The Decade Israeli TV Captured the World's Imagination. Will It Last?

Israel's television producers and stars have adopted the 'startup nation' mentality, becoming an internationally recognized ideas factory where being ahead of the curve is a vital part of its identity | 2010-2019 roundup: Part 4

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Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Is it just me or was the last 10 years something of a missed opportunity for Israeli television? We came into the decade with the country starting to make a name for itself on the world stage – “Betipul” had been successfully remade into "In Treatment" by HBO and Showtime was just about to take Claire Danes off her meds with “Homeland,” its remake of “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”).

Even more promising was the fact that the world was just starting to discover that countries as diverse as Denmark, South Korea and, yes, Israel actually made great television and all you had to do was add subtitles to attract a discerning global audience.

>> 2010-2019 in reviewThe decade that devoured the ties between Israel and U.S. Jews ■ The decade of Israel’s Reform and Conservative Jews ■ The decade of archaeological discoveries ■ The decade Israeli TV captured the world's imagination ■ The decade the Bible replaced international law in deciding Palestinians' fate ■ The decade social media upended the Middle East ■ The decade that made Israelis richer

Yes, we ended the decade with “Hatufim” being named the best international series of the decade by the New York Times, “Fauda” making the top 10, and “Our Boys” and “Shtisel” receiving honorable mentions (the surprise success of “Fauda” and “Shtisel” on Netflix means that, as I write, someone is no doubt pitching a hybrid thriller about Haredi hardcases in the Israeli army). Even so, I still expected more.

Of course, back in 2010, no one could have predicted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would decide to mess with the infrastructure of state television for his own ends. When it finally debuted in 2017, after years in limbo, the motto of the rebranded public broadcaster should have been “Kan we get on with it?”

Little wonder, then, that Israel’s brightest TV talents started eyeing the overseas market, especially America, as a source of succor in such uncertain times. I’ve heard arguments that nowadays the Israeli TV industry thinks first and foremost about overseas opportunities – but I don’t think that’s necessarily to the detriment of local television. What is true is that it has recognized that the real money lies in selling remake rights rather than hawking the original series to international markets (more on that later).

Hot’s 2018 hit “Autonomies” is an interesting example of where Israeli TV currently is. This is a show that couldn’t be more Israeli if it featured stop-motion animation of sabra fruit cutouts. The dystopian drama is set in a near-future where Israel has been split into two countries: a secular coastal state with Tel Aviv as its capital; and the walled city-state of Jerusalem, controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Yet despite this seemingly uniquely Jewish situation, “Autonomies” is also in development in America, with the religious story line being replaced by one about warring red and blue states.

The truth is that if an idea is strong enough, there are always ways to repackage it for international audiences.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 43Credit: Haaretz

That said, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the local TV industry has adopted the “startup nation” mentality and repositioned itself as a creative hothouse, producers increasingly needing overseas money to help finance ambitious shows – similar to how HBO helped make “Our Boys,” another uniquely Israeli story about the 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem and probably my favorite Israeli show of the decade (just pipping “Hatufim” by the smallest of margins).

Cultures clashing

In the world of Israeli comedy, one continues to dominate above all others: the clanging clash of cultures. It’s as subtle as that word “clanging” sounds, but it’s a genre that dates back to the early days of the state, constantly reimagining itself to reflect current immigration trends (although the jokes can be carbon-dated to the 1950s).

One of the most recent examples is 2017’s “Nevsu,” about an Israeli of Ethiopian origin and his Ashkenazi partner. Then there’s “Lehiot Ita” (“To Be with Her”), which was released as “Beauty and the Baker” on Amazon Prime in the United States. This is the rarest of Israeli shows: a romantic comedy. And it’s a real charmer, one that owes as much to “Notting Hill” as to north Tel Aviv.

The show’s greatest strength is that it presents a side of Israel rarely seen: One where the only conflict on show as an elite Ashkenazi supermodel falls for a humble Mizrahi baker is societal strains between the haves and have-nots.

The show is set to be remade in several countries, including America and India. The U.S. version, by ABC, will relocate the action from Herzliya and Tel Aviv to Florida, with the hardscrabble Mizrahi family being replaced by one of Cuban descent. Of course, elites are the same the world over…

On the remake

One of my frustrations with Israeli television over the past decade is that, counter-intuitively, it’s becoming harder and harder for international audiences to see Israeli shows on the small screen. (A show like “Autonomies” has done the Jewish film festival circuit around the world, but good luck trying to find a version with English subtitles on TV.)

Take two recent hits by Israeli satellite television company Yes: “Your Honor” (“Kvodo”), a thriller about a judge who starts bending the law when his son is involved in a hit-and-run accident; and “On the Spectrum,” a comedy about three autistic roommates.

I would love to see English-subtitled versions of these before U.S. producers strip them for parts and create their own versions – but they’re harder to spot than a Klansman in Antarctica. The American version of “Your Honor,” by the way, is one of 2020’s most eagerly awaited new shows, coming from the team that previously gave us “The Good Wife” and starring Bryan Cranston. There would be a nice symmetry to Showtime saying goodbye to one long-running remake of an Israeli show (“Homeland”) if its “replacement” ends up being another.

Israeli talent

Of course, as well as producing shows, Israel also produced a few stars over the past decade, most notably Gal Gadot and Lior Raz.

