Monday, October 24, 2005

"In Therapy"

Or: "Why I'll Never, Ever See A Shrink"

Okay, this is sort of a "nyah nyah nyah" moment, because if you're not living in Israel, chances are you're not watching "In Therapy". We're one of those countries that don't mind importing but export so rarely (though, in fairness, we very rarely have anything worth sending out there, and no, Dana International wasn't one of them).

So why am I reviewing this series? Because it's one of the few television dramas that hooked me from the pilot and, after months, has yet to lose me. It's subtle yet biting, clever yet not exclusively so, and it's mesmerizing. Forget religion, other people's problems are the opium of the masses.

"In Therapy" is about people. Lots of people. Their stories, their pain, their secrets, the lies they tell each other and themselves. The focalizer is a psychologist named Reuben Dagan, and through him we're plugged into the lives of five of his patients. The series is structured in such a way that his sessions are sort of real-time; since he only sees his patients on a weekly basis, each day of the week features an episode aligned with that specific character. It's a rather clever way of giving us multiple character subplots without getting them tangled in each other. At the same time, since Reuben is the one we follow every day, it's interesting to see how each session and each patient affects him differently. The smallest details mean something.

Being a series about therapy, each 30-minute episode contains about 29 minutes and 30 seconds of dialogue. This is obviously where the series would live or die, because it's so heavily dialogue-oriented. Fortunately the scripters are at the head of the class, gently prodding you with the Exposition Stick (as opposed to bashing your brains out, as other shows are wont to do). Verbal clues are dropped, then picked up and explored. Very true to life, and that's what makes it work.

So... his patients. My first reaction is "Ye Gods, these people make the Osbournes look like the Bradys". Except we're already six or seven sessions in, and looking back I realize just how toned down each character really was. When you first meet these people, you don't know their issues, and in some cases you're left to wonder why they're wasting their time on a couch, there's nothing wrong with them. And then they slowly, exquisitely start unraveling.

On Sundays we have Neama, a 32-year-old woman who's been in Reuben's care for a year. She's developed an obssession with him, and she's utterly convinced he feels the same way. Of course, he writes it off as transference, and really, she comes off as the Icky Slutbag in the first few episodes, talking about sex like she's getting paid for it. But it turns out she's harboring a deep trauma about her childhood that completely screwed her up, and while that's a big part of her current state of mind, something on Reuben's end may be encouraging her.

Monday nights give us Yadin, an Israeli fighter pilot. Unlike Neama, he's never been to Reuben before, which means he doesn't know anything more than we do. Yadin starts off as a pretty obnoxious character: arrogant, defensive, a real jerk. On a faulty intelligence tip, he bombed a Palestinian kindergarten, killing thirteen infants rather than the terrorist he'd targeted. This doesn't seem to bother him, since - as he tells Reuben - he did his job to the best of his ability. It's not his problem. That statement gets pretty warped when we find out Yadin's parents were Holocaust survivors. But the big thing with this guy is that, the day his military hiatus ended, he drove himself to a massive coronary and died. Clinically dead. And when he came back, everything felt different for him. Of course, he doesn't actually see any connection between this and the failed bombing. It all spirals pretty out of control for the poor guy, whose irritating air of superiority gets dismantled, bit by bit. And to top it all off, his latest breakthrough in therapy has kicked off a full-fledged sexual identity crisis (beat that, Brad Meltzer!), as the promo for tomorrow's episode seems to indicate he's slept with the doctor who saved his life. Who happens to be his best friend, but more importantly, a man. I smell overtime.

The most sympathetic patient to date is 17-year-old Ayala, who turns up on Tuesdays. Again, this is a tabula rasa character, so she's unknown both to us and to Reuben. Ayala's story is the one with the most intricate structure; she originally comes to Reuben for a professional evaluation, after she got hit by a car and the insurance company denied her claim by saying she jumped into the road. Ayala, of course, is furious at the suggestion that she attempted suicide, but she can't prove otherwise without a legal affirmation from a certified psychologist. Reuben decides to play along, thinking that if he gets her to open up (ostensibly for the evaluation) he might find out what's going on. And it's a doozy. I couldn't fit this girl's baggage onto a 747, but the thing is, it'd be impossible to care for her if she wasn't the most sympathetic cast member. The actress, Maya Maron, infuses her character with so much vulnerability that, from the moment she steps into the clinic with both arms in casts, you can't help feeling for her. Neither can Reuben, who is almost instinctively driven to help her face her demons and overcome them.

Wednesday is Couples Therapy, and these are the characters I care least about because it's a little too color-by-numbers. A thugalicious cowboy and a banker have been married for years (she cheated on her first husband with him), they had a kid, and because of complications in labor she couldn't have another. They worked at it for five years, torturous fertility treatments and such, and she finally got pregnant. Only now she doesn't want the baby anymore. Reuben deduces that who she really doesn't want is her husband. IMO, the problem here is that, unlike the rest of Reuben's patients, there aren't many surprises here. He thinks she's having an affair (she might be), she thinks he's paranoid and abusive (he probably is), and the only reason they've stayed together this long is because fighting each other gives their lives meaning. It doesn't matter if they love each other, or if she just doesn't like the idea of having her career waylaid by pregnancy; their whole relationship is founded on their differences rather than whatever they might have in common.

But Thursday is where the series really gets brilliant. At the end of the very first week, Reuben calls up an old colleague of his, seemingly on a whim. And so we meet Dr. Gila Abulafia, his mentor and supervisor back when he was a student of psychology. There's some bad blood between them due to a life-altering feud they had in that period, but when he shows up, it's almost like two colleagues getting reacquainted... until you realize they're slowly moving into actual psychological therapy. With Gila treating Reuben. I can't stress how effective this is, in that it completely deconstructs Reuben as the supposedly-flawless listener who knows the answers to everyone's problems. Gila, the superior therapist, breaks through that surface and brings out shocking, personal issues that Reuben himself is dealing with. Just like that, the veneer of calm, oracular knowledge is shattered and we see Reuben just as frail, just as problematic as anyone he's treating. It breaks down the facade in a way that makes him a human being in our eyes, but also that much more unreliable as a therapist, because how can he advise a couple in a marriage crisis when his own marriage is falling apart? His patients need to see him as the guy with all the answers, and that's how we're inclined to see him too, at first. And when we can't do that anymore, it changes everything.

If I knew how, I'd encode and subtitle every single episode of this sublime, sophisticated and enrapturing series and share it with the world. :)