NEW YORK (AP) -- For 11 seasons, John Mahoney played the father of two shrinks.
With his return to series TV, Mahoney now plays a father who's seeing a shrink. And unlike his classic comedy "Frasier," he isn't playing this for laughs.
"In Treatment," which begins its second season Sunday on HBO, is a far-from-funny drama starring Gabriel Byrne as psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston, who, while wrestling with his own demons, has a private practice with a medley of troubled clients.
Among them: Mia (Hope Davis), a former client and an attorney whose firm Weston hires to defend him in a malpractice lawsuit; Oliver (Aaron Shaw), an 11-year-old boy caught in the crossfire between his warring parents (Russell Hornsby and Sherri Saum); and April (Alison Pill), an architecture student who recently learned she has cancer but refuses to get medical help or even tell her parents. Meanwhile, Weston, newly divorced and relocated in Brooklyn, catches Amtrak each week to return to Maryland for his own therapy with Dr. Gina Toll (Dianne Wiest, who won an Emmy last season in this role).
The riveting seven-week-long series airs half-hour episodes that focus on Mia, then April, from 9 to 10 p.m. EDT each Sunday. Each Monday, back-to-back episodes with Oliver, Walter (Mahoney's character), and Gina begin at 9 p.m. EDT.
On "Frasier," Mahoney played a feisty retired Seattle cop who lives with one son and sees plenty of the other. "In Treatment" finds him as an aging but still driven CEO who never sees his grown children. But that's not why he's there. At his wife's insistence, he has come for a quick fix for his chronic insomnia.
"Tell me what my problem is and what I need to do," Walter barks at Weston with a CEO's impatience.
"Walter doesn't want to be there and he's extremely defensive," explains Mahoney. "Then huge problems start to emerge that he kept buried for a long time. His insomnia is the least of it. He's fighting for his job, fighting for his sanity."
Now 68, Mahoney hadn't been looking for another TV series after "Frasier" ended in 2004.
For one thing, the British-born Mahoney has called Chicago home since coming to America in his late teens, and he didn't want a project that might keep him away for another lengthy stretch. (He describes shooting the LA-based "Frasier" as "basically living out of a suitcase for 11 years.")
Besides, he stays busy with his varied menu of films, TV guest-starring roles, and plays. Even while shooting his seven episodes of "In Treatment" in New York, he was shuttling to Chicago to perform in "The Seafarer," staged by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, of which he's been a member since 1979.
He says he was drawn to "In Treatment" as a fan of its first season.
"I watched it. I loved it," Mahoney declares.
Now he's part of it.
Shooting a scene with Byrne a few weeks ago, he was planted in an armchair (Walter, Type A personality that he is, would never cede power to Dr. Weston by accepting the couch). Outside the windows of Weston's cozy brownstone apartment, snow was falling on cue (although here, in a sound stage at Silvercup Studios, the "snow" was really bits of shredded plastic bags).
Watching the scene unfold before him was executive producer Warren Leight, who has written the scripts for Walter's storyline. "It represents the third act of a man's life, after the first two acts kind of happened without his consent," Leight said.
A six-year veteran of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," he said his new assignment "feels like going back to writing in my native language. Procedurals are all about plot, but here you've got to write a voice for your characters, or you're dead."
Of course, once the script is written, it helps to have actors at the level of Byrne (whose performance last season won him a Golden Globe) and Mahoney, a Tony-winning talent who has also shone in films like "Barton Fink," "In the Line of Fire" and "The Hudsucker Proxy."
No matter what character Mahoney portrays, "you just absolutely believe it," said Leight.
Mahoney deflects credit back to the writing.
"You have to be respectful of your script, and I try not to change a word," he says during a breakfast interview, where he reveals himself to be as affable and chipper as poor Walter is controlling and distraught. "I just like to learn the lines, and then see what happens with the other actors. I listen to what's being said, and then respond to how it's said. I like to surprise myself."
But even now, with shooting wrapped, surprises await him: He has no more idea than any "In Treatment" viewer what lies ahead in the four other story lines.
"I'm really looking forward to the whole season," says Mahoney, clearly still a fan.
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EDITOR'S NOTE Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org