HBO’s ‘Treatment’ faces challenges

Network's therapy series has scheduling issues

Given the subject matter of HBO’s upcoming therapy drama “In Treatment,” it’s perhaps appropriate to ask this question of execs: How does it make them feel?

Not that the net is talking.

The pay web’s most possibility-laden project of 2008 — an adaptation of a hit Israeli skein called “B’Tipul” from the powerhouse team of Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson — also poses some of its thorniest challenges.

In fact, it’s a tricky enough enterprise that the net, despite heavy buzz, is so far declining to say how it will market and schedule the series.

In 2008, various HBO shows will end (“The Wire”), debut (“12 Miles of Bad Road”) and look to break out wide (“Flight of the Conchords”). But none offers as many delicious angles as the dramatic half-hour “In Treatment.”

A hot property when it was first shopped — FX was among the cablers pursuing it — the skein, from a country with a young production biz and no history selling to U.S. nets, was hardly a shoo-in.

But Levinson was taken with the original production after Israeli thesp Noa Tishby showed him a few episodes. Soon Levinson, producing partner Wahlberg and Rodrigo Garcia came aboard as exec producers. (Tishby and creator Hagai Levy are co-exec producers but not involved with the U.S. version.)

The series then became part of a slate of projects that Chris Albrecht signed up to fill a post-“Sopranos” void.

The pitch was for a show that stayed close to the Israeli formula (though Garcia and Davey Holmes are among those credited as scribes, the show isn’t so much written as translated). Like “B’Tipul,” “Treatment” would be a talk-intensive drama about a series of patients who all see the same therapist.

It came with a beguiling, if complicated, format. “In Treatment” is presented in clusters of five episodes; in each of the first four of those segs, a different patient visits their therapist.

In the fifth, the therapist visits his therapist. Then the cycle repeats.

The structure allows for a kind of disaggregated feel: Except for the fifth spot in the rotation (where the therapist makes reference to some of his patients) you don’t need to follow one character’s storyline to understand anyone else’s.

For HBO, the hook is especially appealing. With its popular on-demand service, the net can slice the series “vertically or horizontally,” as execs put it — that is, allow viewers to watch the episodes in sequence, or, alternatively, separate out one character and allow them to follow only that storyline. (In Israel, the DVD was offered as both a boxed-set of the entire season and also sold separately as five different DVDs, one for each character.)

The HBO series comes with other marketing benefits: bankable talent like Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest (who play, respectively, the main shrink and the shrink’s shrink), as well as the sort of emotional mysteries that made the net’s “Six Feet Under” so popular.

Critics and reporters have been buzzing about the first set of five episodes since the net shipped them a few months ago.

Perhaps even more appealing, the show’s central conceit is about difficult people revealing their secrets to, and occasionally lashing out at, an indulgent therapist, which sounds like a certain recently ended HBO hit.

But without the violence or visuals of “The Sopranos” (all the action takes place in two rooms), and with many of its pleasures more verbal than visceral, the net needs to find a way to build an audience for what are essentially a series of stage plays.

“This is going to be a word-of-mouth show. But you want to make sure it’s the right words from the right mouths,” says one rival exec in explaining the pay net’s cautious publicity strategy.

HBO is also juggling a number of variables on the scheduling side; after all, with storylines distinct from one another, the net is essentially trying to program five series at once.

The net will debut the show in the first quarter, likely in January. But little else is known — including to HBO itself — about how the pay web will present the series, which contains a whopping 43 episodes and is also the net’s first daily stripped show. “Right now everything is being bandied about,” says one insider. “Nothing is being ruled out.”

The most obvious sked would be a Sunday-Thursday or Monday-Friday strip. But the net is also playing with other possibilities, which includes stacking the episodes across two days, as well as using its multiplex nets for catch-up sessions so that viewers’ heads don’t spin.

When it was first announced, the format intrigued but flummoxed some reporters, who, mistaking the sequence for the order quantity, noted a “five-episode order.”

As Byrne’s character might say: With buzz come issues.