He Listens. He Cares. He Isn’t Real.
COMPASSION is an aphrodisiac. It is a potent elixir for sure to those who tune in to HBO five nights a week to watch Gabriel Byrne play Dr. Paul Weston, the rumpled, world-weary shrink of “In Treatment.”
Taking in the world from the depths of his leather armchair, Paul is all ears. And eyes. And hands. Steepled, clasped in contemplation or lingering at his cheek, those hands, especially, express empathy better than words.
“They are like an artist’s hands: I watch them all the time,” said Nian Fish, a fashion publicist in New York. In her mind, Mr. Byrne and Paul, the 50-ish psychotherapist he plays, are fused.
It is hard to say whether it is a fantasy of those fingers trailing across their skin, or the promise of an emotional deliverance that so rivets fans of the show, women in particular. But in recent weeks, the viewers’ ardor has transformed Mr. Byrne and his character into the latest Dr. McDreamy, a television healer-as-lust-object, a flash point for audience passions ranging from fluttery crush to full-on erotic fixation.
“He’s a hunk, totally,” said Elizabeth Easton, an art curator in New York who is among the smitten. “He’s hot.” His sympathetic response to patients “makes him even hotter.”
Some male viewers are also susceptible. Reactions to Mr. Byrne/Paul are “almost visceral,” said Vincent Gagliostro, an American filmmaker who lives in Paris. “When I first watched the show, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t really like Gabriel Byrne,’ ” he said. “Now I’m totally infatuated with him. I want to watch his every move.”
Similar responses are posted on the Web, where chatter about the show and its brooding protagonist is mostly of the uncensored kind. “I could lick Gabriel Byrne all over,” a fan calling herself Therealzenobia confided on an HBO message board. Another viewer, Kleds, seemed to hang on the actor’s every gesture. “I love, love, love when he licks his lips,” Kleds wrote, “or when he simply sticks his tongue in the front of his mouth near his lips for a second. Sooo sexy.”
On the show, which began on Jan. 29, Paul conducts four sessions a week, seeing a different patient (and in one case a couple) Monday through Thursday. The therapist’s fraught encounters with his patients — including Alex, the guilt-racked aviator; Sophie, the teenage gymnast bent on self-destruction; and Jake and Amy, bickering young marrieds — attract intensely devoted viewers. (On Monday night at 9:30 Eastern, 302,000 people tuned in, according to Nielsen.)
Some of the most passionate identify with Laura, a sullen 30-year-old anesthesiologist who chases Paul with a fervor bordering on the predatory. Early in the series, when Laura confesses during treatment that she loves Paul, he replies, “I am not an option.” The audience knows better. Paul’s attraction to Laura provokes the crisis of conscience that is a central conflict in the series.
Hello, Dr. Freud!
The Paul-Laura relationship (not to mention that between Paul and the viewer) is a case study in erotic transference, during which the patient develops feelings of love and sexual attraction for the therapist. But “transference can be a two-way street,” said Peter S. Kanaris, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Smithtown, N.Y. “The common term is counter-transference, in which the intimacy of the therapy may have triggered feelings of attraction and connection toward the patient.”
“At this point in the series,” Dr. Kanaris added, “I have to say Paul’s counter-transference is not going very well. It makes for good television but bad therapy.”
But transference may be just a fancy name for gratitude. Patients in therapy are often effusively thankful just to have someone pay attention to them.
Diane O’Rourke, a medical writer in Chicago, is reminded of this each time she watches. “There is an old saying,” Ms. O’Rourke said, “that most men would rather have you hear their story than grant their wish.” That truism applies even when the sexes are reversed. In or out of therapy, Ms. O’Rourke added, “you fall in love with anyone who will listen to your story.”
Paul is good at listening. But there are times when his book-jammed study is more battlefield than confessional. His patients often taunt him and pick at his scabs, while he, in turn, provokes in them a tumult of responses. Amy flirts. Sophie threatens suicide. Alex hurls insults that open old wounds. A master of confrontation, Alex chides the doctor, reminding him that he is no saint. Paul, in fact, is estranged from his wife, at odds with his children and patently unhinged by the depth of his feelings for Laura.
“I was first annoyed that he was falling in love with a 30-year-old patient,” said Ms. O’Rourke, who is closer to Paul’s age than Laura’s. “But I realized that he is pained by his own imperfections and learning to cope.”
“Paul is attractive not because he has youthful great biceps,” she added, “but because he’s vulnerable — a real person who wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worrying, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
“What could be sexier than that, somebody who knows how fragile you are because he’s so fragile himself?”
Richard Nahem, an American living in Paris and the author of a Web guide about the city, watches the series with a mixture of zeal and unease. “Paul is almost too expressive,” Mr. Nahem said. “A psychologist is supposed to be neutral. But I like that his personal life is in turmoil. You just want to say ‘I’ll take care of you.’ ”
And then you don’t. Part of the drama’s compulsive fascination, viewers say, is that when Paul’s frailties are exposed, he can be off-putting. Snappish and shaken by feelings he can barely express, the psychotherapist is so flummoxed he sometimes turns on Gina, his own therapist and former mentor, played with a mix of compassion and censure by Dianne Wiest.
On such occasions, Mr. Byrne’s sympathetic hands seem repellently waxen. “To me they look like instruments of manipulation,” Ms. Fish said. “Physically, Paul gets disgusting. But I’m still rooting for him to have a victory over his weaknesses.”
A publicist for Mr. Byrne, who was born in Dublin and who earlier in his career starred in “The Usual Suspects” and was married to Ellen Barkin, declined to make him available to comment about the unusually personal feelings some audience members have developed for him and his character. Rodrigo Garcia, the writer and director of the drama, which is adapted from a hit television series in Israel, predicted that as the series continues, through March 29, viewers with a crush on Paul might find the spell broken.
“Sure, Paul is a sex symbol,” he said. “But he makes mistakes along the way. And now that we’re seeing his real problem, maybe he’s not a god after all. It’s like my mother used to say: Being that close to someone, you are seeing his dirty underwear.”See also:
Tuesday, February 26, 2008