Bloodied and Bruised, But Not in a Good Way

Yesterday, I was finally ready to read.  It’s been a while since I found myself willing to give into a book.  I’ve started a lot – a LOT – in the past few months and every time I’ve closed them pretty quickly.  There have been various reasons: I don’t feel like reading another novel by a guy with father issues, I don’t feel like working that hard to wait for the narrative to really kick in, I just don’t find the story appealing at all, etc.  It’s been bad, and it’s been especially bad for an English professor.

Perhaps it has something to do with not teaching for the past three semesters.  I’ve been deep into administrative mode for a while and maybe that has led me to reading a certain type of text.  J. thinks that it might have something to do with being on the computer a lot, and that reading on a Kindle or iPad might make a difference.  I’m not sure, really.  I can still get into certain genre fiction without any difficulty – especially detective fiction, not surprisingly for me – but serious literary fiction feels like it takes itself too seriously.  It’s bored me.

So what do I choose as I rummage through the house?  I’m looking for a detective novel, something I can sink my teeth into, knowing that the second two Stieg Larsson books aren’t in the house and wishing they were, when I come across Angels and Demons.  Dan Brown.

I’ve never read any Dan Brown, not even The Da Vinci Code.  It never had any appeal.  I’ve caught bits of the movie on television, but Tom Hanks didn’t seem to make sense to me in the role, and frankly his long hair bothered me.  But I figured Dan Brown’s books supposed to be page-turners and what did I have to lose?  I brought the boys to the pool and cracked it open.

It’s not a good book, not at all, at least in terms of most of us would call “good.”  It’s weak in terms of character development, there’s way too much exposition and explication for fiction, it’s silly, some things in it are just wrong.  The plotting is ridiculous and Brown keeps trying to come up with hairpin turns to keep the reader off balance when it’s been pretty clear all along where things were headed.

But it is a page-turner.  I read fast and I stayed up late and I finished it.  Overall, I’d estimate that this 545-page book took me about ten hours to finish.  And I’m not a fast reader.  So that gives you a sense of Brown’s style of pacing – his soulmate James Patterson operates the same way.  Each constructs chapters of little more than four pages.  To be fair, Brown is better than Patterson, but still, unless he is describing an action sequence or having a character lay out a long speech that works essentially as a monologue (and therefore some sort of exposition of the theme), he is unable to stick with a scene for very long.  He just doesn’t have much to say or do, except on the theme of the conflict of religion and science.

And he sticks to that theme, baby.  He doesn’t develop it, the narrative doesn’t push that theme in any direction or take us anywhere in our thoughts – no, nothing like that.  The book creates a tension and seeks to play it out over the next 500 pages, but nothing in those 500 pages takes us any further into the debate and tension than Brown had characters articulate in the opening 50 pages.

By about page 300, you’re exhausted, bloodied and bruised.  But not in a good way.  You feel the need to finish, sure, because although it’s just been a few hours now you’re 300 pages in.  But you know pretty well what’s going to happen, and you even have a pretty good sense of the villain’s motivations, even though these won’t be revealed for another 225 pages.  It’s just not that complicated to figure out.

And yet that’s part of the appeal of the book in a weird way.  It’s so simple-minded, it’s so pedestrian, that it makes for easy reading.  It’s like listening to Joe Mantegna read Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels on a long car ride.  There’s a pleasure in the known and seeing it fulfilled, even if it often isn’t very well done.  Angels and Demons is not a good book, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad book either.  Oddly, I would just say that it doesn’t actually aspire to be good.  It’s like most network sitcoms on television nowadays.  It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t have any ambition to be anything other than a network sitcom maybe hoping to be picked up for the season, then the next year, and then to grind the way to syndication.

It’s not that Brown tries and misses in Angels and Demons.  I think he actually does the very thing he tries to do – to keep you reading his book until the end.  Is he a weak abstract thinker too caught up in insisting on the importance of his theme but lacking in the ability to actually dramatize that theme?  Of course.  There’s no real drama here.  But he’s very good at demonizing institutions and schools of thought without actually engaging in the ideologies at play withing those schools of thought or those institutions.  And he’s good at research – the titles of works of art and where they reside, and who painted or sculpted them, and when they lived.  These details don’t add much, but they do help to keep readers going until the end and they do allow him to weave a elaborate (and ridiculous) tale of conspiracy and deceit.

And who doesn’t enjoy that?

