably so, one almost wants to write - and that's where the wrinkle comes in. Both therapists see a suffering person and want to help. Their patient's victims are not there. As ethical people, and as believers in their profession, they (and we) think that one cannot or should not be able to live with having killed innocent people, that it must be confronted, dealt with, although they/we also suspect from that the pure self-interest point of view, these patients might be better off with a full dose of repression.  For me, the whole arc of The Sopranos, NJ vs. NY and all the rest of it aside, is about how a man whose life doesn't bear examination flirts with the idea of examining it and inevitably pulls back. Melfi shuts the door on him in the second to last episode, but it was never really open. I think it's meant to be an open question whether or not she is culpable in making him a more effective gangster, or whether we are culpable for inevitably being "on his side" throughout. What's clear is that he was never getting out. You can say this makes the show tragic - I actually think it makes it limited in a certain way, no matter how brilliant.

You don't have to be an anti-war pinko like me to see that Alex is in a similar situation, though it helps. Even if you think the Iraq war was justified, and that the "accidental" deaths of the children in the school he dropped bombs on and others like them are defensible costs in the name of some greater good, I think most people would acknowledge it's hard to take Alex's initial self-presentation - that he's basically fine with it all and just needs the therapist to sign off on his plan to go back to the bomb site,  but not because he has a bad conscience, of course - at face value.  Paul doesn't believe it, of course, so he pushes. They dance around the usual stuff of Alex's family and marriage, and Alex tries to best Paul by taking up with another of his patients. He eventually decides it's not therapy he needs - it's to go back to Iraq, to start flying. Shortly after this he is killed in a training exercise, and there's speculation it was a suicide. In the final episode of his story, his father comes to see Paul.

His father is brilliantly played by Glynn Turman, who played mayor Royce on The Wire. (If nothing else that show demonstrated how many wonderful and criminally underused African-American actors are out there.) In talking to him, Paul is "breaking the rules" since the confidentiality of what Alex told him is supposed to live on even after Alex is dead. Like teaching, I think, therapy is often about how to create a sense of connection and even transgression without actually throwing out all the rules, and Paul tries to do this, dancing around the questions but unable or unable to disengage. Turman speaks up for stoicism, for repression, for doing what you have to do to survive without opening up every wound, accusing Paul of poking around where it wasn't his business to be. It's a familiar argument of stern patriarchs, but it has a poignancy and credibility when coming from an older African-American man from the south. Here the meaning of therapy diverges sharply from in the Sopranos. It may be that Alex's killings are different from Tony's only in that his are justified by the culture as a whole rather than just a reviled if romanticized subculture.  But his father's resistance is something else altogether. It's about what happens when you suffer injustice so baked into the wider world that there seems no sane response except to view family and community as sacrosanct and keep outsiders at a distance as much as possible. Paul had no right to poke around in Alex's psyche - not just because it was dangerous but because it wasn't his place. Paul says that sometimes people like an objective voice, an outsider they're not entangled with. To which the father replies, like a prostitute paid for her discretion?

Because our culture is so off-kilter politically, "both sides have a point" is most often the motto of brain-dead hacks.  In dramas, even the smartest ones, we're meant to identify with a central figure and see other people they way they see them - as opportunities or obstacles. Conflicts tell us about a character and reflect what we wish we would say in a situation. Watching this episode made me think about how rare it is to hear to people articulate fundamentally conflicting world views and not feel like the game either is rigged or staged. How much self-examination can we bear? Does someone who has made others suffer deserve aid and comfort? Is it wrong to pay someone to care about us? Which kinds of caring are ok to do this for? (I don't happen to think either prostitution or therapy are wrong, but that doesn't mean I think Alex's father is wrong, either.) If we lived in a smarter more humane world having more humane debates maybe a scene like this wouldn't be so striking. Of course, if we did, all the elements of Alex's storyline would also have played out differently.