You have to be a real character to be ‘In Therapy’

If Na’ama is sitting on the couch, it must be Sunday.

If Na’ama is sitting on the couch, it must be Sunday. A sultry 30-something who has some serious issues with relationships, Na’ama is one of the four patients who regularly visit the warmly lit clinic of Reuven Dagan. In addition to Na’ama, there is Yadin, an Air Force pilot who has a hard time coming to terms with the emotional difficulties that have arisen in his life after he dropped a bomb on a residential neighborhood in Gaza. Michael and Orna are having some marital difficulties. And Ayala is a suicidal teenager. On Thursday, after a challenging week of listening to his patients, Reuven goes for supervision with Gila. Betipul, or “In Therapy,” a new Israeli TV program on Hot cable, airs every weekday evening. Actor Assi Dayan, in the role of the therapist, sits across the room from actors Ayelet Zorer, Lior Ashkenazi, Maya Meiron, Rami Hoichberger and Alma Zak, and then goes to supervisor Gila Almagor. This strangely riveting, high-brow version of reality TV-turned-fiction has won praise from almost every critic. Meanwhile, a growing number of Israeli psychotherapists and their patients are watching the program, and finding out that it provides fertile ground for thoughts, fantasies and processes of transference in the real world of Israeli psychotherapy. Ilana, a senior therapist specializing in couples therapy, first began watching the program after a colleague told her about it. “I love it because it is the first TV program I have ever seen in which the therapist is presented as a human being, not as a superhuman or as a total psycho,” she said. Ilana said she also liked the fact that the program succeeded at creating a riveting drama out of a situation in which two people do nothing but sit across from one another and talk about their life, without reverting to sensational scenarios. “The characters are all very believable, and the cases are very authentic,” she remarked. Ilana said she felt that the therapist on Betipul was “extremely professional,” and said she would even recommend him to others. She pointed out that he is not full of himself, that he does not charge inordinate fees, and that he is ready to admit he doesn’t know the answer to every question, while shattering the popular stereotype of therapists who do nothing but sit and nod their head in silence. Ilana also said she believed that the program could influence the readiness of the public at large to go to therapy, because it presented Reuven’s patients as normal people with problems. “It shows people here in Israel that you don’t have to be crazy to go to therapy,” she said. Although Betipul obviously appeals to a certain part of the population that has an interest in psychotherapy, Reuven’s patients are not the kind of hyperneurotic intellectuals that lie on the couch in a typical Woody Allen movie a fact that may be taken as an indication that therapy is slowly and quietly penetrating deeper into Israeli society. According to Ilana and other therapists, a growing number of Israeli patients watch the program and bring it up in therapy. “One of the most interesting things is the romantic transference that people catch on to and remark upon,” she said. Her patients, Ilana explained, now mention episodes or issues that come up on the program as a way of talking indirectly about their own relationship with their real life therapist. The fact that Na’ama is in love with Reuven and recounts her fantasies to him, for instance, has been mentioned to her by patients who want to talk about their own projections on their therapist, but are too frightened to come to terms with them, and therefore refer to Na’ama as “crazy.” Ilana noted that “the program contains a lot of common fantasies about being nurtured by one’s therapist, about entering their home. Patients remark on the fact that Reuven serves his patients coffee, covers them with a warm blanket when they are cold. Then they might ask why I don’t do these things for them.” Ruthie, another experienced therapist, said that the colleagues in her therapist peer group all watch the show and discuss it amongst themselves. She said that while she would never bring it up with her patients at her own initiative, she thinks it is a “fantastic way of enriching the therapeutic process, which is why I often recommend books or movies for my patients.” Another senior and very critical therapist she knows, she said, recently told her that even he has become enraptured by the series. “If a therapist insists that he never watches Betipul,” Ilana added, “I would definitely suspect that he was watching it in secret.” Avi, another clinical psychologist who has become an avid viewer of the program, also said that In Therapy was highly believable. Last week, he noted, two of his patients also brought up the program in therapy. “They both asked me if I had seen the last episode, and each one of them had different reasons for doing so,” he said. Each of his patients, Avi remarked, has seen something else on the program that related to their own experience. One remarked on Yadin’s aggression toward Reuven, because she herself has a lot of problems expressing aggression. “I think it would be good for her to get angry at me, and watching the program made her wonder out loud how she could do that, and how I would take it. Another man, who has a lot of trouble talking about himself, remarked on how the program made him realize that therapy could actually help. Essentially, he was using the program to legitimize his own therapy,” Avi said.