There are many reasons to be annoyed with Keshet Broadcasting’s new series “To Be With Her.” “Big Brother” co-host Assi Azar suddenly thinks he’s a scriptwriter, and model Rotem Sela suddenly thinks she’s an actress. And the series uses stereotypes of a poor Mizrahi man (of Middle Eastern or North African origin) and a rich Ashkenazi woman (of European origin).
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Oh yes, there’s also an obsessive preoccupation with celebrity culture, and Bar Refaeli skipped out (she was supposed to have the main role). And the main problem: A simple guy gets a gorgeous superstar. But lo and behold, you see a few episodes and want more. It turns out it’s a great series.
There are many reasons for this. “To Be With Her” has a simple central idea, which is a common fantasy (and part of the story’s mission is the fulfillment of fantasies). Meanwhile, Azar knows how to write funny, romantic and unpretentious scripts, and Sela cries emotionally, laughs credibly and is drunk in a refined way, the hardest things for actors to do.
At the same time, the stereotypes aren’t really stereotypes. The warm Mizrahi family, despite the traditional foods like majadra and lahuh, isn’t portrayed as an anthropological oddity.
Aviv Alush in the main role is properly rough around the edges and extremely cute, and all the secondary characters do excellent work. Ofer Hayoun is hilarious as the bastard of a brother, Shani Aviv is precise in the role of the younger lesbian sister, a sweet emergence from the closet for Azar, a gay man who adheres to the first rule of scriptwriting: Write about what you know.
Most outstanding is Mark Ivanir in the role of the sleazy agent; he steals the show. This Ukrainian-born actor probably has the best comic timing in the universe.
A rarity in Israel
The secret of the charm lies in the genre. For years the Israeli comedy drama has insisted on reinventing the wheel each time (or copying someone else’s wheel. Perhaps the most popular and ancient genre (from “Daphnis and Chloe” to “The Taming of the Shrew,” not to mention “When Harry Met Sally”), it’s the genre most lacking in Israeli culture throughout the generations.
And it’s not clear why. You don’t see it on television. You don’t see it in books (except for the excellent “Song of the Siren”). You don’t see it in films (again “Song of the Siren”). There’s simply no romantic comedy here. Maybe because it’s too much fun?
Genres aren’t an American or a cinematic invention. Aristotle in “Ars Poetica” already distinguished between tragedy, comedy and parody, and Shakespeare in “Hamlet” mocked the division into “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”
But despite the mockery, even the master knew that genres work. They work because they’re archetypical stories that were distilled for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back after he runs to catch up with her at the airport and makes a speech.
They work because this division lets the viewers/readers develop a system of expectations, to feel comfortable, to know what they’re getting in to. When you see action you know that someone will die, when you see science fiction you know there will be spaceships, and when you see romantic comedy you know that a boy and girl will meet, fall in love, kiss, experience minor crises along the way and a big, huge crisis near the end.
In a good romantic comedy they’ll make you fear that, oh no, they’re going to get me depressed and destroy the fantasy. But in the end it’s clear they’ll be together forever. Love is the most beautiful thing.
There’s something consoling and reassuring in this knowledge. Maybe there will be some surprises, but they won’t really depress us. In “To Be With Her,” no Hollywood producer will rape Gal Gadot in a hotel room, and nobody will die. (And there won’t be spaceships, which is a shame.) In the end, it will be all flowers and butterflies, and in Israel, probably children, too.
After many dry years (with a few exceptions), years of being cut off from the world, it seems genres are beginning to gain momentum, in the movies as well (“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” for example).
Creating within a genre means there’s always deliberate references to other texts. References to other texts means respect for the past, respect for world culture, respect for others and respect for tradition – all the things missing in the state of “a light unto the nations.”
Aside from that there is enjoyable acting. In “To Be With Her,” as in “Notting Hill,” the hero shows up with flowers thinking that it’s a date and discovers that it’s a party. And not just any party but a pool party.