November 10, 2010

In Treatment Moves Beyond Israeli Counterpart

Posted in Pop Culture at 5:51 pm by chavalah

Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Bryne) will listen to your problems.

Continuing in my trend of covering television shows that touch upon Jewish and interfaith issues…(and what do you know, I just happen to be a fan of all of them :P) my topic today is the renewal of the HBO series, In Treatment, which documents the therapy sessions between a psychoanalyst and four patients.

This show was adapted from a two-season Israeli production about the same topic, B’Tipul. With the American version now in its third year, it has surpassed its counterpart. In some behind the scenes numbers, the actors and producers talk about the difficult and fatiguing process of moving past adapting stories from the Hebrew version into crafting their own. Personally, I’m enjoying the product, and where the writers see fit to take the main psychoanalyst, Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Bryne.) He is the only continual protagonist from the beginning of the series so we have the most invested in his life and problems, which are handled with grace. It makes me hope that maybe Israeli tv can revive B’Tipul and psychoanalyst Reuven Dagan (played by Assi Dayan.)

The format of the series closely follows an actual therapy session. Paul sits opposite his patients (or opposite his own psychoanalyst when he is the patient) and they talk over the problems in their lives. Each year has featured a different set of people—this year it’s Sunil, a grieving widower from Calcutta brought to live with his son and American daughter-in-law after his wife passed; Frances, an aging actress who is having trouble remembering her lines as her sister dies from stage four cancer and her teenage daughter grows distant; and Jesse, a rebellious, homosexual teen who is contacted out of the blue by his birth mother. Paul himself goes to see a new therapist after two years being treated by his former supervisor, Gina Toll (played by Dianne Weist.) Beyond some contentious grudges against Gina, he is also afraid that he may have Parkinson’s Disease, which killed his father last season, and his young son comes to live with him in the wake of his ex-wife’s engagement.

As someone who has had experience with therapy, I tend to feel a kinship to all of the characters, but undoubtedly the one that fits most closely with this blog is the case of Sunil. (Side note: Indian American author, Jhumpa Lahiri, serves as a cultural consultant for this storyline. If you haven’t read her novel or short stories yet, you should.) A mild-mannered former math professor, he clashes often with his assertive daughter-in-law, Julia, whom he sees as disrespectful and taking advantage of his son, Arun. A major concern in all interfaith or inter-cultural relationships is the balance of cultures and how to retain a household that is harmonious to both. The “ethnic” culture—be it Indian or Jewish—is often fighting an uphill battle against the “assimilated” or “majority” culture—be it American or Christian. But what I respect most about In Treatment is that it doesn’t stop at stereotypes. Sunil has idiosyncrasies that are particular to him–beyond being an Indian immigrant. In fact, although Sunil, Frances, Jesse (and Paul) come from very different backgrounds, they all ultimately want the same thing—acceptance, recognition, good health, love and support from their families. This isn’t a show about preaching that we are all the same. We all travel different paths. But in stripping away the fears and negative behaviors that limit our lives, we find a universal humanity.

When I watch this show, I try to act as a therapist myself. I try not to judge the patients—this is a tv program that dives deep into the psychology of what makes people tick. There are no “black and white” characters. Everyone makes mistakes but no one is the bad guy. Everyone feels victimized but no one is the good guy. These are just people, trying their best to make it through life.

In Treatment may not be for everyone. It is a show where character development comes first and plot comes second. There are few action scenes—or scenes that take place out of the office. These people face real problems—grieving and assimilation, cancer and abandonment, sexual bullying and changing family dynamics. But the driving force is a quest for certainty of identity–and that comes from the inside. As a child of interfaith marriage and as a novelist, this is something that I understand deeply.

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