Sunday, April 19, 2009

Writing In Treatment and other stories

"Writing In Treatment" is a bit of a come-on title, it's as if I've found some news for you and will be linking like crazy to insightful interviewers. And it is a little like that.

Here's the Los Angeles Times reviewing the new second season of In Treatment and saying "the stories are even better than they were last season and that's saying something". And The Boston Globe has a good piece about both the original Israeli series and the American adaptation.

But what that Boston Globe piece does that I'm trying to do today and really rather failed to do last time is talk about the writers. Perhaps chiefly because I want to enthuse about them but also because I think there are signs for the future here, both good and bad signs.

Last time I spoke of the writing, I didn't speak of the writers. I think I was a bit awash with writers at the time: I'd just seen 43 episodes over 14 days, most of which had individual writers but some were team-written, and 42 of them were direct translation/adaptations of the Israeli originals by more writers.

Then there was a showrunner on the US version who wrote the first five episodes to set the style and doubtlessly worked at least in part on all the other episodes. That was Rodrigo Garcia but there was also a showrunner/writer on the Israeli show, Be'Tipul and he created the whole thing: Hagai Levi.

I watched the show for the same reason you watch anything: it sounded good, I thought I'd like it. Then I really, really liked it and it was a can't-stuff-your-face-fast-enough race to the end of the season.

Now I'm watching it again. But as a writer. And I'm slicing it a different way. Rather than one episode of Laura's therapy sessions, then Alex's, then Sophie's, then Jake and Amy, then Paul's, rinse, repeat, I'm watching all of Sophie's. And by focusing on the one, and I'll admit aided by a handy writer list on the DVD box that I hadn't noticed before, I'm seeing that Sarah Treem wrote the last eight of the nine Sophie episodes. (Garcia did the first of this one as well.) That link is to her IMDb list, as are most of the links here, but in her case don't bother: it just lists In Treatment. Instead, try the New York Times which has a review of A Feminine Ending, a stage play of hers. But it also has audio of Treem herself talking about that play. Then The Village Voice talks about how Treem and other new writers made up the whole of the 2007/8 season for the Playwrights Horizons company. That company claims to always champion new writing but for that year, it did nothing else and - this is not directly stated but it's only barely hidden - it was because its regular writers were rubbish.

That's a little harsh.

I don't know much yet about any of the other writers on In Treatment but even if Sarah Treem is the only newcomer, isn't that marvellous? In Treatment was a fairly chancy commission for HBO and it wasn't like they dabbled in it. There was apparently a five-part pilot made, which presumably makes up week 1 of the series, but still you can't imagine ITV1 commissioning 40-odd episodes of anything new. If they ever did, if any major British television company did risk commissioning that many episodes of a non-soap drama, can you imagine them ever trying new writers on it?


Life on Mars did. One episode of that was to be written by a new writer to television, I don't know who, I only know it was a man. Something happened, again I don't know what, and his script was not used but there was that willingness to take a chance. Similarly, Ashes to Ashes was the first producing job for Beth Willis and look at her now: she's the new co-exec producer on Doctor Who.

It's called taking a chance for a reason, though. You chance your arm, you try your hand, you sometimes burn your fingers. If a brand new writer fails to deliver a filmable script of The Bill - um, bad example, sorry. If a brand new writer fails to deliver a filmable episode of Hustle, that's a gigantic production machine derailed. You've got to believe they'll deliver the goods, they've got to be as much of a safe pair of hands as you can manage. I've felt precisely this when I've commissioned new writers on magazines and I've had bad experiences from that. Also some good, actually, and that keeps you doing it, but a lot of bad. And a bad experience for me means having to write an emergency article in a couple of hours, that's substantially easier than writing an hour's television over a weekend.

This is the reason we're all guided to soaps: they can be derailed too but they're hardy little buggers and they can cope better. And it's fair enough: if you've written 100 episodes of a soap, you're someone who delivers. When you cannot have a blank screen, that's a very tempting and very practical thing to look for in a new writer.

I think it's a calamitous side-effect that soaps have become seen as the only route through and moreover that because such a proportion of new writers and producers come through the soap route that it's seen as the right way to do drama. People who don't write soaps are very dismissive of the genre, but fortunately people who do write soaps believe they're already writing every type of drama so the general wrongness just balances out. Funnily enough, there is huge, rich drama in the gap between: when drama writers try soap and soap writers try drama.

Anyway, In Treatment, just to yank this back to the topic, is not a soap. It's far more painful than that and if a story is about someone fancying someone, it cuts truer than the soap version would. It's willing to go down areas that might end the story early. It does end the story early. More than one patient does not last the whole nine weeks of the series. And then it sees what happens next, what's underlying everything, what's deeper. Rather like therapy, actually. Apparently the original Israeli series had a therapist advising the writers and he or she did complain a lot: not about inaccuracy but about how the scripts didn't dig deep enough. So then they did.

