An Israeli Reality TV Show in the Spirit of the American Christmas Classic

The TV show 'Living in La La Land' successfully zigzagged among ethnic stereotypes in a way that was both cynical and admirable.

In America, Frank Capra's movie "It's a Wonderful Life" is usually aired every Christmas Eve. The film - which extols the Christian concept of getting a second chance in life - is the perfect choice for celebrating the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth.

For similar reasons, "Living in La La Land," the Yes satellite channel's reality television show which is ending next week, starring men who put on tefillin (phylacteries ) and people who observe the Jewish laws of family purity, would be just as appropriate for the Christmas Eve broadcast. It may sound pompous (the worst insult for a self-aware person in the modern age ), but one can't say that "La La Land" isn't guided by universal values of compassion and religious penitence - in the secular sense.

Let's start with the fact that the intentions, as always in this cynical genre, were evil. Nine out of 10 reality TV shows are merciless, and the tenth is usually worse. The manipulation that these shows bring to bear on their participants is brutal, not out of cruelty, of course, but for utilitarian purposes. The reality show creator, like any craftsman, needs raw materials. Just as the carpenter shapes a piece of wood, this craftsman does his work by exploiting the bodies and souls of people who have placed their lives in his hands. His goal: to create the best product he can out of their weaknesses, their desires, their feelings of inferiority or superiority, their impulses and anxieties.

For its part, the declared goal of "La La Land" was to give six Israeli singers (Alon de Loco, Avihu Shabat, Zehava Ben, Etti Levy, Dudu Aharon and Julietta Agronov ) the chance to launch an international career. To this end, they were flown to Los Angeles, introduced to senior music-industry executives, and the winner was promised recording and distribution of a single abroad. So much for the official version.

The real goal of "La La Land" was to make fun of its participants, to put obstacles in their way and to laugh when they stumbled. The technique used to yield this effect is the old "fish out of water" trick - an almost surefire means of success.

The comic mechanism of the provincial rube thrown into the big city has been a part of television and cinema since the days of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" shows and the film "Crocodile Dundee." Creators of "La La Land" did not try to hide their impure intentions. The contestants selected to take part in the competition were six singers. Of what ethnic background is unimportant, just as long as they're not from Europe.

The decision to use only Mizrahi contestants exposed the moral corruption of the show's creators. The casting derived from the prejudiced view that Mizrahim are awkward and provincial, and that their incongruity in the glitzy setting would lend an element of entertainment to the show.

I haven't checked if there are more unkempt singers of Rimon music school-style rock ballads wandering the world than the average Mediterranean songbird, or if their English is more fluent than that of Alon de Loco. But for the show's creators, the mere idea of putting Zehava Ben of Be'er Sheva or Dudu Aharon from Kiryat Ekron in a progressive Western city sounds like a commercial farce that will sell itself. The creators of "La La Land" threw these local singers into the glamorous showbiz pool not to teach them to swim, but so we can be entertained watching them drown. One person's downfall is another person's slapstick.

But luckily, it didn't work as planned. Take Aharon, for example, the most successful of the contestants. At first he was portrayed as an arrogant and vacuous star. The editing team worked overtime to promote this narrative and the production folks intervened to pamper Aharon and stoke the envy of the other singers. But then, in episode after episode, he refused to play along with the narrative. Thus, the "Singer of the Year" turned out to be a good guy, modest almost, with a gentle soul and a collegial attitude toward the rest of the group. The son of a bitch refused to play by the rules!

"Living in La La Land' is a story of a revolt. A revolt that's not borne of depression, but unconscious: The "rebels" have no idea they're disobeying the rules of the genre by obeying their conscience. From the moment they landed in the ornate villa in Los Angeles, the group refused to play the part of circus monkeys. They insisted on maintaining their human dignity even in conditions of tough competition and being far away from home in a foreign land. They also preserved their self-respect and respect for their companions. They did not fall into the traps that the show's production team laid for them with the aim of mocking and sowing discord among them.

The production's attempts to give Aharon better conditions than the others, as well as the cruel way that Ben was surprised with the presence of her identical twin sister Etti Levy - with whom she does not have good relations - were meant to introduce tensions and divisiveness into life in the villa. But the singers weren't dragged into the provocation and managed to refute two of the most basic principles of reality television: In order to create a successful reality show you must have mockable contestants, and you must have contestants that are in conflict with one another.

But "Living in La La Land' is also a second-chance story, because it's creators amended their ways. It didn't take them long to see that their devious plots weren't working and so they quickly changed their approach. Instead of forcing the show into sensational directions by means of crude editing and interference - the creators decided to go with the natural flow of their contestants. They also decide to tone down the exaggerated comic elements, like the eccentric character of the group's "artistic mentor" and coach, Uri Paster, in order to reinforce the illusion of realism. This is not an obvious choice: It goes against the survival instincts of the genre, and entails a big risk. Anyone (like me ) who thought that only dustups like those between Menachem Ben and Amir Fay Gutman on "Big Brother" could form the basis of a good reality show was proved wrong by the sight of the friendship and cooperation coming from the back seat of the limousine in "La La Land."

"Living in La La Land' developed into a show that operates on a mature level and can actually deal with values like basic kindness and mutual support. At the same time, it is not a show that only makes nice and is just for the tender-hearted. The sensitivity that caused its creators to identify which way the wind was blowing and to change tack is the same sensitivity that has also made "La La Land" a witty and more refined show - one that's free of the vulgarity that is so typical of Israeli reality TV. This sensitivity is evident in the high level of professionalism - in the brilliantly creative and surgically precise editing, and a production that seems to have spared no expense. All of this has created something that works beautifully, in an unprecedented way.

But the added bonus of "La La Land" is the soul that lies within its plots. This is what really makes it a rare achievement in Israeli television. Amid the crass aesthetic of local entertainment, this show, which was originally meant to mock these popular singers and looked like it would be a 50-episode "bourekas movie," turned out to be something polished and delicate. The manipulations were effected with such delicacy that they are hardly felt. And surprisingly, when the show doesn't mock its participants, viewers also feel like they are being respected. Plus, there was something infectious about the affection that the tenants of the villa showed for one another. And that was refreshing after the radioactive atmosphere that characterized earlier reality shows.

Even if it isn't broadcast on Christmas Eve in America, "La La Land" could replace "Givat Halfon Doesn't Answer" as an alternative and optimistic "anthem" for Israel's Independence Day.

Now that "La La Land" has showcased the triumph of the human spirit over ethnic condescension, the question is raised of whether it hasn't perpetuated another stereotype by portraying Mizrahim as warm, kind and humble, family-oriented folks. Was it worth making such an effort to destroy one stereotype only to perpetuate another?