S3: Solid season but limited by the focus on Paul at the expense of others
I am not sure why I left it several years between finishing the first two seasons of this show and picking up the third, but eventually I got to it. Although I think the screening style on HBO was different, the basic structure remains the same with a group of episodes (although only 4 this time), each with a different focus, each of which progresses the following week. It is a structure that worked well before and it is an approach that can be very rewarding when pulled off because we find ourselves caught up in the characters while also following the common thread of Paul through them all and then into his own episode/session.
The third season more or less continues that and I say "more or less" because I personally did not find it as strong and as satisfying as the previous two seasons. Part of it is that several of the characters kind of pushed me away with who they are; this is to be expected since they are "difficult" and complex characters just like in previous seasons, but in other cases the strength of the writing was to take you through that into their real selves (whether than is better or worse), whereas here I didn't think the writing did that as well. The bigger issue, which links to this, is that simply the characters seemed to be too much about Paul and not about themselves.
I felt this through the episodes but the conclusions to each character's series all felt like they were more about bringing Paul's own story to a certain point and not being where the characters themselves needed to end up as part of their lives. Previous seasons got this balance better so the strong writing informed about patient and therapist at the same time (albeit more about the former than latter) and this then allowed Paul to become his own character at the end of each week. The attempt to make each character trigger more and more in Paul and guide his own sessions seems to have robbed the characters of a part of their own destiny and voice here and as a result I was a little less engaged with some of them simply because of this – they occasionally felt like plot devices rather than the people they should have been.
It is still well made and impeccably well acted (even if I didn't care for some of the characters). Winger was strong although I didn't like Frances too much; likewise DeHaan's Jesse was well-acted but not given much to help the viewer in. Khan I liked in terms of performance and character while Ryan was a bit too much of a cipher for me to get into. I still loved Byrne at the core of the show though and I thought his performance was impressively consistent considering how much of the screen time he had.
The third season appears to be the last time we have this show in any form and as such it is a decent enough way to bow out. It does what it does in terms of structure and the dialogue and character driven drama is worth watching for those strengths alone. However, it must be said that the third season is not up to the high standards of the previous two and that the characters are not as strong or engaging thanks partly to them being used too heavily as plot devices in the story of Paul.
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