Monday, October 25, 2010

LIE TO ME v. IN TREATMENT: Review and Reflection

I don’t have an antenna or digital translator or cable feed on my television, so I watch DVD’s from Netflix. This allows me to mix old TV series with Indies with maybe Chinese or Swedish film and so on. Great opportunities for mix and match. I like “long form” TV, meaning three hours of a series at a time instead of an hour at a time. I watch most things twice, once for plot and one for -- well -- technique, I guess.

I thought I was ordering “In Treatment” but by accident re-watched “Lie to Me”, reminding myself of what it was about. So now I’m three weeks into year one of “In Treatment,” about Gabriel Byrne being a shrink. A remake of an Israeli series. Today’s NYTimes reviews the beginning of the third year, the first that is not Israeli-based. The review suggests the difference is perceptible. And that it’s good.

In the first year a little bunny-faced (overbite), cherry-mouthed, dimpled sex pot is supposed to be an anesthesiologist but I’d never let her near me in a horizontal position! Blair Underwood gives a stunning performance as a bomber pilot. (This series is a real showcase for actors.) He says more by freezing and staring than any long speech could convey. A girl gymnast who badly needs parents ends up sleeping with her coach instead. Happens a lot. A love/hate couple pits a guy with an attitude against a gal with money. Then the shrink goes to HIS shrink (Dianne Wiest) whom he describes as an “old sleepy spider waiting for him.” She’s the only woman who isn’t skinny and they have a mixed personal and professional past. (More shrinks have mixed pasts with patients than is theoretically supposed to happen.) The shrink’s shrink has issues, which she works through in a novel. It seems to be a success, both as a novel and maybe as self-analysis. The Byrne character has a new supervising shrink this year.

Everyone in “In Treatment” is totally confused, including the shrink’s shrink and the shrink’s wife. (Funny how I like that word. Is it the “sh” sound with the “k” at the end?) These shrinks work in home offices. (I’m always interested in how set decorators interpret the environments of intellectuals. Paul is obsessed with sailing ships. Gina is sort of stripped-down elegant with anthro overtones.) Somewhere in the two nabe’s a dog is always barking. It rains. Everything seems very ordinary but it’s not one bit. This is a screenwriter creating plot.

These “patients” fight, argue, deny, play games, call the therapist by his first name and say they want to fuck him, etc. They gang up on him to say he’s missing out on life, that he’s incompetent, old, not helpful, getting them into trouble. Not that it doesn’t happen that way, but not all the time, not carefully arranged around themes. It would be almost unwatchable except for Gabriel Byrne, taking all the blows from them plus his wife, and then turning around to act just like them with his own therapist who flinches and reels. He has said that acting is often a matter of being oneself.

“Lie to Me” has Tim Roth for the protagonist. The assumption of this show is almost opposite, based on the idea that an objective observer, often using video, can interpret deeply masked people by looking for microexpressions of gesture and facial expression, all the tiny evidence that you couldn’t possibly detect on the radio or in print. (Alas!) It’s a good reminder of how much gets stripped away when we’re reduced to word communication.

Tim Roth’s character is not charming or ineffective like Byrne. He has a weaselly controlling manner and his appeal is that he knows everything. We assume it will work for good. The “conceit” is that he is motivated because his mother committed suicide after a too-early pass from a mental ward that she got by imitating good cheer and good health. The foils are yet another very skinny brilliant woman with an overbite, a Latino young woman who is assumed to be a “natural” because she is ethnic and was abused as a child which makes her hypersensitive, and a bumbling idiot of a conceited young man. Also the Roth character's guileless but no-bullshit teenaged daughter. The Roth character plays games and fools his own people all the time. Not his daughter.

It’s interesting to consider what kind of play one might write about Roth’s character versus Byrne’s character. Roth has played swine in seductive ways. (“Rob Roy”) He’s a London boy who went to school in a lower economic class where he learned to protect himself by using the local lingo and swagger. He works with Tarentino.

Gabriel Byrne is quite different, Irish from Dublin, spending five years as a youngster preparing for the priesthood with the Christian Brothers. He’s quoted on thus:

[on dealing with depression] - “A single negative thought begins in your head. That single negative thought interacts with another negative thought and becomes a reality. And the world seems like the darkest, bleakest, blackest place that you can possibly be. And it has nothing to do with logic, it has nothing to do with reality. It's a chemical, and I suppose ultimately becomes a spiritual, imbalance in the body and in the mind. But it feels like the truth. That's what's so insidious about it.”

[on being beaten in school, specifically in math class] - “I feared being beaten, and I was beaten very regularly. It did affect my sense of myself. ... I didn't feel that I suffered at the time. I just felt it was the way of the world. It took many years to come to terms with and to forgive those incidents that I felt had deeply hurt me.”

“Unfortunately, I experienced some sexual abuse. It was a known and admitted fact of life amongst us that there was this particular man, and you didn't want to be left in the dressing room with him. There were certain boundaries, sexual boundaries, that were crossed.”

So the play with both of them would be a study in contrast between the man who takes hold to protect himself and the man who is open and therefore compassionate. He is vulnerable to a punishing world. If you put Roth in front of “In Treatment” and asked for interpretation, what would you get? The most revealing moments, I think, are when the “patient” freezes like a deer in headlights, rather than the movement and expressions. The meaning is not in the words but in the pauses.

“Lie to Me” assumes lying and often points out public figures with the same expressions, one of the real fascinations of the show. Even Elizabeth II makes faces. Cheney, of course, is sneering to the point of seeming a stroke victim. (Maybe he is.) Both shows feed into our need to sort a world where we are flooded with information. What is our method? (That old U of Chicago Div School question.) Does it really work? Or are we just revealing ourselves?

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