After going from small Israeli TV shows like “Asfur” and “Kathmandu” to a lucrative comic book franchise and becoming, by my reckoning, only the second-ever Israeli to guest star on “The Simpsons” (after Yael Naim), Gadot is now doing the one thing that proves beyond doubt that she is a genuine movie star: developing her own TV shows in the United States.

First up, there’s a mini-series in which she will play the legendary actress-inventor Hedy Lamarr (that’s yet another Showtime show). Then there’s a remake of the Israeli show “Malkot” (“Queens”), about the women in the Malka family (see what they did there?) who are forced to take over the family crime business when their partners are gunned down by a rival gang. I never realized quite how big TV shows about organized crime are in Israel: I can only assume it’s because audiences here are happy to finally have something that’s actually organized.

Rivaling Gadot for a full work schedule is Raz, who has used “Fauda” (third season incoming) as a springboard to become a full-fledged Netflix star. Along with his writing partner – and former Haaretz correspondent – Avi Issacharoff, the 48-year-old is working on an English-language thriller called “Hit and Run” for the streaming giant, and is counting the shekels as “Fauda” goes global – it’s currently being remade in India, like seemingly every other Israeli show.

He also landed a high-profile role in – apologies for the tautology – Michael Bay’s execrable thriller “6 Underground,” in which he plays a dictator from a fictional country called, ahem, Turgistan. The price Raz must pay for his newfound fame is to play a cardboard villain in this big-budget nonsense and mutter lines like “They walk the Earth like you and me. They have blood types and birthdays and sock drawers.” It won’t kill his career, but it won’t advance it either, and definitely suggests he should be sticking to his own material.

A third less heralded but equally lucrative star of Israeli television is the unscripted shows that have sold for millions of shekels across the globe during the decade.

In truth, it’s a world I know little about. I’ve seen the odd episode of the reality music show “Rising Star,” but otherwise there are a whole slew of unscripted format series that sound like “fake views” to me.

For example, the 2014 quiz show “Boom!” featured contestants who had to cut a color wire in response to a trivia question, and cutting the wrong one would detonate a “bomb” that released foam all over the studio. The show went off the air just prior to the war in Gaza made things go “boom” all over the country, and it was never seen in Israel again.

However, that didn’t mean it disappeared completely. The format sold to 15 global territories (including to Fox in the U.S.), with versions popping up in such random places as Kazakhstan and Chile. And in case you really miss it, the Spanish iteration is still going strong after concluding its sixth season earlier this year. Boom, indeed.

And who knows, maybe that means there might also be a second chance for “2025,” the expensive show that flopped in Israel earlier this year. All this despite a small fortune being invested in a game show that featured contestants living in a high-tech “mini-city” populated by robots. Boo, indeed.

Like many other unscripted Israeli shows, “Boom!” was produced by Keshet International – which would definitely qualify for a star on the Israeli equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame should the government ever feel like creating one. Looking on the bright side, a small side street should suffice. 

What is it good for?

Looking ahead to the next decade, I worry that Israeli TV could end up being stereotyped the way Denmark, Sweden et al were with the Nordic noir (or Scandi-noir) tag at the start of the 2010s.

After hits like “Fauda,” “False Flag,” “Hatufim,” “When Heroes Fly” and “Charlie Golf One” (the latter, set on an army medical base, is being remade by Ron Howard in the U.S. as “68 Whiskey”), I hope we’re not going to get stuck with an “Isra-war” label – where every big Israeli show, writer or director is working on something with a military or espionage theme because that’s how the world views us.

We’ve already got the big-budget “Valley of Tears,” about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, coming up. And that show’s writers, Ron Leshem and Amit Cohen, have penned a Syrian Civil War drama called “Fertile Crescent” for Hulu. To be honest, I’m still struggling with the logic of getting a couple of Israelis to write that one – it’s like asking President Bashar Assad to compose Israel’s next Eurovision Song Contest entry.

The good news in that regard is that war shows are expensive to make, and Israel will always remain in the market for cheap TV. I read recently that the most remade show of the past decade worldwide was “In Treatment” – which suggests that many other small countries are in the same boat, looking for a simple idea that only requires a room, a couple of talented actors and a couch. And that’s especially true in Israel, where money is always tighter than Lior Raz’s grip on the throat of his latest nemesis.

Over the past decade, Israel has become an internationally recognized ideas factory, where being ahead of the curve is a vital part of its USP. And I see no sign of that stopping anytime soon. For instance, Yes Studios is currently developing a comedy, “Shared Space,” set in a WeWork-esque work environment. How many days until we read about a U.S. remake being commissioned to fill the void left by “Silicon Valley” finishing? 

I have two hopes for the 2020s: First, that a major U.S. production company (or global player like Netflix) takes a risk and shoots a big series in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the same way the USA Network archaeological thriller “Dig” was shot here in 2014 – well, until shots of another kind sounded and Israel and Hamas ended up at war. This would be the quickest, most cost-effective way to help forge the skills the region needs if it wants to progress further up the television industry ladder.

The second hope is that, at some point, someone creates a “West Wing”-esque drama set amid the world of Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators – that is, if Samuel Beckett didn’t get there first with “Waiting for Godot.”

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