- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) For the moment, Jaffa oranges and Uzis are no longer Israel’s most famous exports. That title belongs to a TV shrink and his roster of troubled patients.

Before “In Treatment” became a daily drama staple on HBO, it was “Betipul,” a low-budget, high-quality show widely regarded as one of the best programs ever created in Israel.

The American version, which stars Gabriel Byrne as busy psychotherapist Paul Weston, has tweaked the script — a fighter pilot is haunted by having killed civilians in Iraq, for example, instead of the West Bank — and adds several original episodes.

Nevertheless, HBO’s “In Treatment” generally remains faithful to its parent in the Middle East.

The show, which concluded its eight-week second season earlier this month, premiered in 2005. It originated with Hagai Levi, who worked as an editor on the daily telenovellas that are trashy staples of daytime Israeli TV.

At the time, American television’s Tony Soprano-driven psychotherapy fad was already well under way. Mr. Levi, 45, had also studied psychology and had been in treatment himself, providing the nucleus for the idea.

Aiming for the addictive potential of a soap but jettisoning the tepid dialogue and melodrama, Mr. Levi gambled that Israelis would be willing to watch an intellectual show consisting of little more than two people sitting in a room talking to each other — and would be willing to do that every day.

“Working on telenovellas, I saw the power of a daily series, one which becomes part of your routine and your life, and I wanted that,” he says.

The format Mr. Levi devised was original: Four days each week, the show’s therapist, Reuven Dagan, would meet with a different patient, with the same one appearing every week on the same evening. On the fifth day, he would pour his heart out to his own shrink.

The untried format was a risk for the cable company broadcasting the show. But it also was easy on the bottom line: With just two actors facing each other in a room, each episode cost a relatively cheap $25,000 to produce.

The show included some of the country’s most beloved actors. Ayelet Zurer, who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” played Naama, a seductive young woman whose interest in Dagan exceeds professional help. In the American version, the character, renamed Laura, is played by Melissa George.

For Dagan, the producers chose an actor seen as embodying something of the quintessential Israeli: Assi Dayan, the talented and famously dissolute son of Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed general who was the quintessential Israeli of an older and more heroic generation.

What allowed “Betipul” to be translated with relative ease for a U.S. audience was its tendency to shy away from overtly Israeli themes, such as conflict with Palestinians, in favor of personal problems that would be familiar to anyone living in a Western country.

For Mr. Levi, the show’s creator, “Betipul” was never a distinctively Israeli show, though it did have Jewish undertones. Mr. Levi grew up in a religious home and attended seminaries where studies centered on ancient Jewish legal texts including the Talmud.

“There is certainly something Talmudic about the back-and-forth, question-and-answer format of the show,” he says.

Selling the show to HBO marks a coming of age for Israel’s TV industry, says Yaron Ten Brink, television critic for the Israeli mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot.

“People were skeptical — they said if the idea was that good, the Americans would have thought of it already,” Mr. Ten Brink says. “This shows that a small industry without a lot money can develop strokes of brilliance with a low budget and do something that hasn’t been seen before.”

Mr. Levi used personal contacts in the U.S. television industry to get HBO’s attention, and once the network’s people had a look at his show, they needed little convincing, says Rodrigo Garcia, executive producer of “In Treatment.”

“The nature of the problems and conflicts it portrayed was elementary … and universal, and we always thought it could very well translate to other cultures,” Mr. Garcia wrote in an e-mail.

Some alterations were made to make the characters more believable as Americans: “Voices and tone changed, of course, because aside from the nature of the conflicts, these were now American characters with different approaches to their problems and to interpersonal communication,” according to Mr. Garcia. None of HBO’s directors or actors viewed the Israeli series so they would have no preconceived notions of how the scenes should look.

According to HBO, each of the show’s episodes averages 2 million viewers.

The success of “Betipul” may reflect Israelis’ increasing acceptance of the idea of frequenting a psychiatrist’s couch, which has developed as the country has evolved from its early spartan and collective days to the more individualistic place it is today.

“There is a lot more legitimacy to get help now than at any time in the past,” says Dr. Roni Baht, the show’s psychological consultant. “Today, there are places in Tel Aviv where if you’re not in treatment, people assume you lack depth.”

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