The question now is how quickly I turn to The Da Vinci Code.  I’m a bit afraid.  I’m still feeling a little tender after my first experience with Robert Langdon, Brown’s protagonist in the two novels. But hey, maybe this will get me back in the reading habit.  So it might have some ancillary benefits after all!

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Leight’s Out of In Treatment

Warren Leight, the man who oversaw the last season of In Treatment, will no longer be manning the helm.   In his place will be the married couple Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman – who is well known for his screenplay of Capote.  Leight has moved on to executive produce the upcoming FX series Lights Out.  This is something of a blow for those of us who loved the second season of In Treatment. To be upfront about it, I actually thought it was the best show on television last year, bar none – stronger than Mad Men, better than Breaking Bad, more compelling than anything else.

The show is centered on Dr. Paul Weston, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, and follows the narrative of his week with almost all of the action taking place during therapy sessions. Byrne is amazing in the show, appearing in virtually every scene of the season and slowly revealing Paul’s internal conflicts to the audience while treating his patients over the course of the season.  It’s subtle and nuanced acting, accomplished within the context of switching which character he is interacting with and the physically demanding context of being on camera for so very much of the show.

The first season of In Treatment, in 2008, held some great moments of drama and some powerful evocations of characters. For me, it qualified as appointment television as it sought to establish itself as a show focused on stories that recurred in order on certain days of the week.  HBO televised the program for five nights out of the week, each episode lasting thirty minutes.  Each night focused on a particular character, with the same patient on each Monday, a different one on Tuesday, a third on Wednesdays, etc. Fridays focused on Paul’s own role as a patient, with his therapist, Gina.   While this schedule instilled a sense of continuity and progression to the week and to the overall feel of the show, it also called for a nightly commitment from the audience.  This past season, HBO changed the schedule so that it telecast three episodes on Sunday night, followed by the final two on Monday evenings.  Artistically, this did not hurt the show to any tangible degree, as the narrative of the show was still structured with one patient per episode, with the same order each week, again culminating with Paul’s visit to Gina in the fifth episode.

Spoiler alert: plot details revealed below!

The first season focused thematically on relationships.  Each of the patients was struggling, one way or another, with a romantic relationship or conception of an ideal relationship.  Viewers watched as Paul helped the patients work through their issues, and some of the stories took on great weight and suspense, especially that of Sophie, the teenage gymnast who was unhappily in a sexual relationship with her coach and who neither understood the relationship nor understood how to get out of it.  Sophie’s “journey” was gut-wrenching, but ultimately affirming.  The story of Alex, on the other hand, was much less so.

Alex was a combat pilot who had inadvertently dropped a bomb on civilians, killing dozens.  He had been taken off duty and had returned home.  He was ostensibly working with Paul to move toward getting clearance to fly again.  In his sessions, however, a host of issues arose for Alex, and he soon separated from his wife, began an affair with another of Paul’s patients, and began to articulate confused feelings and thoughts about his own sexual orientation.  At the heart of much of what he spoke about was a relationship with his father that was painful in the way that his father withheld affection and love from him.  By the end of the season Alex returns to flying but abruptly dies in an incident that may have been an accident and may have been a suicide.  Alex’s father blames Paul for his death, for clearing Alex to fly but for also clouding his mind with issues that in the father’s mind, didn’t much matter.

Paul, meanwhile, underwent his own transformation in the first season: he became deeply attracted to one of his patients, even as his own marriage was falling apart and even as he remained cognizant that such an attachment could jeopardize his license to practice.  At the end of the season, his marriage was in shambles, his relationship with his children was damaged, and his practice was in question.

But if we’d rank the first season as pretty good, the second season was an artistic achievement that was compelling, emotionally rewarding, and intellectually satisfying.  The second season finds us in Brooklyn, where Paul has relocated – from Maryland – to revive his practice.  The first episode begins, though, with a nod to the previous season.  Alex’s father has tracked Paul down and serves him with a lawsuit, charging him with malpractice and claiming that Paul should be held liable for Alex’s death.  This lawsuit, brought against Paul by the very man who he blames for what happened with Alex, casts a heavy pall over the entire season, and it leads into the dominant themes of the narrative: the nature and challenges of parenthood and of parenting, and the difficulty and pain involved in being of a child and seeking to please, placate, or even understand one’s parents.

