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In Treatment

Shot from the therapist’s couch, this drama has issues

OK, cards on the table. In one sense, In Treatment (10pm, weekdays), which Sky Arts has bought from HBO following much acclaim and many awards, was never going to appeal to me. I am morbidly suspicious of therapy - where's the science bit? - and throughout my life have always found repression to be a vastly under-valued psychological tool. That and good old compartmentalisation. The inside of my brain looks not unlike the bottom of my wardrobe: basically, it's crammed with a load of old shoeboxes, some of which I'm willing to have a good rifle through now and then, and others that I would simply prefer to leave closed, thanks very much.

On the other hand, I am extremely nosy. I adore staring out of the window at my neighbours and wish that I owned a pair of night-vision goggles, the better to do so. Human motivation fascinates me: that's why I became a journalist. So, in another sense, a series that breaches the sacred privacy of the consulting room, which is what In Treatment purports to do, albeit with a load of actors rather than real patients, should be right up my street.

My scepticism was therefore duly wrapped in a blanket of warm anticipation - a pleasing tingle that was further heightened by seeing Gabriel Byrne play the part of Paul Weston, the therapist around whom the series revolves. I'm mad for Byrne, a man who still looks troublingly good in a plaid shirt, even as he enters his 60th year. Those eyes . . . Are they brown or are they violet? I'm not sure, but either way, if I could find a therapist who looked like him, I would be tempted to peer inside even the dustiest of my shoeboxes.

Then the titles rolled. Oh dear. This show - which is based, sometimes word for word, on an Israeli series of the same name - is a complete disaster and I am at a complete loss as to why it has had American critics so bedazzled. Yes, its format is moderately brave, at least by the standards of US television. The saga is doled out to us in daily half-hour episodes, each focusing on a different patient, or on one of Paul's sessions with his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest). In other words, each show is basically a two-hander and as static and wordy as a piece of theatre. But just because something appears to be "demanding" doesn't mean that it is also, merely by extension, good. This isn't good. The dialogue is hammy and clichéd, and you can see every kink and fold of what passes for its plot coming from about eight miles away.

In the first episode, a patient called Laura, who was wearing a low-cut dress the same way a zebra crossing wears a Belisha beacon, droned on about a man she'd picked up in a bar the night before. When it came to the moment, she told Paul, she just couldn't have sex with him. Aha! I thought. What have we here? Has pert little Laura got the hots for her sexy therapist? Sure enough, ten minutes later, the good doctor was reading her a mini lecture on the subject of erotic transference.

In Treatment longs to be transgressive, so it has its characters describe sex in the most graphic (for American TV) terms. Yet the result is just mildly embarrassing, like seeing a mad old lady flash her knickers at you. It also thinks itself mighty clever and complex: you know, just like the self-deceiving human brain. So, the characters contradict themselves a lot and move in tedious verbal circles, nudged along by Paul and his predictable questions. When he told Gina he was worried that he was losing patience with his patients ("I wish everyone would just go away!"), I knew exactly how he felt. Listening to them - so remarkably dim and yet so amazingly full of themselves - is enough to drive you nuts.

But the real problem is that, in giving the patients the space to vent their dreary narcissism, the series entirely forgets its duty to its audience. Outside their expensively shampooed heads, nothing happens. The relief one felt when Paul left his Pottery Barn consulting room, even for a brief moment! Is he going to roll around with Laura on his oriental rug? I expect so. In about 30 episodes' time. But honestly, who cares? It would probably do them both a power of good.

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Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush