HBO's postcolonial melancholic


Season Three of HBO’s therapy verite series is now airing, so of course I am glued to the tube. The show grants us a fly-on-the-wall view of their therapy sessions in almost real time, combining voyeurism with discounted psychological insight. This season’s analysands are especially engrossing. Jesse, the promiscuous, talented gay teen; Frances, the narcissistic mid-career actress; and Sunil, the postcolonial melancholic, who is brought into therapy by his distracted adult son and his shrewish daughter-in-law, who treat him like a recalcitrant puppy and Paul Weston, the series’ resident shrink, like the Creepy Foreign Parent Whisperer.

Sunil is played by Irrfan Khan, a Bollywood character actor who has lately added roles in films by Danny Boyle and Wes Anderson to his resume. Sunil, having lost his wife and been recently made redundant, is brought from Calcutta to New York to live in his children’s spare room, at least until the new baby comes along, after which he will be consigned to the basement. He has stopped eating or communicating, is “scaring the children,” and is, in the considered opinion of his children, grieving inappropriately long for his wife, who, after all, died six whole months ago.
So far, the show throws in every first-generation immigrant narrative trope: the long-suffering non-Western parents; the aspirational child’s rejection of their culture in choosing a Western spouse and casting off their given name; their prohibiting their own children from learning the mother tongue which, like the grandparent him or herself, becomes to seem alien and unheimlich. The postcolonial melancholic arrives, in other words, pre-interpreted by the ready clichés with which we garland him. He is an irritant for who must be kept vestibular to our culture, either by a scornful “concern” for his wellbeing or, which is better but not by much, by an impatient and stereotyped insistence on “understanding” his plight in the most standardized terms possible.
The modus operandi of In Treatment, however, is to set up such stereotypical scenarios, the better to disrupt them. At the end of the week, all that Paul has gotten from Sunil’s first session is that he mourns for his wife and his life back in Calcutta. While Paul is cast as the empathetic counterpart to the shrewish daughter-in-law and castrated son, this “insight,” I hope, will be proven premature by future events. Boiling down postcolonial melancholia to a simple casting out of a beloved paradise is far too simple. Sunil already supplies some clues as to undermine this othering which Paul, if he isn’t too preoccupied by his own woes, may choose to pay attention to. Unwilling to communicate to his son and daughter-in-law except in Bengali, Sunil effortlessly switches to the Queen’s English as soon as he is alone with Paul. As he does, he cleverly points out Paul’s own Irish accent, calling attention to their joint alienated belonging within the imperial tongue. Such “sly civility,” as Homi Bhabha called it, bespeaks a postcolonial ambivalence that cannot be contained by any romantic or nostalgic picture of an elsewhere and elsewhen to which he “truly” belongs.
At least initially, Sunil refuses the exoticism imposed upon him by his family in order to perform another, more rarified and sentimental exoticism: the husband unable to detach from his dutiful, loving wife. In the place of the exotic, simple therapeutic universalism. And in the world of divorces, loveless marriages, and throwaway kids that is the stuff out of which In Treatment is made, such a union is indeed the ultimate fantasy. Let us see how and whether it proves also to be a lure. 

Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and professor of African American studies, American studies, and theater studies at Yale University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and a new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the fall of 2018. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.