A Telenovela With Some Winking

There were many winners at the Israeli film and television academy awards this past Monday; Shlomo Mashiah was not one of them.

This past Monday, the drama series written by Shlomo Mashiah, "To Catch the Sky" (Litfos et Hashamayim) was in the running for the best television drama award from the Israeli film and television academy. In conversation several days earlier, Mashiah praised Dana Modan's "Love Hurts" (Ahava Zeh Koev) and acknowledged that his series had already won prizes and respect in its first incarnation five years ago. Nevertheless, he said that he hopes to win.

"I have no generosity in this matter," he said with humorous drama, "but I want a statue." In the end, "Love Hurts" won. Orli Zilbershatz-Banai won the award for best actress in a drama for her role in "To Catch the Sky." Mashiah relates that working on "To Catch the Sky," a mini-series that deals with political issues (directed by Roni Ninio and featuring Yoram Hattab and Zilbershatz-Banai) was fraught with emotions. "There were meetings, fights and shouting, and if we hadn't been tired, fists would have come out," he says. "I was exhausted; I reached the limit of my abilities. There was extreme caution involved in dealing with the subject of the series."

On the other hand, "Elvis, Rosenthal and the Mysterious Woman," his new telenovela, which begins tonight on Channel 2, as a sequel to "Esty the Ugly" is devoid of any such effort. "My sole responsibility is to provide 45 minutes of entertainment so that viewers stay with me even after the commercials," he says. "It took the same amount of time to write seven episodes of `To Catch the Sky' and 40 episodes of `Esty the Ugly'." Work on the new series is going smoothly. The 12 episodes of the first season are already written, and Mashiah is now writing the next 13 episodes. Since the series will apparently also have a third season of 13 episodes, it seems that "Elvis" will also total some 40 episodes.

The new series is not a spin-off of "Esty the Ugly" (the way "Frasier" was a spin-off of "Cheers" and "Joey" was a spin-off of "Friends"); it's more like a sequel, focusing on Elvis (Shaike Levy) and including turning points where Esty's mother comes back from the past. "Her return affects everyone," explains Mashiah. "She threatens to disclose a secret from the past and causes trouble and creates problems, mainly for Elvis."

The previous series focused on the external appearance of Esty and the tension around her revealing her face. The motif of masquerade and revelation exists in the new series too, in which there is a man disguised as a woman, although Mashiah did not think this motif was necessary.

Always disagreements

"There are always disagreements with the broadcasting channel, and here and there they push strongly," he explained. "This story, along the lines of `Tootsie' (Sidney Pollack's film in which Dustin Hoffman masquerades as a soap opera actress), emerged in meetings with Keshet. Avi Cohen (the director) and I argued that we could do this without a new gimmick, that people like the series and now we need an interesting story line. But at Keshet they wanted to find a replacement for the gimmick."

Mashiah adds that in his opinion such a dictate is legitimate for an entertainment series "that the franchise commissioned and is meant to carry it during prime time. A series such as `To Catch the Sky' is less legitimate, because it's more personal. There was less intervention then, although it did exist." In any case, Mashiah promises, the secret of the man-woman will not be kept, like Esty's beauty, through three seasons.

What in essence is the difference between "Elvis" and "Our Song" (Hashir Shelanu)?

"`Our Song' is a series aimed at a younger audience. We're trying to be more family-oriented; to be light entertainment aimed at adults, not just teenagers. `Elvis' is not a parody - there are no exaggerations in it, as there were in the segment I wrote for `Zehu Zeh,' where the father, Avi Kushnir, buys a motorcycle for the male son he is about to have and when a daughter is born, he doesn't want her or the motorcycle, but still there will be some winking in it. For example, Mike Burstyn, who plays the friend, is referred to in one of the episodes as a `a bit of Kuni-Leml' [a well-known role of Burstyn]."

And that is basically the formula of both series: a telenovela with some winking - a formula that is favored by the Israeli audience and apparently also by the creators. It's also a form of protection against criticism: It's impossible to say of such a series that it's stupid, because that's just the point. "If you take away the wink in `Esty' or `Elvis,' then you're left with just another telenovela, and that's why it's better to have the wink," says Mashiah. "It doesn't scare away the telenovela crowd and also attracts other audiences."

Wouldn't it be better to strive to produce dramas like the American series, "Six Feet Under," whose first episode in its fourth season will be screened later the same night?

"There's no way. They always blame the inability to meet that standard on the shortage of funds, but that's not the only reason. It's also a cultural thing. The Americans are simply better than us, at least when it comes to cherries such as `Seinfeld,' `Six Feet Under' or `The Sopranos.' The television culture there has been around for many years now while here in Israel, it only started with the arrival of Channel 2 - only 10 years all told."

The real concern is that the telenovela with a wink format will become too much of a favorite among the broadcasters and audiences: it meets the requirement of the Second Television and Radio Authority and advertisers benefit. Why not actually? "There is no argument that `Elvis' is a drama," says Mashiah. "The series has a cast of respected actors, there are dramatic segments, Elvis goes through a tough crisis in his family life and it really is sad."

"I won't lie and say that `To Catch the Sky' and `Elvis' are the same thing. `To Catch the Sky' is a finer series. Its production is more expensive. Is there concern that we'll fall in line with series such as `Elvis'? There's a real chance we might. Absolutely."