Jewish Journal

How Israel’s ‘Treatment’ Translates to Success for HBO

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Apr. 9, 2009 at 1:13 am

Gabriel Byrne Photo by Abbot Genser

Gabriel Byrne Photo by Abbot Genser

The premiere last Sunday of the second season of “In Treatment” on HBO marked a milestone in television history in both Israel and the United States. The acclaimed series is closely based on the Israeli hit, “Be’Tipul” (“In Treatment” in Hebrew), in which a conflicted psychologist treats a different patient in each of four episodes each week and visits his own therapist in the fifth.

Widely regarded as one of the best programs ever created in Israel, “Be’Tipul” is also the most successful Israeli series to cross the Atlantic, earning multiple Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe award for Gabriel Byrne, the star of its American version — as well as cementing Israel’s reputation as the go-to nation for foreign properties.

“Israel now seems to be the country with the greatest number of options,” David R. Ginsburg, executive director of the UCLA School of Law’s Entertainment and Media Law and Policy Program, said at a conference dedicated to “Be’Tipul” and “In Treatment,” held at UCLA on April 3 and co-sponsored by the Law and Policy Program, Israel Studies Program, and the School of Theater, Film and Television in cooperation with HBO.

CBS’s single-girl comedy, “The Ex List” (based on Israel’s “Mythological Ex”), proved short-lived, but as many as six or seven other Israeli shows have been snapped up for adaptation, including the techno-geek comedy, “Loaded,” for USA-Fox, and “A Touch Away,” a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” saga about a Charedi girl and a secular Russian immigrant boy whose families move in next door to each other.

Season two of “In Treatment” began as psychologist Paul Weston (Byrne), newly divorced and relocated from Maryland to Brooklyn, finds himself being sued for malpractice, taking on a batch of new patients and back in therapy. In a visit to his attorney, he encounters Mia (Hope Davis), one of the firm’s lead lawyers, who blames her unmarried status on her sessions with Paul 20 years earlier. Another patient, April (Alison Pill), is an architecture student in denial about her Stage 3 lymphoma. Then there’s Oliver (Aaron Shaw), a 12-year-old African American who overeats to relieve stress caused by his parents’ contentious divorce, and Walter (John Mahoney), a CEO plagued by panic attacks.

The dialogue for the first season of “In Treatment” was mostly taken from a translation provided by an Israeli subtitle company, but the second season “is much more of an adaptation,” said Hagai Levi, who created “Be’Tipul” and serves as an executive producer of “In Treatment.” “This works better artistically and allows us to delve into distinctly American issues.”

For example, in “Be’Tipul,” the Mia character is still in her 30s and obsessed with having a child, reflecting the expectations of her Mizrachi (North African) immigrant family and the Israeli sense that “a childless 40-year-old woman is as good as dead,” Levi said. In the American version she is older, aged 43, and, like the women in “Sex and the City,” is deeply concerned with her mess of a love life.

Showrunner Warren Leight, a Tony Award-winner and former executive producer of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” hired playwrights such as Marsha Norman (“’night, Mother”) to pen the scripts, which read like one-act plays, according to The New York Times; this season’s adaptations solved a problem that some perceived as an exploitation of the Israeli writers’ work during the first season.

Even though many of those episodes were taken almost verbatim from “Be’Tipul,” the Israelis were refused “written by” credits, which would have allowed them to receive additional compensation, because of rules dictated by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), Levi said.

Literary agent Arik Kneller, who represents a number of the “Be’Tipul” scribes and helped bring “The Ex List” to CBS, had several telephone conversations with WGA officials about the matter. “They were very polite, and explained that they understood my frustration,” Kneller said by cell phone from Tel Aviv. “On the other hand, the WGA rule is that if you did not write in English, you cannot get a ‘written by’ credit; the episode is considered to be ‘based upon’ your source material. I hope to work with them to achieve a better standard in the future,” he added.

Levi was also unhappy with the situation. “When the translation was word for word, I thought the fairest thing would be a shared ‘written by’ credit for the writer and adapter [who now receives a ‘teleplay credit’],” he explained. “I wrote a lot of letters and tried to talk to HBO and to the lawyers, through my agents and attorneys; in fact, I almost worked more on this than as a consultant during the first season. 

