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'Treatment' goes deep into therapy

January 25, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

A lot of people in Israel, like here, used to complain there was nothing to watch on television. Then came "B'tipul" -- a five-night-a-week scripted drama about a psychologist and his clients that won every top award in that country and an unprecedented, loyal and rapt audience.

Now, when Americans are currently complaining that the writers strike has left no original programming on television, HBO hopes to repeat history. On Monday, the network will launch "In Treatment" -- its remake of the Israeli series.

"In Treatment" stars Gabriel Byrne as Paul, an intense middle-aged therapist whose life is secretly falling apart. With his patients, he specializes in listening, serious eye contact and saying things like, "I'm very interested in everything you have to say. I mean that." Viewers can watch him every weeknight, for the next nine weeks, as he befriends, challenges and uncovers the unspoken secrets of his promiscuous, suicidal, abused, angry or guilty patients.

The series boasts other high-profile actors: Dianne Wiest ("Law & Order") plays Paul's own therapist; Blair Underwood ("Dirty Sexy Money") is an unpredictable client, a cocky U.S. Navy pilot who followed orders but inadvertently bombed an Iraqi religious school, killing 16 boys.

The unusual series is basically "a nuclear-powered soap opera," according to Rodrigo Garcia, director/writer/executive producer of "In Treatment."

Audiences here have seen plenty of shrinks on TV -- particularly on HBO, from "The Sopranos' " Dr. Melfi to "Tell Me You Love Me's" May Foster and, on Showtime, "Huff's" Huff. Like Paul, and Paul's therapist, they tend to have their own baggage. But "In Treatment" takes a deeper view of the therapeutic process, zeroing in on the con- versation between therapist and patient alone. Each episode simulates a real-time session with Paul in his booky, suburban home office. Close-ups capture nuances of gesture and eye movement that may -- or may not -- betray a thought or feeling underlying the dialogue.

"Paul's life crisis is the central problem of the series, so ultimately it's not a bunch of people in therapy," Garcia said. The characters' lives also intertwine, offering rivulets of themes, connections and mysteries for viewers to figure out.

Most of all, the nightly, half-hour dramatic format possesses the addictive power of a soap or telenovela. Some of the show's most ardent fans in Israel came from the therapeutic community. Professional conferences have highlighted the process as illuminated in the show, said Hagai Levi, creator of the Israeli original. "They feel for the first time their work is presented in the proper way," he said. "One told me, 'It's the first time my parents know what I'm doing.' "

Noa Tishby, an Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based actress, and now a co-executive producer on the show, discovered "B'tipul" during a visit home. She brought back a DVD and showed it to her manager, Steve Levinson, who, with partner Mark Wahlberg, produces "Entourage" at HBO.

"It was quickly apparent it was captivating and engrossing and immediately addicting," said Levinson, who approached HBO knowing it would be a challenge. "It's not something they normally do," he said. "It's not something they do at all."

But not only did they agree to buy it, they were also willing to "stay pure to the format, to air it five consecutive nights and to keep it as a half-hour drama," Levinson said. (Wahlberg is also an executive producer.)

Garcia, the son of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said his intention was to "reinterpret the show. We were not interested in grabbing the words and doing the same thing."

"In Treatment," however, contains the same basic characters and much of the dialogue of the original. Only Alex has been changed from an Israeli pilot burdened by collateral damage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a U.S. Navy pilot dealing with his role in the bombing of an Iraqi madrassa. HBO also added two episodes which were shot outside the offices.

Underwood said Alex is the most complicated character he's ever played. "He's so reluctant and he keeps coming back for more, even though he's fighting it tooth and nail," he said.

Paul's other clients are Laura (Melissa George), an attractive and dangerously seductive young woman; Sophie, a talented, profane and possibly suicidal teenage gymnast (Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska); and a troubled couple (Embeth Davidtz, Josh Charles) who can't agree on whether to abort a pregnancy after years of fertility treatments.

Each character had a separate writer, Underwood said, which imparted unique voices to the separate roles. For actors, the predominantly single-set production had the feeling of a stage play.

While no psychologists were hired as consultants, each writer had some experience with therapy, Garcia said. "It seemed to us the psychology was solid. It was also simple. The important thing was the dramatic conflict," he said.

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