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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.

Sky Arts 1

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

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture