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Some big names in Hollywood can't curb their enthusiasm for a smash Israeli television series they are adapting for HBO.
They are betting the American version of In Treatment, which was wildly popular in its first season in Israel, will captivate audiences in this country.
Producers Mark Wahlberg, Oscar nominee for best actor in The Departed, and Stephen Levinson, head of Leverage Management, are joining forces with Hagai Levi, creator and director of the Israeli series. Wahlberg and Levinson co-produce Entourage, the hit HBO series.
In Treatment, or B'tipul in Hebrew, is an intense, offbeat drama based on an unlikely concept for TV: a daily show featuring a fictionalized therapy session between a psychotherapist and his patients.
The show was broadcast originally over five nights for nine consecutive weeks. Each weekday episode is based on a session with one of four clients.
Some of Israel's top actors, including Assi Dayan in the role of Reuven, the therapist, star on the show. Dayan, one of Israel's premier film directors, is the son of Moshe Dayan.
Reuven's patients are Na'ama, an attractive woman in her 30s distraught over her relationship with her boyfriend, who reveals her erotic fantasies and love for the therapist; a troubled teenage Olympic hopeful who may be suicidal; a tough Israeli Air Force pilot plagued by his role in Israeli-Palestinian violence; and a couple whose relationship unravels over the wife's desire to have an abortion after four years of infertility.
All this proves overwhelming for the 50-something Reuven, who on the fifth night of each weekly segment returns to his former therapist coach, played by actress Gila Almagor, another Israeli superstar, to work through his own midlife crisis.
The response to In Treatment from critics and the Israeli public was off the charts, said Noa Tishby, an Israeli actress living in Santa Monica, California. She had heard of the show before it aired in Israel, but hadn't seen it until November 2005, when she returned to Israel for a visit.
Tishby was stunned by the public reaction.
"It was the only thing people were talking about," she told JTA in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, where she is one of the executive producers of the HBO series. "I knew that if people were talking about this so much, it had to be brilliant."
JUST TWO years ago, few would have predicted that Israeli's problems would make a potential hit TV show.
What draws the audience to the minimalist set - a therapist's chair and a couch for his patients - is the authenticity of the characters, the voyeuristic intrigue and, most notably, the crisp and intelligent dialogue.
In Israel, Levi has engaged some of Israel's best-known writers, including novelist Yael Hedaya, the author of Accidents and Housebroken. Hedaya writes for the character Na'ama.
Most of the financing of the show is in its writers, Hedaya told JTA during a conversation over lunch in Boston, where she spoke at a standing-room-only screening of a few episodes with English subtitles sponsored by the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Hedaya said she was hooked immediately when she met with Levi in August 2004 to discuss joining the writing team.
"It's all dialogue, and it has to be highly intellectual and deep," Hedaya recalls Levi telling her. "I said, 'Wow!' How come nobody thought of that earlier?' "
The Na'ama character pulled the highest ratings, Hedaya said with a chuckle, though she is most fond of the character of the teenage girl.
In a case of life imitating art, psychotherapy's star has risen, Hedaya said.
"In Treatment has become almost a cult among therapists and those in therapy," she said.
Hedaya has heard that two graduate courses have been developed in clinical psychology using episodes from In Treatment, and Dayan was a guest speaker at a professional convention of Israeli psychologists.
"One of the things the show did in Israel is alter people's perception of what therapy is," Tishby said. "It shed more light on the process and took away some of the negative connotations."
Tishby was inspired to bring the show to America from the instant she watched the first five episodes.
"I was shocked, touched and excited," she said. "I was like, 'Wow. He did an incredible job capturing life.'"
Tishby said what is especially moving, and what will move Americans, is the show's authenticity.
"It's as if you're a fly on the wall in a therapy session," she said. "It's a complete drama, and so beautifully written and eloquently edited. It's a piece of art."
She contacted Levi, who allowed her to work a deal to bring the show to the United States.
When Tishby showed it to colleagues at Leverage Management, the Los Angeles firm that represents her and Wahlberg, she said "they flipped. They were as excited as I was."
Five pilots have been shot, and shooting is about to begin for 40 more half-hour episodes.
The therapist is played by Gabriel Byrne, and cast members include Embeth Davidtz, Mia Wasikowska, Dianne Wiest, Blair Underwood and Melissa George.
While the story lines are faithful to the original, the characters and situations will be American, Tishby said.
Media reports have speculated about the role of the pilot, a uniquely Israeli character. While keeping mum on detail, Tishby confirmed that a pilot will be among the patients, but his story is an American one and not based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beyond the entertainment, bringing In Treatment to America holds a higher purpose for Tishby.
"There's a sense of importance to bring it to the States to show that Israel is not just about war or technology," she said. "There's an incredible amount of art and talent that needs to be exported."
Tishby added, "I already have people coming up to me, wondering, 'They talk about sex on Israeli television?'" (JTA)