It stars some of Hollywood’s finest actors, including a star turn from the always watchable Gabriel Byrne as therapist Paul Weston, has won a raft of awards in America and comes from the TV powerhouse that is HBO – and now In Treatment has arrived in the UK.
Based on the Israel “telenovela” series Be’Tipul, HBO’s In Treatment is a novelty in a world of reality TV and dumbed down soaps: stripped over five nights of the week, each half-hour episode follows a different patient as they meet with Dr Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) for their therapy session, while Friday’s episode sees Weston attend a meeting with his own therapist.
According to series creator Hagai Levi, psychology is a way of life for many Israeli’s, him included.
“I was very religious when I was a child and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. I started therapy at a very early age, growing up in a Kibbutz in Israel which pioneered it, and I’ve found it very helpful throughout my life, very natural,” says the softly spoken Levi. “It can be odd and a problem in itself because you’re used to sharing everything with a stranger, but basically it’s my language.”
To Levi, it seemed natural to develop a TV series focusing on therapy.
“I’ve directed a lot of television and feature films and I found the thing I enjoy most is two people talking, listening and getting involved with them,” notes Levi. “I worked for a few years in the telenovela/soap industry in Israel and hated it but I realised the power of a daily series.
“I wondered why there couldn’t be a good daily drama rather than a bad one, one that combined my love of conversation and therapy. Everything came together about six years ago when I came up with the concept of Be’Tipul.”
Rather than introduce the viewer to a group of kooks and crazies to be laughed at or ridiculed, In Treatment offers up a cast of characters feeling mental pain or anguish, each one with their own foibles and strengths.
“It was important to show a couple of things about therapy,” agrees Levi. “Firstly, I wanted to show that you don’t have to be crazy to attend and to try to remove the stigma. Secondly I wanted to show that the therapist is a person with desire, anger and a family life, to show that when he’s in front of the patient he’s not a blank wall, but that there’s a relationship there between them.”
Weston is also seen to make mistakes with his patients, misjudging one situation in the first week, resulting in him needing to attend sessions of his own.
“When I realised during planning for the original series that he would go to his therapist on a Friday I knew I had something. By having that session we get to know Paul and basically the show is about him rather than the patients, the hero is the therapist.”
With TV companies looking to sell their shows to as wide an audience as possible, was it difficult to convince broadcaster that such a static show would work?
“It was. It took me about two years to sell it in Israel, though HBO bought the American remake rights immediately. It’s also cheap, which helps. It was originally meant to be a small, late night show, but then it became huge and everyone watched it in Israel. It actually affected the popularity of therapy there with more people going to it.”
How did the profession react to the series?
“Psychologists thought it was the first time their work has been presented in the proper way,” says Levi. “Think about the way psychology is presented in films, such as Woody Allen pictures, it’s ridiculous.
“One psychologist told me “Finally my family can see what I’m doing and what I have to cope with!” Now they’re using it in Israel and America in universities to demonstrate therapy to students. They’ve also raised their prices!”
Although HBO used American actors and made changes for the international market, this version still has echoes of the Israeli original, something Levi openly acknowledges.
“The first season is very close to the original, almost word for word in the first few weeks. As the season continues there are more changes and some brand new episodes.
“The second season is much deeper and more adapted to the Western culture. Consider the character of the pilot, Alex (played by Blair Underwood). In Israel being a pilot is second only to God and later on you’ll find out he’s the son of a Holocaust survivor so he’s very much an Israeli character.”
Known for taking chances with their series, HBO seems the natural home for such a unique series. Was there ever any pressure from them to change things?
“When I first came to America everyone told me they wouldn’t let me leave it like it is, that we’d have to open it up and that it couldn’t stay in the room. That wasn’t the case as they let me leave it as it was, very intimate. There was no pressure at all from HBO, perhaps helped by the fact they needed it on the air very quickly.
“There was some more pressure in the second season because we all felt that we wanted to do a better job by making it more American, but I wouldn’t imagine myself working for a network like CBS or NBC, making it more commercial and telling you what to do.”
As well as absorbing storylines, In Treatment boasts a cast list that includes the Oscar-winning Dianne Wiest as Weston’s therapist, ex-Home and Away star Melissa George as sexually obsessed Laura and Bridget Jones’ own Embeth Davidtz as Amy, one half of a married couple in trouble.
“Gabriel and Dianne are well known, the others are perhaps lesser known,” says Levi. “When I came to HBO I told them my Israeli cast were all huge stars and that it was important to bring US stars to the show.
“To hold the viewers’ attention for half an hour you need to have that star quality, be able to look at a close-up and be fascinated all the time. HBO had their arguments that they want to see new faces so you believe it, which is their style, as in The Wire.”
Another element of the series which Levi is proud of is the way it has changed how a TV series can be watched by its audience.
Just as the DVD box set has revolutionised the consumption of a programme, allowing entire seasons to be devoured in a weekend, In Treatment allows further fine tuning to the experience.
“You can watch it every night, watch five episodes at the weekend, watch it online [in America, episodes were added to iTunes by HBO each week, five episodes at a time] or wait for the DVDs,” enthuses Levi.
“You can also pick one character and just follow them. Luckily I was came along at a time when it was important your show was available across many platforms.”
While we’re only just getting the series in the UK, a second has already been screened in America, with Levi hinting that a third, “a kind of spin-off, following one patient through his life,” may enter production soon.
Given the programme’s success in such a crowded TV marketplace, what makes its creator proudest when he looks at back at the first year?
Levi smiles and thinks for a moment: “The fact that, even with all this noise all around them on television, people will listen to two people sitting in a room and talking makes me very happy.”
In Treatment is on Sky Arts 1, Monday to Friday at 10pm, with an Omnibus edition of all five episodes every Sunday at 10pm. Week 2 begins 12 October.
Watch a trailer for In Treatment: