The announcement of Tel Aviv actress Shira Haas being in the running for an Emmy for best actress for her role in “Unorthodox”, reflects Israel’s impressive trajectory in the global TV entertainment industry
By David E. Kaplan
The series about a Hasidic Jewish woman in Brooklyn, who flees to Berlin from an arranged marriage and is taken in by a group of musicians – until her past comes calling – Unorthodox has garnered eight Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including for Israel the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.
Beyond the series success, the general meaning of the word “Unorthodox” – “unconventional” or “out of the ordinary” – may well explain Israel’s success in the entertainment industry.
The world seems to have an insatiable appetite for news on Israel. With more foreign correspondents per capita than any other country, Israel captures more media attention than China, India and all of Africa combined, yet few people know much about ordinary Israelis and their daily lives.
However, this is changing not by international news networks; but by popular Israeli TV shows that are emerging as one of the country’s hottest exports. An October 2019 Vanity Fair article headline ran:
“Why Israeli TV Is Irresistible to American Producers”
Already way back in 2015, Israel’s daily, Haaretz ran an article recording that “In Hollywood today, Israeli television formats are more popular than any other country’s TV show concepts.” Since then, Israel’s trajectory has soared even more. The country has exported more successful television formats – the concept and branding of a show – than the vast majority of other foreign language countries.
Behind this success is the fascination of the complex and entertaining lives of Israelis that provides excellent material for first-rate shows.
Donna Rosenthal, an Israeli TV producer, Israel Radio reporter and Hebrew University lecturer writes that Israel offers “an intriguing mix of fervently modern and devoutly traditional Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. All live in colliding worlds. Some order Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments; others pray regularly; some only if their soccer team is losing.”
She described her street in Jerusalem, where “Israeli women wear army helmets, wigs and veils and iPhone headphones. Their heroes? Gal Gadot and digital entrepreneurs transforming the ancient land of prophets into the modern land of profits.”
This societal mix is the stuffing of Israel’s new wave of entertainment exports.
The Rise Of Raff
In the vanguard of this renaissance is acclaimed Israeli film and television director, screenwriter and writer Gideon Raff. In 2009, the production of the Israeli television drama series Prisoners of War which he created, wrote and directed, became the country’s highest-rated drama of all time, and went on to win several Israeli television awards.
Even before filming of Prisoners of War began, the rights to develop the American version of the series had been sold to 20th Century Fox Television based on the strength of the script alone. This resulted in the acclaimed American spy thriller series Homeland that is now onto its eighth season.
What overseas purchasers find most attractive about Israeli TV shows is not its relatively low acquisition costs but “the kind of stories they tell and the way they choose to tell them.” Raff notes that the whole first season of his Israeli show Prisoners of War cost less than a single episode of Homeland. What followed has been a string of Raff successes that capture the mood, complexities and nuances of a Middle East embroiled in war, terrorism and religious schisms. Raff’s deft directional touch, results in the shows being appreciated by audiences across the political and religious divide.
Preceding his 2019 The Red Sea Resort and limited miniseries of The Spy, both exciting espionage sagas imbedded in Israel’s history of existential threat and salvation, there were the two earlier mini-series successes, namely Tyrant, loosely based on the directorial Assad regime in Syria and Dig, an archaeological thriller set in Jerusalem.
While Raff’s Dig, which premiered in March 2015 with top stars Jason Isaacs and Anne Heche, the real stars were the sights of Jerusalem from the chases through the cobbled streets of the Old City to iconic restaurants in the city center. Uncovering the murder beneath the layers of religious subterfuge, it was also the beauty and eternal mysteries of Jerusalem that was unveiled to global audiences.
While Dig is fictional, not so The Red Sea Resort and The Spy that reveal to global audiences the lengths Israelis have to go to in order to survive in a hard and unforgiving environment.
Thanks to the popularity of Netflix, original Israeli television shows – with subtitles – are now gaining a global audience. One spectacular example in the espionage genre is the hugely successful Fauda, a show about Israeli special agents hunting West Bank terrorists in seasons 1 and 2 and in Gaza in Season 3.
The Israeli television series developed by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, draws on their experiences in the Israel Defense Forces and tells the story of Doron, a commander in a counter terrorism unit (Mista’arvim) as they pursue an arch-terrorist known as “The Panther.”
The New York Times voted Fauda the best international show of 2017 and in 2018, the show took 11 Israeli TV Academy Awards, including best TV drama and best actor for Lior Raz. It has also been well received by the Palestinians for its brutal honesty. As William Delingpole explains in The Spectator, “Unlike most American drama series, Fauda isn’t there to make friends.”
He argues that the show’s popularity with Palestinians is because “it does them the service of taking them seriously…. treating them with grudging respect. Fauda takes the more respectful path of simply showing things as they are: two peoples, often so similar in appearance you cannot tell them apart, often fluent in each other’s languages, yet utterly and impossibly driven by a set of inimical values derived from a wholly different religious and cultural mind set. Sadly, this one is going to run and run.”
With no attempts to “sanitize”, “prettify” or “westernize” any of the cultures, this edge-of-the-seat entertainment with scenes of nail-biting tension, compelling character acting and location shots so atmospheric, “gives you a far clearer understanding of what’s really going on in the Middle East than anything you’ll ever see on the BBC,” concludes Delingpole.
Also in the Israeli military genre is the 2018 drama series When Heroes Fly ((Hebrew: Bishvila Giborim Afim) directed by Omri Givon. It is a 9-part dramatic thriller that centers on four friends – Israeli military veterans – who reunite for a rescue mission eleven years after having a bitter falling out. They travel to the Colombian jungle in search of Yaeli – the former lover of one man and sister of another.
A thriller, the series is also revealing social commentary on Israel’s ethnic tapestry. It shows how Israel’s mandatory army service is a melting pot that throws diverse groups together. This is how an Ashkenazi elite or Orthodox Jew can end up taking orders from a scrappy Mizrachi kid in a combat unit – and how these formative experiences bond them, remaining ‘brothers for life’.
In October 2018, Netflix acquired international broadcasting rights to the series which will also be adapted into an English version for the United States market.
Apart from the series shifting back and forwards in time, more significant is the new trend of venturing further afield geographically to tell a story.
This observation, writes British film critic Adrian Hennigan in Haaretz, “is a sign of Israel’s burgeoning confidence as a producer of quality television.” While When Heroes Fly ventures to Columbia, another 2018 Israeli drama series, Miguel, also looks to South America as a location.
Created by Tom Salama and Daphna Levine, the series stars Ran Danker as a gay man that adopts a 5-year-old child, Miguel, from Guatemala. While the child finds it challenging adjusting to Israeli culture, the situation becomes far more complex when sixteen years later, father and son, return to Guatemala in search of Miguel’s biological mother.
The series has received many accolades. Recipient of a prize at the Canneseries, The Financial Times praised the performance of Miguelito Sojuel playing the younger titular character:
“Sojuel is outstanding as an orphan who stubbornly refuses to embrace the new life his adoptive father has planned out for him. Clutching a football as if his life depended on it, he dominates the screen with his defiant eyes: proud of who he is and steadfastly unmoved by gift-wrapped blandishments.”
Ordinary Israel Revealed
Shifting away from the popular genre of war and terror to more introspective facets of life in Israel; are a slew of popular satirical shows that finds resonance abroad.
Strange as it might sound, one of these hottest series is not about sex, drugs or violence but about Israel’s Haredim community.
Set in Jerusalem, Shtisel is a window into the world of ultra-Orthodoxy, examining the feelings, thoughts and everyday realities of those who have been born into a world of intense spirituality, that imposes rules and roles they are meant to dutifully abide by.
Most the drama plays out in Jerusalem’s religious, Internet-free neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, following the lives of rabbi Shulem Shtisel, the family patriarch; as well as those of the other members of his family.
The series has been considered innovative for its treatment of the Orthodox Jews by stripping them of their political associations and depicting them as “ordinary” people as they genuinely seek love within the parameters of their ultra-religious lifestyle.
Dr Maurice Yacowar, a retired film studies professor and author of “The Sopranos on the Couch”, has described the scripting of Shtisel as “A TV Masterpiece from Israel”.
It is little wonder that in May 2019, it was announced that Shtisel has been renewed for a third season. One of its stars is Unorthodox Emmy nominee, Shira Haas.
Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, The Baker and the Beauty ( In Hebrew Lehiyot Ita or “Being with Her”) is an Israeli romantic-comedy series that follows the improbable love story between an international supermodel and a simple 28-year-old man working in his family’s pita bakery and who still lives with his parents. Their chance meeting and subsequent relationship faces many challenges, including the many people who’d like to see them separated. Lighthearted with impressive cinematography and talented acting, The Baker and the Beauty is an amusing watch.
Starring Rotem Sela and Avi Alush, the show comically exposes Jewish ethnic divisions in Israeli society through the attempted relationship of its two central characters – the privileged Ashkenazi woman and her working-class Yemenite love interest.
In the United Kingdom where the series was broadcasted on Channel 4, The Daily Telegraph praised the series, writing that “aside from being a hugely entertaining, frivolous romantic comedy on the surface, the show has a grittier side which will appeal to a British audience.”
Israel has even made an indelible mark on the global teen market. Euphoria, which follows a group of high school students through their experiences of sex, drugs, friendships, love and trauma is an American teen drama television series based on the Israeli miniseries of the same name originally created by Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin, and Tmira Yardeni. The series premiered on HBO on June 16, 2019 and in July 2019 it was renewed for a second season.
What might further partly explain Israel’s successes in the global market are that many of its plots could so easily be taken directly from the headlines news. Two such entertaining examples are False Flag (or in Hebrew Kfulim) believed to be loosely based on the 2010 assassination in Dubai of a senior Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhough, and Asylum City (in Hebrew “Ir Miklat”) which tackles African refugees, crime and murder in south Tel Aviv. Both expose how ordinary people get caught up in issues and principles that television audiences across the world can easily relate to.
All the signs indicate that Israel’s impressive trajectory of its TV formats selling “like hotcakes” in major foreign markets will continue.
Suggesting explanations, Abigail Klein Leichman, writing in Israel 21c notes fist and foremost that Israel’s TV shows are “character driven”. She sites Adam Berkowitz, co-head of the television department at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Los Angeles and president of the international TV Formats Conference, who praises the quality of Israel’s TV shows:
“It’s the compelling characters that draw you.”
There is also a uniqueness about Israel television that reflects the entrepreneurial character of its citizens.
“Just as Israelis in general comfortably embrace risk-taking and uncertainty,” writes Leichman, “the Israeli TV formats industry doesn’t hesitate to take a chance on innovative and unusual ideas. Once it has been proven in Israel, an out-of-the-box show format is an easier sell abroad.”
Further supporting Israel’s vanguard position are the “compelling storylines” of Israeli shows.
Walter Iuzzolino, head of British streaming service Walter Presents, told Bloomberg Business Week that Israeli TV formats are “emotionally poignant, three-dimensional, and never boring.”
How could they be boring as they reflect the daily drama of Israeli life?
The underlying themes of war, terror, religious and political conflicts – and the everyday challenge of getting along with neighbours of different cultures – provide endless enriching material for Israeli producers.
As Leichman poignantly points out, “The sometimes chaotic reality of Israeli life is reflected in the title of one of the biggest hits overseas, Fauda, which means “chaos” in Arabic. Action, humour, suspense, melodrama – our TV shows have it all.”
So while a small country, is it any wonder why Israel today is a powerhouse in global television?
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