Israel's secret bromance
'Traffic Light,' the U.S. version of 'Ramzor,' did not get renewed after its first short season, but the local show has been greenlighted for a fourth year.
About year ago, on an El Al flight to somewhere in Asia, was the usual variety pack of Israeli types: newly discharged soldiers, young couples, families with kids; religious, ultra-Orthodox and non-observant. For all of about half an hour, when an episode of the second season of "Ramzor" ("Traffic Light )" played, we seemed to be "one people." The response was uniform: Everyone, young and old, secular and religious, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, laughed and nodded at the same moments.
"Ramzor," whose third season airs Thursday on Channel 2, is nothing short of a phenomenon. But not because of its high ratings: This Israeli series about the friendship among three rather infantile men and the characters' love lives, which are totally controlled by the women, received the International Emmy Award for comedy this year. A U.S. version was pulled after one season, but when Fox announced that "Ramzor" was not being renewed for another season it also emphasized that it was considering future collaborations with series creator Adir Miller. He is expected to meet with studio executives in the United States in a few weeks.
Speaking of the series creators, a dispute between Miller and cowriter Ran Sarig took on warlike proportions in the media before it was settled.
All this made it easy to see why the set was humming with reporters during the filming of the third season, several months ago.
In a scene filmed in a kitschy red, black and gold restaurant, Itzko is on a date with a woman who is not his wife. Itsko is a terminal cheapskate: His watch was a freebie from his bank and he still uses a cheap Velcro wallet. Amir (Miller ) and his girlfriend Tali (Liat Harlev ) married at the end of the second season - they're the "normal" couple. Hefer (Nir Levy ), the eternal playboy bachelor, began dating a millionaire in order to fund the wedding-gift check. Itsko (Lior Halfon ) and his controlling wife Lilach (Yael Sharoni ), a stable, not to say bored, couple, have begun losing patience with each other.
In the new season Hefer continues to see the millionaire, and falls in love - with her bank account and her lifestyle. Tali and Amir are expecting their first child, while Itsko and Lilach attempt to separate, with Itsko braving the world of dating in his characteristic manner. As Halfon puts it, "Itsko's traffic light is blinking. He and Lilach separate, get back together and split up again. But Itsko isn't made for today's rules. He started dating Lilach when he was 16 and doesn't understand, for example, the idea of paying on a date. He doesn't get the concept, and so he tries to give himself a makeover, signing up for JDate and so on."
Back on the set, Miller is restless. Director Ohad Perach is there, but Miller also directs the actress on the date, guiding her, insisting on the intonation he imagined while writing the scene. He says he always hears a scene's music, especially when it comes to the third season, when he has the actors in his head while he is writing. "I sit and imagine them, and talk to myself the way they should sound. From Yael and up to Nir, I imitate them and that's how I write. Otherwise it's much harder."
What was the writing process for the third season?
"It begins with us closeted in a room, with what's called the development stage. A throwing around of ideas; the guiding principle at this time is that everything is put on paper. I don't let anyone say 'no.' So there'll be a lot of ideas, and 80 percent of them will be scrapped."
"Many things that are chucked will get a little twist, a tiny change, and then they'll be suitable and be used. We had a scene where Hefer dates a woman who rolls her 'rs.' I remember we were stuck and we decided to throw it out. I sat with Gal Zaid, the script editor, and he suddenly threw out something about the friendship between Amir and Hefer, how Amir was always hyper-critical of Hefer's girlfriends. It suddenly opened the story up: Hefer says to Amir, 'You always find something small and then I've had it with the girl.' The story filled out, and it worked."
This may be one of the secrets of the series, whose fourth season is now in development: It's a "bromance," a global trend of films and TV series about friendship and Platonic love between men that often intentionally slips into idiotic behavior.
Miller nods and supplies his own analysis of comic fundamentals. "Amir and Tali are the axis with which the viewer is expected to identify. You say, 'This happens to me too.' They are normal, with an extremely genuine core. With Itsko and Lilach I point to an Israeli social phenomenon. He's the Israeli who steals from the supermarket, who gets up early for the hotel breakfast buffet in Eilat - it's less about the couple than about Israeli identity. Hefer is our Kramer. Everything comes and goes, the world was born for him and he's not afraid of anything."
The main criticism of "Ramzor" is about women being depicted as either bitchy or manipulative.
Miller protests: "I really really don't agree with this. I am such a feminist in my thinking that I consciously inserted these elements. In 'Ramzor,' a man will never ever win, and if a guy tries to deceive a woman he's screwed. They're the little boys who'll try anything to avoid a confrontation, instead of saying, 'I'm sorry, it's not working for me.' The series is feminist. I don't show weak women, but rather women who run their lives and their homes. If that's chauvinist, I don't know what feminism is. Today a married man is a man whose wife tells him what to do, and the one who doesn't is divorced. It's a bit of the new relationship and a bit of the new man."
Back on the set, the pace is leisurely. Nir Levy waits for his next scene in a nouveau-riche room set - white ceramic dog, a tacky-expensive electric fireplace and creaky pleather couches,
Of all the actors and characters, Levy and Hefer are perceived, at least by the public, as being identical. Levy doesn't like the implication. He says he didn't like Hefer, not until the third season at least. "The first season was hard for me, but now it's love, because Hefer is more complex in the third season. There is a tendency to confuse us. On one hand I take it as a compliment, because a viewer who doesn't know me sees a character with whom he identifies to a certain extent, and begins to identify me with the character. But this is serious; I am not Hefer. Absolutely not."
But this is the third season and all the actors are identified with their characters. It must affect the work.
"From the start we got on well together, and after three seasons we know each others' caprices. Lior, Adir and I understand each other very well. We know the shticks, everybody's story and apparently it's obvious."
"There's some Itsko in me and some of me in him," Halfon says. "There is something about an extreme character that takes over, you become identified with it. But Itsko is very naive; he doesn't understand what's happening around him, doesn't see the person he's married to, and his miserliness is of Moliere proportions. I enjoy playing him because he has so many comic aspects. His clothes are all either plaid or worn out things from his bar mitzvah. Whatever is the most unfashionable, that's him. He's stuck and I love him a lot."
One of the show's main characteristics is that much of the plot comes from the insights and lives of the cast and crew. Miller says ideas for the fourth season began to emerge during filming of the current one. For example, when his wife, Shelly Miller, became ill and he was worried about carrying the burden of responsibility and tried stuffing her full of pills. Harlev says she recognized herself in an episode about lateness. Halfon tells a story about an incident in his family life that seemed familiar, and then remembers that it was depicted in the show.
The U.S. version, on the other hand, which was aired there during the filming of the third season here, was made into a romantic comedy. Miller said then, on the set, that Fox had decided to write new scripts rather than translating theirs. "I read their scripts; can I say I was crazy about them? No," he said. "I'm not objective, but I think we are funnier."
How far will you go with "Ramzor"? Are you thinking about new projects?
"Every season, I say, 'This is the last,' out of fear. That's what I said after the second season too, but then I relaxed, got into the writing and it happened."