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New series review: In Treatment (HBO)

Blair Underwood and Gabriel Byrne at first are far apart.

Premiering: Monday, Jan. 28 at 8:30 p.m. (central) on HBO. Continuing on weeknights at the same hour
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Diane Wiest, Blair Underwood, Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Melissa George, Mia Wasikowska, Michelle Forbes
Produced by: Rodrigo Garcia, Hagai Levi, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg

HBO may have made a major miscalculation in putting its least compelling patient first in a new five-nights-a-week psycho-drama.

Initial impressions are especially important in television, where most viewers won't come back for more if they're turned off for starters. And In Treatment's opening night head case, a self-absorbed young anesthesiologist named Laura (Melissa George), is easily the worst foot forward in a series that dramatically improves the very next night with the entrance of Blair Underwood as a combative Navy pilot.

First, a little explanation. This is uncharted territory for HBO, which plans to air 45 half-hour episodes of In Treatment in just nine weeks time. Each of its five patients -- actually, Thursdays are reserved for a fractious married couple -- will have nine sessions with psycotherapist Paul Weston (Garbriel Byrne), who himself will get treatment on Fridays. This invites viewers to skip nights whose patients try their patience. Having seen a night's worth of each, I'd personally opt for Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, even though the latter night probably would work better if you've seen all that Weston has been through.

Based on what HBO calls a "hit Israeli series," In Treatment easily could be one mammoth stage play -- or five mini-plays that nonetheless would be the length of Ben-Hur. For the most part it's two talking heads in Weston's informal office, or at Dr. Gina Toll's (Diane Wiest) place on Friday nights.

Byrne's character is largely reactive in Monday's Episode 1, with Laura mostly talking at him. But by Friday he's pro-active, baring himself to the older Gina for the first time since they parted ways 10 years ago as intern and mentor.

"Are you trying to 'shrink' me, Gina?" he asks at one point.

Weston's marriage is increasingly sexless, and his three children can be problematic. In the first five half-hours, only rebellious nine-year-old son Max is briefly glimpsed. Wife Kate (Michelle Forbes) isn't seen at all, but obviously will show up later since HBO lists her in the credits.

Weston also frets about increasingly "losing patience with my patients," which might well be many viewers' inclination toward the aforementioned Laura.

She finally gets around to telling him that he's the one for her, a simple case of "erotic transference" if you will. But Laura first retraces a night in which she walked out on her boyfriend and found herself impulsively seeking sex in a unisex bathroom stall. Alas, a man in a next door urinal began peeing loudly in a way that reminded Laura of her boyfriend.

Turned off, she then tried to turn her anonymous boy toy away. But his member remained at attention, so he demanded a "hand job." It made Laura feel dirty, but she did it.

This doesn't exactly engender empathy. Laura's a boor, frankly, and who really cares what happens to her in the next eight weeks. But then comes Alex (Underwood), whose story is instantly involving.

On a bombing mission over Iraq he hit an assigned target that turned out to be a school. Sixteen children were killed, and radical fundamentalists the world over are calling for his head on a platter.

Alex, who claims to sleep like a guiltless baby, later ran himself into a heart attack while running with a friend. He was clinically dead for 48 hours, and now plans to visit the site of the bombing with a church group. Still, he says, "I'm dying to get back into action."

Underwood plays this character brilliantly, commanding the small screen with a mixture of cocksure arrogance and a barely hinted vulnerability that obviously will come more into play in subsequent sessions.

Wednesday night's patient, a champion would-be Olympic gymnast named Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), is very nearly as interesting. Her arms are in casts after a car hit her bicycle. But did she really want this to happen? Byrne's acting is letter-perfect here. He's tender, insistent and almost in over his head with a teen who's easy to provoke, hard to decipher.

Thursday brings Jake and Amy (Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz). She's a pregnant career woman who's considering an abortion. Her trigger-tempered husband is suspicious of her every move and really no more likeable than Laura. So skipping this night probably wouldn't hurt.

Friday episodes begin with a "Previously on . . ." coda -- or at least the first one does. Getting into Weston's head, and seeing him lose his cool, makes for an intriguing cap-off. He's always felt that Dr. Gina considers him her inferior. And one gets the feeling he's right.

In Treatment is bold, provocative and presents quite a challenge to stay with all the way through. HBO is offering a myriad of ways to watch it, including ready availability for cable subscribers who have the "On Demand" option. It clearly won't be a wild success in league with The Sopranos, or even a mild success on the order of Big Love. But there's much worth watching here, even for those who decide to pick their spots.

Monday -- C
Tuesday -- A
Wednesday -- B-plus
Thursday -- C+
Friday -- A-minus