“This matter is not only about the writers receiving proper credit, but about residuals and royalties, and that’s a shame — it’s unfair. I did everything I could think of to solve the problem, but in the end there are restrictions for source materials written in a different language.” 

Gregg Mitchell of the WGA confirmed in an e-mail that the Israeli writers receive source material credit and the Americans get a “teleplay” credit; he could not be reached for further comment by press time.

“In Treatment’s” executive producer, Rodrigo Garcia, has his own perspective on the first season. “In the first couple of weeks, we were very faithful to the original series, but every week we diverged more and more,” said Garcia, the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “We kept the central outline of the characters, but the perceived nature of their problems changed from week to week as we were influenced by our own productions. It is the genius of ‘Be’Tipul’ that the psychological issues are rich enough that we were able to mine them so well,” he added.

The UCLA conference began with back-to-back screenings of first season episodes of “Be’Tipul” and its American counterpart, featuring the tormented military pilot Alex (Blair Underwood). One episode was selected because it was perhaps the most adapted of all the shows of the first season: The Israeli pilot, whose father “plays the Holocaust ticket” in order to excuse his selfish behavior, has repressed guilt over bombing an Arab school; the American pilot, whose father survived Ku Klux Klan violence, killed children in Iraq.  Much of the dialogue still follows the Hebrew-language version; however, the performances, direction and even the set make the two episodes appear radically different. Byrne is far more reserved and distant than the Israeli therapist, played by Assi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan and an Israeli icon in the vein of Jack Nicholson; and Underwood reveals more vulnerability than his more macho Israeli counterpart. “We didn’t try to recreate anything,” Underwood said of “Be’Tipul.” “We tried to make our performances as truthful and honest as possible.”

At UCLA’s Melnitz Hall, where the conference took place, Garcia and Levi appeared to be a study in contrasts: Garcia, who directed the pilot of HBO’s “Big Love,” is tall, bearish, and sports a head of black curls; Levi, who is in his mid-40s, is shorter and balding. Yet the two men high-five each other like old friends and joke that an unspoken requirement for writers on their respective shows was to be in psychotherapy.

In an interview, the Israeli writer-director said he was a troubled child while growing up on a religious kibbutz, prone to dizziness and anxiety. “I went to therapy for the first time at the age of 10,” he recalled. As a teenager, he ran the kibbutz’s Saturday night movie screenings; because he had to censor out the sex and profanity, he had to view each movie several times in order to know when to place his hand over the lens. “Thus I began learning about the mechanics of filmmaking,” he said.

Raised observant, gradually Levi became less so; when he left his religion and his kibbutz at 20, he began suffering panic attacks. “I didn’t have my faith or my home to hold onto, and I felt myself to be in limbo; the result was intense fear,” he said. And so he continued therapy, studied psychology at Bar-Ilan University and, after the army, attended film school at Tel Aviv University. He worked in film, theater and television and — because the money was good — also in Israeli soaps and telenovellas. “There I learned the power of a daily series, how it gets into people’s homes and minds, which was one inspiration for the format of ‘Be’Tipul,’” he said.

“And of course being so much in therapy myself, I wanted to describe what really goes on in a session, as opposed to the caricatures one finds in a Woody Allen film. I wanted to show that the therapist is not a blank wall, but a man with feelings toward his patients and with a complex family life, and all these things come into the therapy room — he’s not neutral. And that’s why the most important thing for me is to show him going to his own therapist at the end of the week.”

“Be’Tipul” premiered in 2005, and when HBO bought the rights to the show the network tapped Levi as an executive producer. This season, “Be’Tipul’s” creator moved to New York for four months to help with the adaptation, and he has directed two of the episodes.

Psychologically speaking, both shows keep him connected to his Jewish roots. “Therapy is almost talmudic, thesis and counter-thesis, and it is all about words — about text,” he said. 

“In Treatment” airs Sundays and Mondays on HBO.

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