'In Treatment' may be a lifesaver

The American reinvention of Israel's hit TV drama 'B'Tipul' is being welcomed with open arms.

In Treatment 88 248 (photo credit: )
In Treatment 88 248
(photo credit: )
After a year of waiting, the doctor is finally in. Israel's most famous fictional TV therapist crossed the Atlantic Monday night, introducing himself to American audiences in the series premiere of In Treatment, HBO's heavily promoted adaptation of Israeli TV drama B'tipul. Now relocated to an unidentified US suburb, HOT Television's beloved TV therapist earned his American visa a year ago, when HBO announced its decision to translate and reinterpret the show for American cable subscribers. In Treatment's overseas journey received a fanfare greeting upon arrival in the US, quickly becoming Israel's most famous export this week with a barrage of publicity online and in the major American media outlets. (Outdoing all comers, the New York Times ran articles on the show in no fewer than three sections of its Sunday edition.) Premiering on a TV schedule decimated by the Hollywood writers' strike, In Treatment has been greeted as a potential lifesaver in a sea of unscripted reality shows and reruns. Adding further interest has been the show's reinvention by HBO, which has struggled - so far unsuccessfully - to find successors to era-defining hits Sex and the City and The Sopranos. FOR FANS of the Israeli series, early episodes of In Treatment may spark a case of cross-language déjà vu, with characters, situations and the show's original format lifted almost wholesale for the series' American counterpart. Previously known as Reuven Dagan, the show's protagonist, Dr. Paul Weston, continues to appear in fresh episodes five nights a week, meeting on four of those nights with his own patients before closing the week in a session with his own psychotherapist, Dr. Gina Toll (two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest). Dr. Weston's charges, as they did in the Israeli original, include a hospital worker in love with the therapist, an elite gymnast who may be a suicide risk and a married couple bitterly divided over whether to abort the wife's pregnancy. The most rewriting has gone into Alex (LA Law's Blair Underwood), now an American veteran of the Iraq war rather than an IAF pilot floundering in the aftermath of a deadly accident in the Palestinian territories. Viewer numbers have yet to be released for the American series, but the show has earned mixed reactions among critics, with some daring to compare it to The Sopranos and others dismissing it as a bore. Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Alessandra Stanley called the show "smart and rigorous," even "hypnotic," while the Wall Street Journal described it as "astonishing," "remarkably - indeed, abnormally - low in predictable dialogue." Others, however, have shown less appreciation, with Variety judging the show "more interesting structurally than in its execution," and respected on-line magazine Slate scorning the therapy sessions as entering "the realms of the scarcely credible and the incredibly boring." (Demonstrating the show's Rorschach qualities on the same Web site, a psychiatry professor from Baylor College hailed the show as "both riveting and the most convincing psychotherapy seen on television yet.") BUT WHILE their perceptions have differed, American critics nearly across the board have missed the central ambition - and accomplishment - of both the new and original series. Though B'tipul may not have transferred perfectly to American TV screens, the HBO version reflects the ingenuity of the series' Israeli creators, who shot an entire season of television for less than the shoe budget of a single episode of Sex and the City. On their best weeks, that show and The Sopranos could attract twice as many viewers as there are people in the entire State of Israel. (The premiere of The Sopranos' fourth season, for example, attracted 13.4 million viewers.) With its limited audience and budget, Israel's entertainment industry has come up with some ingenious ways of capitalizing on its constraints - an achievement exemplified nowhere better than on B'tipul and In Treatment, which require minimal casts and take place in sets that look like nothing more elaborate than a therapist's office. In looking for a follow-up to its hits of earlier this decade, HBO has identified the brilliance of the conceit, abandoning The Sopranos' operatic scale and Sex and the City's glamor for an entirely different approach to television, one that can create excellence even without a Hollywood budget. Evidently pleased with its foray into adapting Israeli TV, the network has already signed on to perform the same trick with another series - 2007 smash Merhak Negiya (A Touch Away). "I don't know what's in the drinking water there," HBO's entertainment president told the New York Times over the weekend. "But for as tiny as that country is, they make some interesting television shows."