In a country where only the crime is organized, it’s always difficult to predict the next local hit TV show. All we can say for certain is that, much like Knesset elections, there’ll be another one along very soon.
Of course, after the past year, that unpredictability is probably true of most countries right now. Or maybe it’s always been foolhardy to predict what people will choose to watch when the future is so uncertain.
After all, if someone prophesied a year ago that we’d be obsessing over someone called Joe Exotic, a redheaded chess prodigy and a sociopathic Hugh Grant, they’d have been placed in the padded cell next to that dude mumbling about how face masks would become a hot-button issue.
While 2020 sucked for most of the world, it was actually pre-tty, pre-tty good for the Israeli TV industry.
The station with most to celebrate was public broadcaster Kan (which is like the BBC but with fewer left-wingers). Its Channel 11 was home to the most talked-about local shows of the year: the Mossad espionage thriller “Tehran,” which started powerfully before becoming slightly muddled – much like a Joe Biden stump speech; the delightful comedy “Chazarot” (“Rehearsals”), about a couple of luvvies falling out of love and which, prior to its release last fall, was bafflingly described by Kan’s own CEO as likely to appeal only to vegan Tel Avivians.
Then there was “Valley of Tears” (“Sha’at Neila” in Hebrew), the big-budget Yom Kippur War drama whose most lasting legacy may be that a generation of family pets are named Tznobar – “pine nut” in Hebrew, and the name of a whiny character’s spiky pet in the hit-and-miss drama that came and went on HBO Max in America without making much of an impression.
A look at some of the biggest returning Israeli shows in 2021 – season 4 of “Fauda,” season 3 of “Lehiot Ita” (known internationally as “The Baker and the Beauty”) and season 3 of “Shtisel” on Netflix – highlights how the local industry has evolved over the past decade.
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While American series were generally designed with the ultimate aim of striking it rich in syndication, Israeli television was, historically, full of award-winning shows that never made it past a couple of seasons. “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), “Yellow Peppers” and “Betipul,” for example, all aired for just two seasons in their native land, while their higher-profile remake cousins enjoyed longer lives overseas: “Homeland” only just concluded after eight seasons on Showtime; “The A Word” aired its third season on the BBC last year; and HBO just commissioned a (belated) fourth season of “In Treatment.”
Global streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV+ are also changing the local landscape, and it’s increasingly prudent to start seeing shows as long-term assets. Indeed, it would come as no surprise to learn that “May you live to 120 episodes” is the new blessing whenever an Israeli show launches these days.
The irony of this is that Netflix is widely regarded as having a “three seasons only” rule for its shows – which it’s clearly not averse to breaking for hits like “Fauda,” “The Crown” and “House of Cards.”
Without Netflix, “Shtisel” would have been yet another feted Israeli show to conclude after just two seasons. And without the lucrative production deal it struck with Apple TV+ last year, the long-term prospects of “Tehran” may have been no healthier than those of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
Small gefilte fish
While Israeli TV may have had a good year in 2020, it clearly remains a small gefilte fish in a big pond. Jim Parsons alone was making a reported $26.5 million per year by the end of “The Big Bang Theory” – and I wouldn’t even guess how many Israeli shows could be made for that pile of cash.
“Fauda” star Lior Raz and his writing partner Avi Issacharoff may not be in Parsons’ league, but they must surely be enjoying some of Netflix’s largesse right now. After all, what’s the point of a reported $19-billion annual content budget if you can’t reward your talent?
Season 4 of “Fauda” will shoot this year, and while plausibility was never the thriller’s strong suit – wouldn’t Raz’s Doron Kavillo character be as recognizable to Palestinians as Yasser Arafat by now with all those covert ops in which his cover was blown? – it’s going to be fascinating to see where the show goes after ticking off the West Bank in seasons 1 and 2, and Gaza in season 3.
If they’re still scratching around for ideas (a Syrian sortie? Doron retraining as a keyboard warrior and conducting cyberwarfare ops against Iran?), they could go for something really topical and embed Kavillo with a group of fanatical young settlers – even though he might struggle to reach the peak of a hilltop these days (Raz turns 50 in November).
While “Fauda” will hope to deliver more of those testosterone-fueled thrills that have made it an international hit – so much so that plans for a U.S. remake were long-since scrapped – the most intriguing Raz show for 2021 is another thriller.
Filmed in the U.S. and Israel early last year, “Hit and Run” is set to debut on Netflix sometime this year. Raz will play a grief-stricken Israeli hunting for his wife’s killers after she dies in a hit-and-run incident in Tel Aviv, roping in an ex-lover (played by Sanaa Lathan) to get to the bottom of the mystery. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Raz will spend the majority of the show looking like he’s just swallowed a wasp and will let his fists do most of the talking.
There will be mystery of a different kind in “Suspicion,” Apple TV+’s remake of the Israeli espionage thriller “False Flag” (“Kfulim,” or “Doubles”), which aired for – you guessed it – two seasons in Israel between 2015-2018.
The remake will star Uma Thurman as a top U.S. businesswoman whose son has been kidnapped from an upscale New York hotel with more surveillance cameras than a Jeffrey Epstein apartment, with four British citizens becoming the prime suspects in the case.
The original show was loosely based on the Mossad’s 2010 assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, in which the spy agency reportedly used the identities of Israeli dual citizens for some of its operatives – thus triggering a mini-international crisis. Or as it’s known in Israel, Tuesday.
I was a fan of the original and its Hitchcockian plot, and am keen to see what Apple does with a bigger budget (something every single Israeli show could benefit from, of course). Most encouraging is the fact that the remake’s director is Chris Long, who helmed nine episodes of “The Americans” – so clearly knows his way around a spy thriller.
