Analyse this: HBO's hit drama about a psychotherapist

'In Treatment', HBO's hit drama about a psychotherapist, is taking the risks British television used to. And it's finally found a home at Sky
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The Independent Culture

Until quite recently, the HBO drama series In Treatment was being mysteriously shunned by British television, despite a trunk-load of Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.

It's only now that it has found a home, with Sky Arts 1 as the surprise purchaser. So why the trepidation? Prestigious new American dramas, especially from HBO, are usually snapped up as fast as they can be produced, and this one's got a terrific cast, led by Gabriel Byrne, Blair Underwood and Dianne Wiest.

Well, I suppose there's the fact that outwardly nothing much happens in In Treatment – just two people sitting in a comfy room with subdued lighting, talking. What's more, it's a serious look at the psychoanalytical process, and we've never been particularly comfortable with head-doctoring in this country. In some ill-defined way, therapy is "foreign" – it doesn't sit well with our native stiff upper lip.

"It's very interesting," says Hagai Levi, creator of the original Israeli In Treatment and executive producer of the American version. "Britain is the last country in Europe to buy the series, and we've been asking ourselves 'why?'. I'm very curious about the way it will be perceived."

That is the $5m (or whatever lesser sum Sky Arts paid for the syndication rights) question. In Treatment is a static but intelligent and very intense drama that sucks in the viewer as it follows a psychotherapist and his roster of clients through the working week. In effect, each episode is one real-time therapy session, and in Israel, where Betipul (to give the show its Hebrew name) had an instant beneficial effect on the status of the shrink industry.

"A lot of people went back to therapy; a lot of people started therapy, and a lot of therapists raised their fees," laughs Levi. "It was very exciting to see how a TV series affected real life. They were saying 'it's the first time that we are presented in the proper way'."

Paul, the therapist in the HBO version of In Treatment, is played by Gabriel Byrne (Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects), and his regulars include Laura (played by Melissa George), a client who is in love with Paul, Alex (Blair Underwood), a fighter pilot traumatised after bombing a school in Iraq, and Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) a suicidal teenage gymnast.

The format is beautifully simple, but also bold and demanding a considerable commitment from its schedulers. Stripped across the week from Monday to Friday, each day is dedicated to an individual client, so that Laura, for example, is on a Monday, Alex on Tuesdays, and so on, the clients returning on their allotted day in subsequent weeks. Then in each Friday episode, Paul himself goes into therapy, being analysed by his former supervisor, Gina (Dianne Wiest). In this way we get to discover what Paul, who is largely silent on the other four days, actually thinks of his clients (or, as he puts it, "If people could see what's in my head, they'd run for the hills"). The five-days-a-week format was inspired by Levi's work on the popular Israeli soap Love Around the Corner.

"I realised this daily thing has power. The problem is that soaps are shallow and stupid most of the time, but why can't we use this form and create something that's better?" A 45-year-old TV producer and director, Levi has himself been in therapy "most of my life", and gained a psychology degree before he went to film school. "I always found myself as a director interested more in intimate situations, and I was thinking 'what could be the most intimate thing in the world?'. For me that happened to be therapy."

His creation was an instant hit in Israel – with the word soon spreading globally. "Days after the show went on air in Israel I got a lot of calls from all over the world saying 'We would like to remake it here'. Suddenly I was in the situation where three US networks, HBO, FX and USA, were fighting for the show... It all happened very fast."

The opening episode of In Treatment, starkly captioned "Laura – Monday 9am", features a case of "erotic transference". The client, in other words, has fallen in love with her therapist. Laura is played by Melissa George, yet another Australian Home and Away graduate made good – along with Isla Fisher, Guy Pearce, Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon and the late Heath Ledger, to name but half of the ex-soapies at large in Hollywood. George is a revelation, and her opening account of her sex life is one of the most shocking and, well, sexiest pieces of television I can recall for a long while. The question is whether Paul, whose own marriage is in crisis, will cross professional boundaries and have an affair with this deeply troubled woman.

"Those little gems come along very rarely in an actor's career and you know 500 other people are up for it," says George, adding that she has never before had to learn so many lines. "Gabriel and I were pretty much stuck on that sofa for about 14 hours a day, and we would just basically run with it. You'd get into this powerful dynamic between the doctor and Laura and you'd forget you were actually on a sofa acting with a crew around you."

Two people sitting in a room talking – one of them barely talking. Television drama, especially British drama, doesn't seem to take risks like this any more. It almost makes you sad to hear Hagai Levi talking about how influenced he has been by British TV and how he had had Alan Bennett's BBC2 Talking Heads monologues in mind when writing In Treatment. "For me it's very, very important to have it screened in Britain," he says. "It was the television that I grew up on. I've admired it all my life."

An announcement concerning a third series of the HBO version is expected any day now. But after two series of his creation, Levi won't be involved because he says he is tired of the format, and it's another piece of pioneering British television, Michael Apted's time-lapse TV documentaries, that have inspired his latest venture.

"I'm going to take one character and follow his life through his therapy, from childhood through to about 45. It's going to be very, very personal because it's going to be based on my own experiences as a patient.

"I'm doing it for myself and my desire to tell my own story, but then In Treatment was for myself as well – everything else that has happened was never my intention."

In Treatment starts on Monday 5 October on Sky Arts 1