Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“In Treatment” and “Welcome to the Captain” Share Little, Except Being Smart and Entertaining

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last weekend, I caught up on three weeks worth of two very different programs, “In Treatment” (HBO, episodes run for the first time Monday through Friday at 9:30 Eastern) and “Welcome to the Captain” (CBS Mondays at 8:30 Eastern). Which is saying something, since three weeks of “In Treatment” is more than seven hours of television. That’s okay, though. While the heavily dramatic “In Treatment” and the silly comedic “Welcome to the Captain” would seem to have nothing in common, they both manage to be both smart and entertaining.

HBO’s marketing tagline is: “It’s not TV ... It’s HBO.” At no time has that been more true than with the groundbreaking “In Treatment.” Gabriel Byrne stars as Paul, a psychologist with some difficult patients and a floundering marriage. Airing Monday through Friday, we are allowed to follow the same schedule Paul does, seeing several of his clients once a week. For the most part, each installment is one session. Since the episodes take place nearly completely in Paul’s office, and are virtually limited to him and the person or couple seeing him, “In Treatment,” which is adapted from a hit Israeli series, is closer to a bunch of one-act plays than a television series.

“In Treatment” features intelligent characters having heady discussions, while handling serious issues. The writers, under the command of series creator and executive producer Rodrigo Garcia (he also wrote and directed many of the early installments), make no effort to simplify things for the audience. The episodes display real, three-dimensional people, warts and all, sometimes posturing and sometimes brutally honest (and sometimes you don’t know which), without excuses. The show dives into their lives and hopes you’ll swim along. Of course, it does so in such an engaging way, you’re eager to dive in.

I fully realize that theater references and calling a show smart could serve to scare off some (most?) readers, but don’t let my eggheadedness dissuade you. This is good television. If you start watching episodes, you’ll find they are addictive, like eating potato chips. You just keep devouring them, and you won’t want to stop.

Paul’s Monday patient, Laura (Melissa George), is a beautiful doctor with commitment issues, who casually reveals in the first episode that she is in love with him. On Tuesdays, Paul contends with the combative Alex (Blair Underwood, doing some of his finest work), a Navy pilot who isn’t as okay with dropping a bomb on a school in Iraq as he thinks he is. Wednesday belongs to Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a 16-year-old gymnastics prodigy whose life is a mess, in and out of the gym. Paul’s toughest test may be Thursdays, when he counsels Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), whose decision on whether or not to abort the baby Amy is carrying is just the tip of their troubled iceberg.

So it should come as no surprise that by Friday, it’s time for Paul to talk to a shrink of his own, his now-retired mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest), whom he hasn’t seen in eight years. Not surprisingly, the two colleagues have all kinds of issues of their own. And Paul has plenty to handle with his possibly unfaithful wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes), who thinks that Paul cares more about his practice than his family (two sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 10ish to college-age).

When I first sat down to tackle the pile of episodes that had amassed on my TiVo, I didn’t know if I should watch them chronologically as they aired, or knock them off by patient. Fortunately, I watched them in order, since one of the brilliant elements of “In Treatment” is the way in which the episodes start out as insular one-on-ones, but soon, slowly and almost imperceptibly, weave together all of the story lines into Paul’s narrative.

“In Treatment” provides career-pinnacle acting opportunities for many in the cast. Byrne is relatable and powerful as a man who, by virtue of his profession, is required to behave in a supportive, detached and morally unimpeachable way, all while his personal life is tearing him apart. Too often, Byrne is asked only to tap the aggressive, alpha-male side of his personality, but Paul requires him to concentrate on his humanity and softer side, all while harboring a volcano ready to erupt.

Similarly, Underwood, who is too often asked to play off his good looks and be easygoing and affable, gets to stretch in ways that would be unimaginable to viewers who only know him from “Dirty Sexy Money” or “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” His Alex is rife with conflicts, polite one minute and curt the next, that leaves the viewer unsure of what he will do next or what he’s capable of. Alex is a character that would be hard to find on any other program, and Underwood slams the performance out of the park.

Best known for playing off her model looks as a cheerleader in the big-screen comedy “Sugar & Spice” and an action chick in the spy program “Alias,” George’s Laura is a complicated woman, constantly in turmoil with her relationship with men. She is asked to range from tearful (in relating an anonymous sexual encounter in a club’s bathroom) to blissful (convincing herself she is happy to have finally accepted her boyfriend’s proposal), and she deftly makes the transitions without missing a beat. George has you believing that Laura is up to going blow-for-blow with Paul, and you don’t wonder for a second why she is having such an effect on his psyche (something Gina is more aware of than Paul seems to be). I have to wonder, though, why Byrne (Irish) and Davidtz (raised in South Africa) are allowed to use their natural accents, while George (Australian) is required to speak like an American. She is usually up to the task, but during more emotional moments, she sometimes reverts to her natural speaking patterns on certain words (like saying “nawt” instead of “not”). The slips take me out of the moments and detract from an otherwise strong performance. I just wish her character was allowed to be Australian.

Unlike Australian Wasikowska, who flawlessly steps into the vocal patterns of a U.S. teenager in a star-making performance. Based on her age and the real perils she faces (she may have tried to kill herself, she may be sexually involved with her fortysomething coach), Sophie’s story can be sadder and more affecting than those of the other patients, and Wasikowska is masterful in nailing Sophie’s shifting moods. She is asked to play child-like and vixenesque, wearing youthful clothing one day and a revealing club dress the next. Wasikowska has difficult scenes, challenging the boundaries with Paul (differently than Laura, but no less forcefully), while shifting back and forth from looking for help and hiding her true emotions. It’s an astonishing performance by a relative newcomer, and, thankfully, she is given poignant material to match her work. When a Sophie episode begins, I have mixed emotions, certainly looking forward to the next installment of her saga, but at the same time, a bit nervous, knowing how painful it will be at times to intrude on the intimacy of her session.

