Murder on Channel 66

Director Ram Levi's three-part suspense drama about a television station, written by mystery author Batya Gur, airs this week on Channel Two.

"Murder on Television," a new mini-series by Ram Levi that begins tonight on Channel Two, opens with a routine warning that takes an unexpected but significant turn: "All of the events depicted in the film are fictional, except for one." And what is that event? Well, that is something viewers will have to find out for themselves in the course of the three-episode series that will be shown tonight, Thursday and Saturday (Telad's three weekly broadcast days).

Levi is afraid that after all the jelly doughnuts and potato pancakes, audiences will find themselves watching the wrap-up to the mystery next Saturday evening, and won't remember the warning issued at the beginning of the series. "I am terrified at the possibility that they will think it is invented," he says, careful to preserve an enigmatic air of mystery.

That isn't the only thing that terrifies Levi, a director who has worked at Channel One for 30 years, and who had to go to the commercial TV channel to have this show produced. "I'm not sleeping at night, because of the commercials," he says. Commercials included, each segment is approximately 90 minutes long (without commercials, about 70 minutes).

Most of the action on "Murder on Television" takes place in the newsroom of fictional TV Channel 66. Although it is a profit-seeking station with commercials, it also has to contend with a large number of technical goofs. A steady stream of references is made to the fact that on this station, technicians have the last word, and there are plenty of other insinuations that make us associate Channel 66 with Israel's government-owned TV station. Levi denies the charge. "To the same degree, it could also be Educational Television," he says.

In any event, the channel that is broadcasting Levi's series is not Channel One, whose executives rejected it. "The idea for the series goes back to early 1997," relates Levi. "It was then that it began to become obvious that Channel One was no longer the only thing on TV. Israel Television was celebrating its 30th year on the air, and I thought it would be interesting to make a suspense film about journalists. I approached the author Batya Gur, who specializes in setting murder mysteries in segments of society that have their own characteristic traits. But she didn't think television people were interesting enough. Eventually she was persuaded, learned about television work, and wrote the screenplay. I brought in Assaf Tzipor to edit the screenplay, so that he would breath down our necks."

It was decided to produce a five-part mini-series with 50-minute segments. Mordechai Kirschenbaum, who was then the director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), gave the green light to the production. But Uri Porat, who replaced Kirschenbaum in 1998, thought otherwise. "The viewers might get the feeling that we really do murder people on television," he told Levi. And there were also budgetary concerns. Porat suspended all work on the project.

Levi was disappointed, but refused to give in. Producing a series about the people behind the scenes on television had been one of his greatest aspirations. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back. We bought the screenplay from the IBA, and offered it to Channel Two franchisee Telad. The people at Telad wanted the series, and gave me the necessary creative freedom, except that they asked us to break it into three episodes and not five. I'm very happy with the way it is now being broadcast."

Nevertheless, the move to Channel Two cannot simply cast aside the decades that Levi spent at the IBA. He still feels it is his home, and is insulted when people belittle Channel One. "We were like the culture committee of a kibbutz, but we had some genuine artistic ambitions," he says. His newest work is also evidence of the differences between the channels - its pacing and style are very different from typical Channel Two fare.

"Murder on Television" is intricately constructed, layer atop layer. It delves deep into its subject matter, is full of twists and turns and subplots, all of which are acted and directed with an old-style charm and grace. The first scene, for instance, opens with a murder - silhouettes of a man and a woman struggling, their movements suggestive of a dance, culminating in the sort of woman's scream typical of a B movie. Since the plot unfolds in a television studio, it isn't immediately clear if the scene is part of the main plot, or simply a film within a film.

The numerous sub-plots generate a great deal of interest and will strike a chord with horror film fans who will find parallels and associations between the plot lines, hidden meanings, hints, insinuations, and diversions. All of this stimulation also poses some significant ideological questions to the viewers. However, at times this structuring comes at the expense of character development. We certainly could have done without a few scenes, such as when the social affairs reporter changes a shirt, baring his chest to the camera, instead of devoting some character development to the curious figure of Inspector Hirsh, who is played by Pavel Sitrinal. Incidentally, the character was nearly cast as the American actor Elliot Gould, with whom the producers had been talking about playing the role.

We know that Hirsh is a good grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, a former refusenik who worked with the FBI for years. Batya Gur created a detective/outsider, disparaged by the more establishment characters who do not give him his due, and whose patronizing makes it easier for him to expose their secrets.

And there are all manner of secrets here, because the series touches on nearly every important Israeli subject. There are relations between religious and secular, men and women, unemployed and wealthy, Arabs and Jews, immigrants and veterans. Reference is even made to the proper time and place of mentioning the Holocaust.

The main plot revolves around the murder of Tirza, the station's scenery designer. Her body is found in the studio where "Ido ve Einam" is being filmed - a drama based on a story by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, which describes, among other things, a romantic triangle. This drama-within-a-drama is directed by Benny Meyuhas, Tirza's significant other. Other plot lines in the series are the stories covered by the reporters: the barricading of workers in a tunnel in response to a failure to honor agreements made with them; an important, exclusive investigation related to the ultra-Orthodox, and so on. "Each and every item is related to the main plot," says Levi.

Visually speaking, "Murder on Television" is imperfect. Although it was filmed by Itzik Fortel, one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the local television industry, and although a sizable financial investment was made, and it was not filmed in a studio, the series retains a slightly "backdrop" look. As peculiar as it might seem, there is something comforting in this. In new Israeli series, it sometimes seems as if the design department has fallen in love with itself, and that the background has been brought to the front of the stage. That's not the case here.