Sunday, 25 February 2007

The HBO 'Treatment'

A popular Israeli TV series about therapy is getting a translation

BOSTON GLOBE | February 25, 2007
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

TEL AVIV -- Hagai Levi, creator of the first Israeli drama series adapted for US television, has proved that less is more.

Israeli life is hardly lacking in daily drama. There is the horror of suicide bombings, the pain of war, the challenge of ending a 40-year occupation and finding peace with the Palestinians -- not to mention a raft of domestic corruption and sex scandals that in the past month alone have triggered the resignation of the country's justice minister and the start of impeachment proceedings against the president.

But "In Treatment," Levi's multi-award-winning daily half-hour drama series that has been snapped up for adaptation by HBO, has not a single gun, bomb, corrupt politician , or suicide bomber anywhere on the screen. Instead, it boasts a single indoor set in which the only action is two people sitting and talking to each other .

HBO will air 45 English-language episodes five nights a week in the fall, starring Gabriel Byrne as a taciturn but effective psychotherapist and Dianne Wiest as his therapist guide and confessor.

"In Treatment" became a television and social phenomenon in Israel, sweeping the Israeli television awards for best drama series, best director, best screenplay, best actor , and best actress, and attracting huge audiences in this tiny country.

Critics at Israel's three largest newspapers competed for superlatives to describe the show. Haaretz called it "the most important achievement in a drama series ever accomplished in Israel," and said it "proved that minimalism in television can generate maximum quality." Maariv said it was "the closest thing to literature to be found nowadays on television." Yedioth Ahronoth said it contained "the most sublime, refined dialogues ever to be seen on an Israeli screen."

Boston audiences can get a taste themselves on Tuesday, when the Boston Jewish Film Festival screens four episodes at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The format is deceptively simple and potentially boring. Each day in the week is dedicated to one patient's therapy session with Ruben, a 50-something psychotherapy counselor who, it soon transpires, is having some mid-life issues of his own.

On Monday, he treats an attractive single woman wondering whether to marry her boyfriend, whose highly charged erotic tales threaten to play havoc with Ruben's own fragile libido. On Tuesday, it's the turn of an air force pilot plagued by collateral damage -- the only scenario where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intrudes but which will be adapted for a US story line. Wednesday is devoted to a teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful whose recent brush with death may have been self-inflicted, and Thursday brings a bickering couple toying with the idea of aborting a pregnancy after five years of fertility treatment.

Little wonder that Friday evening finds Ruben seeking the guidance of 60-something Gila, his own mentor and therapist, where it soon becomes clear he's not quite the level-headed fo nt of wisdom his patients might expect.

"You always said our biggest problem is that we don't have an audience. It's true. There's no one to put in a good word for us. No one to tell us how great we were this session," Ruben tells Gila after one particularly heavy week.

Now this psycho-confession looks set to have the biggest US audience since Woody Allen (and Tony Soprano) made therapy fashionable.

After an initial five-part pilot, HBO was hooked. "We felt 'In Treatment' was unique on several levels, its format, its content, and its execution. For all of those reasons and more we felt it was a excellent fit for our original programming schedule," said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (HBO's "Carnivale," "Big Love") and Mark Wahlberg are the executive producers. Cast members include Josh Charles, Embeth Davidtz, Mia Wasikowska, Melissa George, and Blair Underwood.

The show came to Wahlberg through Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who saw the series on a visit home, contacted the producers and returned to California with a disk of the first five episodes. Tishby was signed to Leverage Management, which also represents Wahlberg, and so the connection was made.

Levi, the show's creator, believes the format is unique. He said he did not know another television drama in which two actors are sitting almost static for minutes on end, with hardly any action, relying almost entirely on the dialogue.

"The actors had nothing to hide behind," he said. "They were almost paralyzed. They could only use themselves and rely on the power of the words. Sometimes we just kept filming, using 20-minute shots instead of the usual few minutes at a time. It was very close to live theater."

The minimalism extended to the production costs, which Levi estimated at about one-quarter of a regular half-hour drama.

"Every episode was shot in a single day, which contributed to the tension," said Levi. "It was like simulating real treatment. Each actor had their day of the week and we filmed it chronologically, just like the characters in the story."

Levi and his chief scriptwriter, Ori Sivan, had just ended an intense creative conference on the upcoming second season, which took the form of a long walk in the cool evening air through the hip Shenkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where smart sidewalk cafes attract the cream of the city's bubbling creative class.

The HBO deal has catapulted Levi and Sivan to the pinnacle of Israel's media fraternity, although they say the money involved is modest -- "not millions" -- and neither will be retiring or ordering his yacht just yet. Levi is an executive producer on the HBO series and Sivan said the English scripts and characters are as close to the Hebrew originals as the trans-Atlantic transfer would allow.

Levi said the idea for the show was based on his own experience of psychoanalysis, while Sivan said he had never been through it himself, but both his parents were therapists.

The writers tried to ensure the authenticity of the script by bringing on board psychotherapist Roni Baht as an adviser. They soon found themselves at odds with their chosen expert.

"He did a brave job fighting with us," laughed Sivan. "We found that therapy and scriptwriting are very similar. The role of the therapist is to be in conflict with their patients. Roni was always encouraging us to go to a deeper involvement. He said the original scripts were too light, not brave enough. He said the therapist had to ask much more direct questions than we originally wrote."

The quality of the script was sustained by recruiting such screenwriters as Yael Hedaya, an Israeli novelist who helped shape the character of the young single woman whose Monday sessions set the tone for the week. Hedaya will be at Tuesday's "In Treatment" screening.

Levi and Sivan, both 43, studied together at Tel Aviv University film school and graduated in 1990. Levi is now head of the drama department at Israel's largest commercial television channel. His previous credits include several award-winning documentaries and series, among them the longest-running drama ever aired on Israeli television. Sivan has written several successful series while Nir Bergman, another co-director and co-writer, wrote and directed the acclaimed feature film "Broken Wings."

In the last 15 years, Israeli television has mushroomed with the birth of two commercial channels and cable channels commissioning original drama. "In Treatment" was originally produced for the HOT cable channel and then aired on Channel 2, the country's largest commercial broadcaster.

"Now there is an industry and money, which is attracting good people," said Levi.

And in a country of just seven million where everyone seems to know each other, movie and television benefit from complete cross-fertilization between the two genres.

"There is a total mixture," said Sivan. "Israeli academy award winners, writers, directors and actors move freely back and forth between film and television."

The cable broadcast attracted a staggering one million video-on-demand downloads and the commercial broadcast won impressive ratings. The series entered everyday conversation and was instantly included in university curricula on psychology.

Indeed, one of the attractions of the original production was the quality of the Hebrew-speaking cast headed by Israel's favorite bad-boy film star Assi Dayan -- think Jack Nicholson -- and local movie matriarch Gila Almagor -- the Israeli Judi Dench.

The show's creators are confident that "In Treatment" will hit the same nerves it tingled in Israel.

"America is the homeland of therapy, it is so deep in American culture. People are going all the time and the jargon of therapy is part of the language," said Levi. "They had to do very little to make it American."

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