Reporting from New York — — Happiness is overrated. At least, that's what Gabriel Byrne believes. "There's too much pressure to be happy in this culture," insists the Irish star of HBO's therapy drama "In Treatment." "We're constantly told that happiness is so accessible, but life isn't like that. Life is a gradual process of acceptance. Once you understand that, you can find some measure of contentment."
As he lounges on an old sofa at HBO headquarters in New York — the kind of couch that Freud could've read a lot into — there's a sadness about Byrne, perhaps because he's led the kind of life that's primed for psychoanalysis. Born in Dublin, he moved to England at age 11 to study in a seminary where, he admitted earlier this year, he was sexually abused by a priest. In interviews, he's been open about the struggles with depression and alcoholism that followed.
Now 60, Byrne looks like he's lived a few hundred more lifetimes than, say, that guy who plays Dr. McDreamy. But then, that's what makes Paul Weston, the well-intentioned but flawed therapist he plays on "In Treatment," feel so human.
"We expect our healers to be perfect, but Paul isn't perfect," Byrne explains. As the show enters its third season, which premieres Monday, Dr. Weston is back in his signature chair, reckoning with what it means to be, as Byrne puts it, "a man of a certain age."
"He's going through a divorce," says Byrne. "He's questioning whether he's taken the wrong job. He's angry with life. In the Woody Allen film 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,' there's this line about a man who wakes up at 2 in the morning, sees eternity stretched out before him, and never sleeps again. When I saw that, I thought, 'That's Paul.'"
Paul's patients can relate. This season, they're all trying to reconcile who they once were with the person they're quickly becoming. Frances ( Debra Winger), an aging stage and screen star who may need to undergo a mastectomy, wonders how she'll be viewed without her famous body. Sunil (Irrfan Khan), who lost his wife in Calcutta and has moved in with his son's family in Brooklyn, can't accept that he's now a widower and in a strange land. Jesse (Dane DeHaan), a gay, adopted 16-year-old who's just been contacted by his birth mother, worries that learning his real back story might change who he is. And Paul, who's having some not-so-professional feelings for his new therapist, Adele ( Amy Ryan), is coming to terms with the idea that someone else might play doctor better than he does himself.
Anya Epstein, who executive produced this season with her husband, the screenwriter and actor Danny Futterman ("Capote"), explains that, for the first time in the show's history, all of the characters are original: past seasons were adapted from "Be Tipul," the Israeli version of "In Treatment." "We were very aware that this was the first truly American season of the show," she says, "so we wanted to talk about issues that felt very American. And for us, that meant having these characters ask, 'Who am I, really?'"
Television's been pondering that question ever since Tony Soprano first propped up his feet on Dr. Melfi's couch, if not before. But Epstein and Futterman didn't want "In Treatment" to feel like just another therapy drama.
"I wanted to explore the idea that it's almost like watching a cop show," says Futterman, whose mother is a psychoanalyst. (He's also married to a therapist-in-training: Epstein's working toward a psychology degree at Pepperdine University.) "There's a real detective quality to how the episodes are written," he says. "Paul's always digging for evidence in a compressed amount of time and making connections to what happened in the past."
"Paul's just doing the same thing people have been doing for thousands of years, whether it's talking to village elders or talking to priests in confession," says Byrne. "He's asking essential questions about life: 'What do you want? What are you prepared to give up in order to achieve what you want? What's your definition of contentment?' To me, the value of the show would be if those questions started to leak into your own consciousness and make you look at your own life."
For Futterman, it's already getting personal. "When I told my mother about this project, she said, 'Do you think I should be a consultant on the show?'" he says, laughing. "And I said, 'No, that would be a recipe for another five years of psychotherapy.'"