There's a lot of hyperbole about the original show, about how it's the greatest drama Israeli television has ever produced. It's certainly the only one I've heard of, so maybe that's true. But there is also the harsh, practical fact that it may well be the cheapest.

It's certainly, surely, HBO's cheapest-ever drama. Some sources say each episode took two days to film, others say it was only one. It is only half an hour per episode, but compare that to a ten-day shoot for a typical one-hour US drama and it's probably cheaper than even reality TV.

I don't want to see British television drama budgets cut. But they're being cut. I think it's a preposterously short-sighted notion: notice how ITV1 is in trouble but ITV3 is doing very well - because it's showing all the dramas ITV used to make. You can't repeat Britain's Got Talent, you can and they do repeat successfully repeat Thunderbirds over and over.

If there's any good to come from lower budgets, it's that we may see things like In Treatment. BBC4 is already making cheap dramas that are punching well above their weight: think of the dramatisations of the lives of people like Hughie Green. Trevor Eve received the greatest share of the praise for that, and his performance was superb, he managed to convey not only a tremendous impression of Hughie Green but all the nuances and the strengths of the script. It's just that it was the writer, Tony Basgallop who put those nuances and those strengths in there.

Fast-cutting scenes, action and stupendous locations cost money: tight, tense, intimate writing, not so much. Unfortunately, the type of writing that keeps you compelled without any eye candy, that involves you in characters without melodrama, that's cripplingly hard to do. The rewards are richer, for the viewer, but the gamble is higher for the writer. And it's a harsh and unpalatable fact that being given the chance to write this type of work is not even a remote guarantee that you're capable of it.

If drama budgets are cut, we're going to see an awful lot of crap. But we might see things like In Treatment and they might bring us new writers, new voices.

I'm obviously arguing with my writing hat on: I said as much at the top. But I'm a drama nut and as a viewer I just want to be in the story, whatever it is and however much it cost. As a writer, mind, I should tell you I'm available. I'm here through Thursday, two-drink minimum, see your waitress for details.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In Treatment

I'm so tired. It's 2am, but I've got to talk to you. I've got to Talk Things Through.

This is my problem: if I know something, I take it for granted that you do too and that in fact you've always known it. I'm not 100% sure how I square this with my job as a journalist or in the delight I have when I find out something and want to rush up to you with the news like a puppy.

This time, I'm pretty sure you don't know anything about In Treatment. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you'll have seen me obsessing about it but otherwise, you're probably blank. That's because it's an American TV show that has never aired in the UK. Plus, I do follow US TV, I read about the pilots and the upfronts and the network presentations, and still I missed this
until it came out on US DVD about three weeks ago. Actually, I didn't even notice it then: I stumbled across an article online that mentioned it enough to intrigue me and then I read more and more until I ordered the DVD.

I want you to buy it too. No, really I think I want BBC4 to buy the series: it would be perfect for that favourite channel of mine. And here's why.

In Treatment is a HBO series that last year was made up of 43 half-hour episodes, each one of which was a single session of therapy with Gabrielle Byrne as the therapist, Paul. Each Monday night HBO showed his session with Laura (Melissa George). Tuesdays were Alex (Blair Underwood). Wednesdays were Sophie (an incredible Mia Wasikowska), on Thursdays he did couples' counselling with Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz). Every Friday night, you'd see Paul meeting with his own therapist, Gina (Diane Wiest). Next week, it all starts over again.

The entire half hour is the therapist and his patient or on Thursday his patients, plural. No one else, at least not often. It's all talking heads and very often not talking heads: long stretches where no one talks at all. If I have one criticism, it's that very often when the patient leaves the room at the end of the episode, I found myself feeling for the actor. Not the character who'd been through this session but the actor who had performed such an intense and difficult role. That's not to say I didn't feel for the characters. Sophie is a particular worry: I was as concerned for her as if she were real. There's one patient I really didn't like but when a bad thing happens to him, I felt - and still feel - upset.

Still, talking heads for 43 half-hour episodes. And not many talking heads. And sometimes talking heads not talking. Plus this repetitive thing of each Monday being Laura and so on. I think it sounds tough going, I think it could even sound boringly rigid and the truth is that the series goes to every length and trick it can to break up the rhythms and surprise you. For instance, one Thursday session with Jake and Amy ends after five minutes: you entirely understand why they're leaving early but you can't believe it, you can't believe the episode is going to fill its remaining 25 minutes or whatever it is. And the time is filled to perfection.

So there are these stunts, these gags and in fact one episode takes place entirely away from the therapy room. Only, the show's many, many tremendously powerful moments are when it doesn't do any tricks, when it is precisely what it claims to be and is just allowing one human being to tell a story.

And the rigidity of the format doesn't constrain the show, it makes it entirely compelling. I watched it on DVD so I could just keep on watching whenever I could, but still there was a compulsive rigidity to knowing who the next episode is about. At first, you know Paul's going to his own shrink at the end of the week, so you're terribly curious to see what he has to say about these patients you've been following. Then you start to see what the patients do to him is echoed in what he does with other patients: whether he likes it or not, Paul the therapist is being affected by these patients.

