HBO's 'In Treatment' is steeped in Baltimore references

For a TV series neither set nor filmed in Baltimore, the city sure plays a prominent role in the Peabody Award-winning HBO drama "In Treatment." And the off-camera roots of the program about the work and life of a brooding, emotionally wounded psychoanalyst run even deeper into Charm City soil, according to executive producer Anya Epstein.

Paul Weston, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based therapist played by Gabriel Byrne who is at the heart of the series, is constantly referring to Baltimore.

He lived and worked in the city in the first season. His ex-wife ( Michelle Forbes) and one of his children remain there — as does his mentor and former therapist, Gina Toll ( Dianne Wiest). He and Gina met at the fictional Baltimore- Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, where she was on the faculty. And last season after moving to New York, he traveled to Baltimore from Brooklyn once a week for his sessions with Gina.

Last week, in his session with his new therapist, Adele ( Amy Ryan), he talked about how wrenching it was for him as a teen to be pulled out of boarding school in England and plopped down in a Baltimore public school when his father, a cardiac surgeon, took a prestigious and all-consuming job at Union Memorial Hospital. The week before, one of Paul's patients, an actress named Frances ( Debra Winger), spoke at length with great emotion about a harsh lie she told her sister when the young woman was a student at the Johns Hopkins University.

And the week before that, Weston's 13-year-old son, Max, showed up on the doorstep of his Brooklyn home-office explaining that he climbed aboard a train in Baltimore and came to New York hoping to live with his dad. The troubled teen has since moved in, though last week there was considerable talk about a weekend spent back in Baltimore with his mom and her new boyfriend.

And sometimes Baltimore fact and fiction get all mashed up. In one episode, Weston took Max to hear the teenager's favorite band, which was playing a date in New York City. The band, Animal Collective, is a real indie group that started in Baltimore and has since moved to New York. The music on the show was the group's actual music, and it was suggested by writer's assistant Kyle Kinsella, who — you guessed it — grew up in Baltimore.

Are you getting a sense of how Baltimore-centric this American adaptation of an award-winning Israeli series can be?

"There's more Baltimore yet, if you want it," Epstein said laughingly in a telephone interview last week from Hawaii, where she and husband, Dan Futterman, were recharging after finishing their first season of writing and executive-producing the show together. "Danny and I met in Baltimore, in Fells Point. So I have some very, very fond feelings for the city."

That meeting took place in 1998, the third of parts of three years that Epstein lived and worked in Fells Point during the filming of the NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street." She first came to Baltimore and the acclaimed police drama as a 27-year-old writer.

In the final season of the series, which aired in 1999, Futterman, an actor as well as a writer, had a guest-starring role in an episode that Epstein wrote, "A Case of Do or Die," about a bride-to-be found dead in a park ravine on the eve of her wedding. Another guest star in that episode was Ryan, who now plays Weston's psychoanalyst. (Ryan also appeared in "The Wire," another HBO series filmed in Baltimore.)

Want a few more degrees of separation? The medical examiner on "Homicide" from 1996 to 1998 was played by Forbes, who plays Weston's ex-wife in the HBO series. And one of the supervising producers on "Homicide" in 1999 was Eric Overmyer, now a consulting producer for "In Treatment."

The script supervisor and unit production manager on the HBO drama, Holly Unterberger and Greer Yeaton, respectively, both worked on "Homicide" in the 1990s. Unterberger was Epstein's roommate in their Fells Point days.

"All the people who were young people in their 20s when we were in Baltimore are now grown up and have these jobs on 'In Treatment,' " Epstein says, sounding a little surprised herself as she chronicles the way these lives and careers have remained happily connected.

Since she and Futterman came on board and took over as show runners for "In Treatment" only this season, the 40-year-old Yale University graduate said she can't say with certainty why Baltimore was chosen in the first place to be Weston's fictional home. But she thinks it was mainly logistics. The series creators needed to set the series in an urban area with a strong medical and psychiatric community to justify Gina and Paul living there, and they also needed the city to be near a military base because one of Weston's patients was a military pilot who had recently been in combat — all of that came with the Israeli template.

"And Baltimore fit those bills," Epstein says. "Again, though, this is our first season working on the show, and I can't take credit for any of that."

This is also the first season in which all-original scripts, rather than Americanized versions of Israeli story lines from the series "Be' Tipul" ("In Therapy"), are used. And while the writing has always been strong, this year it feels richer, deeper, more daring and nuanced than ever. And she and Futterman, whose resume includes the screenplay for the feature film "Capote," can take credit for some of that. (Sarah Treem, Adam Rapp and Alison Tatlock are the other writers on the show.)

From the emotional damage some people suffer in childhood to the horrible diseases that randomly turn worlds upside down, "In Treatment" is not afraid to explore the sadness of life, which most American TV assiduously ignores. The stories told so sensitively here cut as close to the truth of life as anything this side of the very best theater.

The series, which features some of the finest acting on television, has 12 more episodes to air across the next three weeks. Last week, it ended with an emotional bang as Weston told his new therapist, the inscrutable and much younger Adele, that he was thinking of her as he lay in bed earlier in the day with his girlfriend, another woman who looks to be just slightly more than half his age.

Ryan is outstanding in a demanding role, holding her own for 30 minutes a week going to toe-to-toe with Byrne with only their talent, a couch and a couple of chairs to hold the audience's attention. And they do more than hold it. The air between them seems to literally dance at times with memories, fear, desire and the tension between them.

"Right away, we thought she would be exactly the right presence to infuriate and intrigue Paul [Weston]," Epstein says. "Their dynamic is terrific together. … All I can say for now is that there are some surprises to come on that story front in coming weeks."

Along with more Baltimore references, enough to keep the city alive as a prime-time presence — even if no one is setting and making wonderful shows like "Homicide" here anymore.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

On TV

"In Treatment" airs at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on HBO.

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