The new season of Israeli mob drama 'The Arbitrator' airs tonight, with expectations running high, not least because American writers have their eyes on the show in the hope of creating their own knockoff
A moment before his "wedding," Yehuda Levi sits in the crumbling lobby of the Park Hotel in Netanya, a gigantic white satin skullcap on his head and looks particularly exhausted. In a few minutes filming will begin of the scene of the modest ceremony in which Nadav Feldman, his character in "The Arbitrator" ("Haborer" ), weds his girlfriend, Orna. Levy reacts to this with an attempt to stifle a yawn.
This is understandable. The third season of the show which will begin airing this evening on Hot Channel 3 has been filmed intensively, with no breaks.
That particular day of filming, at the beginning of July, took place after three months straight of work from early morning to late evening on location at strip clubs, hospitals, vacant lots and other dicey spots.
This is another season of one of the most beloved, if controversial, series on Israel's small screen. "The Arbitrator" is about the lost son (Feldman ) of underworld king Baruch Asulin (played by Moshe Ivgy ). Feldman discovers he is adopted and connects with his biological father.
The father has a flourishing empire, a troublemaking wife (Hana Azoulai-Hasfari ) and an infantile and hot-tempered son called Avi the Spleen (played by Shlomi Koriat ).
There is also a plethora of supporting characters. Everyone is fighting everyone else for control, inheritance, power and loyalty. A few months ago the American Fox network expressed interested in producing its own version of the series and the pilot is now reportedly being written.
On the run
The second season of "The Arbitrator," which was broadcast about a year ago, ended with Feldman stabbing an enemy of the family with a vase shard. This is his first major crime, an initiation rite. The arbitrator himself, Ivgy, who has been playing dead and has disappeared, is on the verge of making his public return to life.
According to Ivgy, the new season "is perhaps the most fascinating season. The arbitrator comes back from the dead and finds his empire on the brink of crumbling. Avi, my idiot son, is running things either by violence or by violence. I have to come back and put things together again and create a new order before this whole world falls apart. My father becomes addicted to coke and to his mistress, Cookie (Netta Garty ) and is in a general state of breakdown. It is hard for the arbitrator to let go. He constantly sees the end approaching and he wants to pass on the legacy but he doesn't really let this happen."
Shay Kanot, the director and one of the creators (together with scriptwriter Reshef Levy ) says the new season will deal with Feldman's grappling with his act. "He flees from the police and he tries to understand his new status, in both the worlds he lives in, the world of crime and the normal world," he says. "He tries to heal the wounds, to understand exactly what will happen to him. This is a more frantic season. ... There are lots of troubles that need to be dealt with in a crime family. It is necessary to control the empire. This is an emotional season."
An example of this chaos is shown a few minutes later, in the wedding scene. A few steps beyond the lobby, behind stained glass doors, is the events hall. It is paved in white marble and decorated with a chandelier, exactly suited to the plastic flowers on the wedding canopy. Beneath the wedding canopy stands a wealth of colorful characters, dressed in accordance with the nearly camp world created by "The Arbitrator": trashy frocks for the women in bright colors that could cause epileptic seizures, tailored jackets with glittering appliques for the men.
"The Arbitrator," which combines drama and comedy, has rather surprisingly created a fashion trend for men. "After the first season we saw that some of the clothes we used caught on," says the costume designer for the series, Natan Elkanovich. "For example, Avi the Spleen's clothes, which we has specially made, like a classic jacket with appliques - suddenly we started to see them in shops. This has apparently spoken to a certain part of the population."
Not surprisingly, Elkanovich counts "The Sopranos" and "The Godfather" as inspiration. "Each character has an inspiration. Cookie, for example, is inspired by Jessica Rabbit, that perfect, coy, animated bimbo. But each of the characters has his source of inspiration and I was surprised to find that some of the things have really caught on."
The influence on fashion is part of the broader context. The main critique of "The Arbitrator," alongside accusations of wanton violence, has been that the series glorifies the world of crime, contributing to the transformation of criminals into culture heroes and to the legitimization of their lifestyle.
"I wouldn't attribute power like that to it," says Ivgy. "There have always been criminals and there always will be and they are not all that influenced by 'The Arbitrator' and they certainly don't need 'The Arbitrator' in order to be something. What troubles me is that small children see the series. In my opinion, and I also tell this to HOT, it should be restricted to age 16 and up. There is a kind of sex appeal to the whole topic of the underworld and crime. People like this, they identify with it."
Ivgy says he is sometimes confused for the character he plays. "People ask me to mediate for them. This might be half-humorously but the very fact of the idea - they come with this kind of respect. I'd be glad to see the day when we do a series and television in general about positive, optimistic things. At the moment the world is crumbling in any case and the series just presents the world we are living in."
This identification transcends borders. In June of this year negotiations began for the acquisition of "The Arbitrator" format by the American television giant Fox. Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, a husband and wife team who were among the writers for "The Sopranos," are already working on writing the pilot, with the involvement of the Israeli developers.
It is hard not to wonder what has attracted the Americans, who invented the crime series and television heroes who are organized crime bosses, to an Israeli adaptation of the genre, an adaptation that brings in quotations from the Bible and Jewish customs.
"The basic story is mythic," Kanot says in explaining why Americans, who practically invented the genre, would be interested in an import. "The conflict between father and son, between what you are born with and what you are educated to, which is stronger - this is a universal issue."
Kanot says it was a battle getting the show made in Israel.
"Every season has been a war. Though the success is pleasant for us as creative people, from the business perspective this has no effect. Until they approve it, until we write it, until there is the final signature - things happen along the way."
The three shoots for the three seasons have created a familiar, almost familial dynamic among the actors, who during the afternoon breaks share hotel rooms for a rest. Shlomo Koriat - Avi the Spleen - finds it difficult to get going again after the afternoon nap and before the filming of the next scene. This is his last day of filming and also a good time to sum things up.
"This has become a bit like working with your family," he says. "There is a good dynamic and this season there are new characters, new actors like Orly Silberschatz and Rami Heuberger. It's been a more pressured season because we didn't have a break, so as to make the deadline, but it has been flowing."