He's especially affected by one of them. I don't want to reveal, but I do want to celebrate so allow me to just say that it's no chance the entire season begins with a Monday session with Laura. What happens there punches throughout the season.

More, at least two patient stories suddenly overlap, perhaps 15 or 20 episodes in. Then the compulsion is turned into addiction: you cannot, cannot, just cannot watch one patient recounting a date without demanding to see the next episode with the other patient telling the same story. Every thing you've just imagined about how different the tales are is exactly right, and the drama of that is beautifully exploited, but each patient is also dating the other for different, sometimes conflicting reasons. Then there's Paul and his therapist on Friday: what will he be saying about this pair? And why is he lying about them too?

Sometimes the next episode is a little tease, a way of holding you up before you get to the next week and the next part of one particular patient's story. In America, In Treatment is on iTunes and as well as choosing to buy individual episodes or an entire season, you have the option to just buy Laura's Story. Or Sophie's. And so on. If you have the chance to buy it over iTunes, do not take these options: buy the season. Whichever patient interests you the most, you learn more about them from watching the whole thing.

I have never been busier than I am right now. So much going on, so many drama projects I've tended to for a long time are now alive and taking every spare second I've got. But it's 14 days since I watched my first episode of In Treatment and tonight, about 1am after a 6am start and a drive to and from London, I watched the last one. Forty-three episodes in two weeks. Tell me it's not compulsive.

The second season is now underway in America: Gabrielle Byrne is back as Paul but I believe at least most of the patients are new. I know for certain that John Mahoney plays one of them: don't you immediately know that's going to be great?

There is a difference this year. Instead of one half hour each weeknight, HBO is bunching episodes together: I think it's two one night, three the next. I'm not sure why that disappoints me since I've been racing through, but it does feel like a compromise to get ratings.

You need to know a couple of things and I need to tell you some, too. Starting with Be'Tipul. This is the original Isreali series that HBO adapted for America; you can find some clips on YouTube. It has a beautiful title sequence but as yet I've not been able to follow anything else. But speaking of YouTube, there are some short promo features about the show: here's the one about Sophie.

And last, In Treatment is on US DVD. If you can play American discs, you've probably got a preferred supplier but for once try After weighing up the postage costs and retail prices, I decided to skip my usual and even the American Amazon to instead buy it via the UK Amazon site. It'll cost you around £30.

Or you could wait for a UK broadcaster to pick it up. Waiting is good. I'm telling myself that waiting is good because the second season DVD presumably won't be out until at least that second season has finished airing in the States. It's been running for two weeks, they're ten episodes in. It's going to be months before I can carry on watching.

It's going to be a hard couple of months. I'd best try writing my own immensely intense dramas in the meantime.


Red in tooth and claw

Previously... the Red Planet Prize could've been made for me - but it wasn't. Not this year, anyway. I got to the finals, which was without question the single most affirming thing that's happened in my writing career. I mean, stage plays, yes, Radio Times, no doubt. But Red Planet wanted one-hour TV drama and that's my bag. That is the reason I am a writer at all. (qv Lou Grant.)

It was so affirming that it was practically enough to just be a finalist. I was disappointed not to win (and overdue congratulations to Mark Wilkinson who did) and in fact it was quite measurably disappointing: I've entered many contests where I didn't give a monkey's if I placed, I just used them as a deadline. I've entered some where to this day I have no idea if I won, though one has to assume they'd have mentioned it to me by now. Red Planet Prize, being so perfectly made for me, was more disappointing than anything else has ever been.

Except, you know, I couldn't and I can't shake that sense of affirmation I got from being a finalist: here are people whose work I admire, saying that I'm doing work they like. Moreover, I'm doing the work: that's all that ever matters to me, getting my hands dirty and doing the work: doing it for this contest and getting into the finals is doing the work, it's no longer playing at the job. What could be better? Well, winning, obviously.

But there was also a further issue, a second thing that made the Red Planet tingle. You know that some number entered, right, you know that so many were finalists and that one was the winner. But a selection of those finalists were also going to be invited to a workshop with Tony Jordan at Red Planet. I've no idea how many finalists would get this, but certainly not all, I was specifically told it wouldn't be all.

I'm one of them.

I just heard this afternoon. Punched the air, somehow accidentally caught a Radio Times PC right in the reset button and had to contain myself long enough to make sure their computer was okay.

Jason Arnopp is another on the course, and I've read his Red Planet script, he'll be winning it next year unless I can spike enough drinks, and so is Dave Turner. Haven't read his script, will bring arsenic just in case and if necessary I am willing to tickle him during the serious bits of the workshop.

So. I have not the faintest idea what the workshop will entail, but I get to find out next month. Just after I return home from New York City.

May's looking great, isn't it? Especially when I calm down and find a way to get my radio series recorded then too.