Series interrupted. Screenwriters reeling. Ratings sagging. If ever TV looked like it could use a shrink, it's now. And what luck, it has one. Are you addicted yet?
Open five nights a week, In Treatment is the latest break-all-rules experiment from the programming wizards at HBO. The therapist is Gabriel Byrne, of all people, and he's listening. The limited-run series, airing new half-hour episodes at 9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday through March, is either going to strike you as profoundly boring or eminently fascinating, depending upon your appreciation for the nuances of acting. In any case, In Treatment challenges viewers to look at prime-time TV in an entirely different way. It centers around the office and taciturn presence of Dr. Paul Weston (Byrne), who counsels a different patient each weeknight. Mondays are reserved for Laura (Melissa George) a sexy anesthesiologist with relationship issues and the hots for Dr. Weston. Alex (Blair Underwood), an egocentric and tightly wound Navy fighter pilot, comes on Tuesdays. Wednesdays are scheduled for Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), an Olympic-caliber teen gymnast with suicidal tendencies. Thursdays see couples counseling and Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz) are so angry they need all the help they can get. After all this, Weston needs an outlet to address his personal issues, so on Fridays he visits his own therapist, Gina (Oscar winner Dianne Wiest).
This is psychotherapy as soap opera, and there's a certain voyeuristic quality to listening in on another's failings and frailties that can be wickedly alluring. Byrne has the calming vocal intonations and concerned facial expressions down pat, but what's best is the intimacy of the acting. It's one-on-one (or one-on-two) dialogue, with ongoing opportunities for characters to develop and subtleties to emerge. Television rarely allows time or space for such qualities to reveal themselves.
With national networks straining to regain sitcom timing in the wake of the writers' strike, what's to stop an enterprising band of locals from producing a made-in-Detroit comedy series? Meet Dykema Mathews, who works at a VA hospital by day, yet somehow finds time and passion to act as creator, producer, writer and one of the stars of a "reality-comedy" series named for the notorious east side intersection, Bewick & Mack.
(The show airs at various times on Comcast cable public access Channel 68 in Detroit, Channel 18 in Dearborn and Southfield, Channel 56 in Troy and Wide Open West cable Channel 19. Check your local listings.)
Mathews is committed to creating one new episode of the series each month through 2008. A goal is to develop a quality production that can land syndication on a major TV network.
Mathews, who's also a playwright, says producing the sitcom is far from a monumental task. "When something is your passion, you will always go the extra mile. As a native Detroiter, this project is an expansion of my dream to spotlight the dramatic skills of local performers. I want the country to see the citizens of Detroit in a normal and positive view."
Ah, so she's the anti-Kwame. She's surely going about it in the right way. Bewick & Mack has a snazzy animated opening, its own theme song, and I was particularly impressed with the care and professional attention given to the camerawork, editing and location shooting (nice to see the Big Boy restaurant on Jefferson in one of the episodes).
Ostensibly the story of an extended urban family trying to keep up appearances after being displaced from their home, Bewick & Mack utilizes a large and well-matched cast of metro Detroit talents; I'm most familiar with the family matriarch, Julia Hamilton, a stalwart of that phenomenal choir at Renaissance Unity church.
While the audio — the bugaboo of any local TV creation — is occasionally problematic, the pacing inconsistent and the laugh track used injudiciously (it's supposed to be heard when something is actually funny), Bewick & Mack has its moments. One scene, featuring a bag lady nicknamed "Too Sweet" (played by Mathews herself) attempting to take a bath with a car wash water spray, is a sight to behold.
Bewick & Mack is an ambitious effort and worthy of attention, though it needs considerable fine-tuning. Then again, I think Tyler Perry's House of Payne is some of the worst dreck I've seen in years and it just pulled down a passel of NAACP Image Awards, so what the hell do I know?
The Web site for the fledgling series, www.bewickandmack.com, should be up this week.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org