Who could have imagined a decade ago that two of today’s best-known Israelis would be a couple of bald men in their forties who unwittingly serve as a perfect example of the “brains and brawn” image Israel likes to project to the world?
But while Yuval Noah Harari has been writing bestsellers like “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” and $1 million checks to the World Health Organization,” Lior Raz has been beating up his fellow man and dangling him out of a window while shouting “Who sent you? Who do you work for?” (Of course, the other recently anointed Israeli star, Gal Gadot, is currently stuck on the Twitter naughty step after getting a lot of rich folk to sing about having no possessions.)
Raz has become a household name – or face, at least – due to his starring role in the Israeli TV series “Fauda.” In the dim and distant days of early March (aka the time when we needed transport), his face would stare down from a billboard on Tel Aviv’s main freeway, hawking a local car rental company. I couldn’t help imagining that his smirking face was really saying, “Can you believe this shit? Me, in an advert?”
Life has changed immeasurably for Raz since “Fauda” first aired on Israel’s Yes network some five years ago – or, to be more precise, since Netflix bought the rights and then started screening it worldwide in December 2016.
Since then, the 48-year-old actor has made two more seasons of the thriller (due to the vagaries of global distribution deals, season three just dropped on Netflix but is still only available in Israel on Yes, where it debuted last December). He has also starred as an Eastern European dictator in Michael Bay’s woeful Netflix movie “6 Underground” – and if he takes any more roles like Rovach Alimov, uttering lines like “They walk the Earth like you and me. They have blood types and birthdays and sock drawers,” he will soon find himself dubbed “Lior Razzie.” And he is currently working on a new Netflix thriller, “Hit and Run,” with his creative partner (and former Haaretz defense correspondent), Avi Issacharoff.
High times, and all thanks to his Doron Kavillio character – a remarkable success story that offers hope to pudgy actors everywhere that they too could become leading men if only they could create that elusive “breakout” role for themselves.
Raz’s is a classic example of a self-made actor who will probably spend the rest of his days playing variations on a theme, scowling all the way to the bank as he does so. (If Netflix hadn’t already had a hit with its women’s wrestling show “GLOW,” “Glower” would have been the perfect title for “Fauda,” reflecting its star’s default facial setting.)
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As those already familiar with the show will know, Doron Kavillio is the ultimate loose cannon – exploding across the West Bank as he embeds himself in Arab communities while serving in the Shin Bet security service’s small counterterrorism unit. This time around, he has become the “Rocky of Dhahiriya,” training a young Palestinian boxing hopeful while trying to uncover a Hamas terror group in the town near Hebron.
But of course, episode after episode, season after season, he is destined to make the same impetuous, wrongheaded decisions that will endanger colleagues and even family members, before ultimately saving the day. His inability to follow a command is still only matched by Siri; his ability to learn from past mistakes only rivaled by the U.S. president; and his sartorial choice forever stuck between jeans and gray T-shirt or jeans and brown T-shirt.
And if you’re finding lockdown difficult, just imagine how the ball of rage that is Doron Kavillio would struggle to cope in such a situation and you might feel a little better about how you’re handling it. Having said that, watching “Fauda” at this particular moment should come with its own health warning: As tense scene follows tense scene, you may increasingly find yourself feeling knots in your stomach and short of breath. Don’t worry, it’s not the coronavirus; just a taut thriller having that effect on you. Well, hopefully.
Tweaking the formula
If music has the “different second album” syndrome, TV thrillers have the “problematic third season,” where a show has to either reinvent itself or accept its formulaic nature and look for new ways to tweak the formula in order to stay fresh.
The solution “Fauda” finds in season three is to (eventually) relocate the action from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, although that’s not as radical an idea as it perhaps sounded on paper – even though it worked well as an advertising hook when the season aired in Israel.
For starters, the Gaza depicted here never remotely feels like the Gaza Strip we have seen in documentaries or still photos: turns out it’s hard to recreate one of the world’s most impoverished places in Israel, even if some of the shooting took place in one of the country’s most depressed places – the Arab-Israeli coastal town of Jisr al-Zarqa.
Second, it is hard to discern any cultural differences between the West Bank and the coastal enclave. This seems especially important given that a real-life undercover op carried out in Gaza by Israeli forces in November 2018 was reportedly blown because of the commandos’ accents. The show won much praise when it first aired for its depiction of Hamas terrorists as flesh-and-blood characters rather than ciphers whose every living thought is concerned with the destruction of Israel. But in its efforts to show us, to paraphrase Sting, that the Palestinians love their children too, “Fauda” has become an increasingly apolitical thriller – one divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ideologies on either side.
You will not hear words like “annexation” or “Palestinian Islamic Jihad” here, or see checkpoints or bomb shelters. Instead, the only tribal loyalty is to the unit (family or military). This is a world where an Israeli “political echelon” simply doesn’t exist and terror cells operate without a visible leadership above them. No string-pullers, in other words; just puppets.
Those limitations become more pronounced when compared to last year’s HBO-Israeli coproduction “Our Boys,” which put Israeli society’s fault lines under far greater scrutiny than “Fauda” is interested in doing. That’s fine, but we should call the show what it is: A gripping thriller that is as connected to reality as a Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz comment on the coronavirus; something that draws from the headlines but isn’t interested in delving deeper into them.
A fourth season will reportedly follow, and I was equally pleased to learn that plans for a U.S. remake have been scrapped (although an Indian version is still in the works). Despite its faults – I would have been much happier if this season had concluded after 10 episodes, without the completely unnecessary coda that is both self-indulgent and fatuous; some of the plotlines are signposted so broadly, they must be visible from space; and the show still lacks strong female characters – the original “Fauda” deserves to be seen by as wide a global audience as possible.
I was reminded of that while watching the first episode of ABC’s remake of the Israeli romantic comedy “Lehiot Ita” (“To Be with Her”). Despite being a pretty faithful copy of the original, “The Baker and the Beauty” offers none of the original’s charm. Indeed, by relocating it from Tel Aviv to Miami and swapping the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi cultural divide for a more generic white elitist/Cuban one, all the new version succeeds in doing is highlighting the flimsiness of the original show’s concept. (That title really should have gone, too. Sure it might have had a few unwelcome connotations, but could “Beauty and the Yeast” really have been any worse?)
Sadly, this new version is so vanilla, it should be sponsored by Häagen-Dazs. Seek out the original on Amazon Prime (especially season one) and enjoy the chemistry between stars Avraham Aviv Alush and Rotem Sela, and a side of Israeli life seldom seen elsewhere – and definitely not in “Fauda.”