In Treatment Review

After what I considered a rocky start -- an interesting format, inconsistently and often heavy-handedly executed -- the second season of HBO's "In Treatment" is by every measure more satisfying than the first: less self-conscious and stagy, more convincing, with an upgraded talent roster and a storyline that deftly builds upon what's gone before. Even the scheduling -- pairing two half-hour episodes each Sunday, with the remaining three grouped Mondays -- should enrich the viewing experience. Although never likely to enjoy widespread appeal, this adaptation of an Israeli show has burnished its credentials as an elite drama, as opposed to a novelty for the Prozac-popping set.

To recap for the uninitiated, therapist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) meets with a different patient in four half-hour episodes per week, followed by sessions with his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), in the fifth. Yet Paul still bears scars from year one -- a fractured marriage, a malpractice suit, questions of an ethical breach involving a patient -- that dog him, making his furrowed brow even more craggy and tormented.

Highlighting his new charges, meanwhile, are Walter (John Mahoney), a harried CEO whose company is being rocked by potential scandal; and Mia (Hope Davis), a high-powered attorney and former patient whose romantic life is a shambles. Rounding out the group are April (Alison Pill), a 23-year-old student concealing her cancer diagnosis from friends and family; and Oliver (Aaron Shaw), a heartbreakingly shy, overweight 11-year-old boy caught between his squabbling and newly separated mother (Sherri Saum) and father (Russell Hornsby).

Byrne remains the show's sturdy anchor, and the story bores deeper into Paul's troubled history -- including his relationship with his parents, which bleeds into how he processes these latest cases. And while some of the exchanges occasionally feel overly mannered and cliched, the series has found a stronger, more cohesive rhythm -- thanks in large part to the fabulous Mahoney, Davis and the stunningly natural Shaw -- that mostly compensates for the claustrophobic, off-Broadway approach.

There are still moments when the writers' Geppetto-like manipulation is too apparent, but the revelations that pile on week to week help smooth over those excesses -- as does the simple pleasure of watching the intellectual tennis match as Byrne goes toe-to-toe with Paul's resistant, each-damaged-in-their-own-way clientele.

"In Treatment" initially felt like a voyeuristic exercise for the everyone's-got-a-shrink crowd in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, only to veer -- awkwardly and too deeply -- into melodrama. Now it's a genuine addiction -- just the sort upon which a pay channel, and a small but discriminating audience, will thrive.

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