Jake and Amy’s segments are less compelling, through no fault of Davidtz and Charles, both of whom do the best they possibly can with their material. The problem is that the brutish Jake and self-involved, deceitful Amy are nearly irredeemably insufferable people. Where Laura, Alex and Sophie test us, making us confront the good and bad in their personalities, it’s pretty easy to despise Jake and Amy 24/7. Sure, they have some problems, but what’s the difference when you think to yourself, “Who cares?” I was delighted when the majority of their second episode followed Paul and Kate, whose arguments and difficulties were far more engaging than those of Jake and Amy. I’m hoping that as the series goes on, there will be some revelation that makes me care more about what happens to Jake and/or Amy.

The episodes with Paul and Gina have a completely different feel, and not because they are the only ones to take place in a different location (Gina’s office, rather than Paul’s). It’s fascinating to watch Paul be far less than honest with Gina, often describing events from his sessions with his patients very differently than we’ve seen them unfold. He is also far less reserved with Gina, which makes sense, since he is now the person seeking help rather than the one dispensing it. With Gina, Paul can be combative and hostile, often even harsher than he is when fighting with Kate. Wiest is in her full-on squinty, squirrelly form, more classroom nun than comforting maternal figure. Like nearly everyone on “In Treatment,” her Gina is complicated, sending you back and forth in how you feel about her.

Despite its limitations of two (or three, in the case of Jake and Amy) people sitting in a room talking, the show manages to keep a momentum that propels you through the episodes. As crumbs of information are revealed, you sometimes feel like you’re watching a serial show like “Lost” or “Heroes,” waiting to figure out a plot point, which is amazing when you consider “In Treatment” consists only of some people telling their troubles to a shrink without a superhero or evil villain in sight. In the end, the one-act play analogy really tells the story. In the same way that good theater can keep you interested with only two or three characters (a good example being the Old Vic production of “Speed-the-Plow” with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum, which I was fortunate enough to see when I was in London two weeks ago), “In Treatment” manages to keep you riveted.

Less lofty but equally entertaining is the new CBS single-camera sitcom “Welcome to the Captain.” The brainchild of John Hamburg, writer of the very funny “Zoolander” and the unwatchably bad “Meet the Parents,” among other film scripts, the offbeat comedy is set in an old-fashioned, Old Hollywood apartment building called The Captain (or “El Capitan,” as the residents refer to it). New resident Josh (Fran Kranz) moves in at the behest of his womanizing, always-smiling accountant-to-the-stars (if you consider Joey Fatone a star) best friend Marty (Chris Klein), after Josh has trouble writing his follow-up screenplay to his Oscar-winning short film.

The building is filled with Hollywood types, including the place’s unofficial mayor, Saul (the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor), who likes to be called “Uncle Saul” and reminisce about his days as a writer on “Three’s Company” (or “T-Co,” as he calls it); Charlene (Raquel Welch), the past-her-prime TV starlet who desperately wants to be young again (or, more accurately, acts like she still is); and the clueless aspiring starlet Astrid (Valerie Azlynn), who is oblivious to her own potent sex appeal. They are looked after by the bumbling doorman Jesus (Al Madrigal), who pronounces his name like it is English, not Spanish, because, he says, he likes it that way.

Josh is ready to give up and go back to New York, when he meets the aptly-named Hope (Joanna Garcia), the adorable but clumsy aspiring acupuncturist staying at The Captain with her brother Brad (Michael Weston), a horror effects specialist who plans on proposing to his girlfriend by asking her to reach into his exposed faux abdomen and pull a ring from amidst the muck. Josh falls hard for Hope, who, of course, has a boyfriend, setting up the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic entanglement for the show.

Beyond being shot single-camera like a feature film, “Welcome to the Captain” doesn’t feel like a traditional sitcom. As I’ve written before, there is a difference between smart stupid and stupid stupid. “According to Jim” and “Two and a Half Men” are just stupid, but “Welcome to the Captain” uses silly situations to create smart comedy. The show doesn’t go for traditional set-up, punch-line laughs, mining deeper (and funnier) territory. The program lives in its quirks and its characters, and nowhere is that more apparent than with Uncle Saul. Tambor adds his usual natural off-handedness to this oddball. Uncle Saul is sweeter than Tambor’s George Bluth (“Arrested Development”), and certainly his Hank Kingsley (“The Larry Sanders Show”), but the character connects. One moment that sums up the world of the show occurs when Uncle Saul invites Josh to his weekend home, which turns out to be a second apartment on the eighth floor of The Captain. And, in the world of the show, soon after arriving, Josh finds it to be the perfect getaway.

The only sour note “Welcome to the Captain” hits is the Jesus character. Madrigal’s Speedy-Gonzales accent and exaggerated mannerisms border on offensive (if not already squarely in offensive territory). The writing and performance brought to mind Fred Armisen’s Ferricito character on “Saturday Night Live,” the salsa-drum-playing comedian who thinks having a catchphrase like an exaggerated “O Dios Mio!” is “professional.” I found myself uncomfortable when Jesus was on screen, especially when the script tapped into ugly negative stereotypes (Jesus is lazy and a rampant gossip).

But the one bum character is a small price to pay. “Welcome to the Captain” is a unique and, most importantly, funny sitcom in the “Arrested Development” tradition (although not yet up to the caliber of that classic). I only hope it doesn’t meet the same fate.