Talking of big budgets and Israelis, Apple is also the new home to Gal Gadot’s eight-part drama series “Hedy Lamarr” – about the legendary actress once called “the most beautiful woman in the world” (“So, Gal, what drew you to the part?”). Given that Gadot is working on about a million other things right now (conservative estimate), who knows whether this will actually be finished by year’s end. Let’s hope so, because it’s an intriguing matchup with “The Affair” co-creator Sarah Treem.
Another well-received Israeli series receiving the remake treatment is the comedy-drama “On the Spectrum,” about three autistic twentysomethings sharing an apartment. The currently untitled remake, which will stream on Amazon, is something of a passion project for producer Jason Katims (“Parenthood,” “Friday Night Lights”), as he himself has a twentysomething son on the spectrum.
There are also plenty of promising-sounding Israeli shows – including “The Dreamers” (“Haholmim”), about a group of Palestinian students moving to Tel Aviv in 2008; the thriller “Traitor” (“Boged”), starring “Tehran” breakout Niv Sultan and inspired by the real-life mystery of missing Malaysian flight MH370; and “The Commander” (“Hamefakedet”), a comedy drama starring Alona Sa’ar – aka the actress daughter of Gideon Sa’ar, the Israeli lawmaker hoping to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in the March 23 election. That in itself sounds like the plot of a potential sitcom.
Finally, we must thank Israel’s Channel 13 (Reshet) for showing us that 2021 will not automatically be better than the past year, following the news that Simon Cowell is set to star as a judge on “The X Factor Israel.”
Look, if there’s one thing Israel doesn’t need to import, it’s well-tanned middle-aged men who love the sound of their own voice. However, if we really must bring Cowell over to serve as a judge, why not make it for something truly interesting – like the Netanyahu corruption trial? Now there’s something I would pay good money to watch: the king of snark sitting in judgment on King Bibi.
7 shows (and a film) to watch in 2021
‘Echo 3’ (Apple TV+)
This is an interesting one: The Israeli series “When Heroes Fly,” based on the novel by the late Amir Gutfreund, aired internationally on Netflix, but the English-language version will be made by writer Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”) for Apple TV. The story will once again be set in South America, with the husband and brother of a missing woman pursuing a lead that she may be alive somewhere deep in the jungle.
‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ (FX)
Just when you thought you’d never have to hear the “I” word again, Ryan Murphy takes us back to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, in the third segment of this surprisingly good anthology series. The cast is to die for: Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky (whose always-entertaining Twitter account will definitely be one to follow when the show airs); Billy Eichner as Matt Drudge; and Clive Owen as Clinton. The source material is the book “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President,” by – oh, this suddenly got awkward – Jeffrey Toobin.
‘Inventing Anna’ (Netflix)
Shonda Rhimes follows buzzy period drama “Bridgerton” with this eight-part drama. It’s based on the real-life story of a Russian-born young woman, Anna Sorokin (played by Julia Garner), who moved to New York in 2013 and successfully passed herself off as a wealthy German heiress called Anna Delvey – until it came time to pay her debts. For a primer, listen to the BBC podcast “Fake Heiress.”
‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Amazon)
Some may find it a little rich that the world’s wealthiest man is presenting us with a tale about the dangers of absolute power and the pursuit of deathlessness. Others will find it apt that Amazon is home to a saga that, at heart, is about the ultimate delivery – let’s just hope they don’t leave that precious package with the neighbor. Me, I can’t decide whether we really need a small-screen remake of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga so soon after Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy.
‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ (Hulu)
The last time Australian novelist Liane Moriarty teamed up with compatriot Nicole Kidman and writer David E. Kelley was for “Big Little Lies” on HBO. They’ll be hoping for more of the same with this adaptation of Moriarty’s 2018 thriller, set in a health and wellness retreat. The strong cast includes Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon. Please let it be better than Kidman and Kelley’s last outing together, “The Undoing.” And please, no second season if the story has run its course, à la “Big Little Lies.”
J.T. Rogers’ play about the secret back-channel talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the early ’90s, facilitated by a Norwegian couple and which eventually led to the Oslo Accords, was a Broadway hit in 2017. Even though there’s enough material for a couple of seasons, it bows on the small screen as a one-off HBO film starring Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott as UN diplomats Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen.
There’s also an Israeli series set to air on Hot called “What Happened in Oslo,” which uses those same peace talks as the backdrop for a present-day thriller about a Norwegian couple whose daughter goes missing in the Middle East.
‘Shantaram’ (Apple TV+)
Gregory David Roberts’ sprawling novel was based on his own experiences as an armed robber and heroin addict who broke out of an Australian prison and fled to the slums of Mumbai, where his adventures really began. I loved the book and always worry that no screen adaptation can ever do this modern Dickensian tale justice – a justifiable fear when the likes of Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp were lined up to star in the movie version at various points. The star now that it’s moved to the small screen is Charlie Hunnam, which isn’t making me any less nervous about the show’s prospects, but here’s hoping.
‘Slow Horses’ (Apple TV+)
This is another adaptation of an acclaimed novel, based on the first installment of Mick Herron’s excellent “Slough House” spy series. Gary Oldman will play the pompous and podgy Jackson Lamb, head of a group of disgraced British spooks who have been exiled to Slough House (in London, not the dreary commuter town immortalized by John Betjeman). The novel revolves around a group of English nationalists kidnapping a young British northerner of Pakistani origin, and its onscreen telling could prove more controversial than in book form. Still, if the show captures half of the wit, spycraft and tension contained in the novel’s pages, viewers are in for a treat.