Each of the patients is dealing with this issue, though from different perspectives.  Mia (played by Hope Davis) is an unhappy, unmarried attorney who once had an intimate relationship with Paul and holds him accountable for what is wrong with her life. She is professionally successful but personally unsatisfied, and she seems to make repeated bad choices with men.  She seems close to her family, but while she has a close attachment to her father, she has decidedly feelings toward her mother.  Moreover, she is convinced Paul compelled her to get an abortion back when they were involved and that this has led to many of her problems.  During the course of her therapy, she believes she has become pregnant, only to find that she hasn’t – a devastating blow for her.  In addition, her perspective on her doting father comes to evolve during the therapy.

April (Alison Pill) is an architecture student with lymphoma, but she is in denial about her cancer – keeping it secret from everyone, including her family, and refusing to take it as the serious threat to her well being that it so obviously is.  Paul has to deal with his own emotions in forcing her to go to the hospital and seeing to her physical health, even though there may be a conflict with the ethics of privacy in the therapist-patient relationship.  Through the course of the therapy, we learn that April’s brother is autistic and that his problems tend to dominate the family dynamics.  April’s negating of her life-threatening illness is very much a product of her desire to be the stable one in the family and to shield them from further problems.

Oliver (Aaron Shaw) is a twelve-year-old boy caught between his feuding parents, who have separated and are headed toward a divorce.  Much of Paul’s work is focused on helping Oliver realize he is not at fault for his parents’ issues and helping him navigate the difficulties of early adolescence, but he also spends time with the parents – individually and in tandem with one another – to help them make choices that will better benefit Oliver.

Walter (John Mahoney) is a CEO of a highly successful company that does business all around the world, including making baby formula.  The company is in a bit of a jam with the formula, which seems to have been tainted in one of the plants, and Walter is dealing with a lot of pressure with work stress and with his worries about his daughter, who is working in Africa.  He comes to Paul because his is suffereing panic attacks.  In the course of his therapy, he learns that these attacks, while triggered by the work and family stresses, seem to have an origin with his longterm guilt about his role in his brother’s death, about his parents neglect of his needs for love and attachment, and about his deep desire to serve as a son who can make his parents – including the “surrogate” parents he comes to work with – proud.

Warren Leight’s stewardship over these storylines was masterful, so that the narratives complemented one another to amazing effect.  It was an incredibly powerful viewing experience to see these stories develop and the ways in which the different characters’ stories enriched what had happened on other episodes earlier that week or the week before.  Combined with Paul’s own difficult experience with the lawsuit concerning Alex’s death, his struggle to be a good father post-divorce, and his ongoing struggle to rectify his feelings for his own parents, the season overall found deeply compelling ways to dramatize the ins and outs of family life, of parenthood and childhood, and how these dynamics never end but always keep us ensnared in their complications.

In Treatment is based on Be Tipul, an Israeli television program that ran for two seasons.  Most of the drama of the American show derives from the Israeli show, as the storylines of In Treatment are all based on what happened in Be Tipul, albeit with differences that try to account for the different setting.  But the dramatic success of the second season was due to more than just the debt to the Israeli show.  For the second season, Leight hired a group of playwrights as the writers of each “patient.”  Leight himself wrote a number of episodes, in addition to being the showrunner, and he was a playwright before moving into television.  Jacquelyn Reingold wrote most of the Mia episodes, Sarah Treem took on most of April, Keith Bunin was in charge of Oliver.  Marsha Norman was a carryover from the first season, writing the “Gina” episodes for both seasons.  All of these writers are playwrights and only a few of them had had any real previous experience with writing for television. (Pat Healy wrote many of the Walter episodes, and does not have extensive playwrighting experience.)

The emphasis on good writing, on complex and intricate narratives told in straightforward style, on nuanced characters who take their time to reveal themselves even while always speaking forcefully – these are the marks of strong playwrighting and of the second season of In Treatment.  With the recurring setting of the therapist’s office and the one-on-one exchanges that dominate the action of the show, much of this makes sense.  But to have it realized so well was a truly wonderful treat, and that we mostly have Leight to thank for that – and Gabriel Byrne, of course.

The upcoming season could be interesting, with Debra Winger joining and the cast and with Futterman and Epstein overseeing things.  The show is also shedding its reliance on Be Tipul, which ended after two seasons.  This could prove freeing for the show, or deadening I suppose.  We will have to see.  And while I will miss Dianne Wiest – who is vacating the role of Gina that she held during the first two seasons – I will truly miss the man who elevated the program to new heights.  And that was Leight.