'Fauda' Aside, Great Israeli Television Is a Myth

In many ways, Israeli television mirrors the local high-tech scene, which has become a great incubator but rarely gets to see startups realize their full potential

Lior Raz and Tsahi Halevi in 'Fauda.'
IMDb

There must be lots of professions in Israel where people feel their skills aren’t being fully utilized: Bacon slicer, for example; Naftali Bennett’s hair stylist; or Culture Minister Miri Regev’s literary consultant.

But atop this list must surely be all those trying to create drama and comedy shows on Israeli television. Because the true miracle of Israeli TV is not that it makes great shows, but that it produces great shows despite so few actually being made.

Israeli channels long ago realized that “talk is cheap” when it comes to filling out TV schedules. Why make a relatively expensive scripted drama that may or may not find an audience when you can have pundits commentating ad nauseam on Israel’s latest war/scandal/dilemma or B-list celebrities inanely promoting themselves?

Then there are the countless hours of “light entertainment” in front of a live studio audience, a format that already felt dated back in the 1980s; the innumerable cooking shows (turns out this country has a lot of master bakers); the stale reality TV programs; and quiz shows where gimmickry attempts to conceal the vacuousness.

If you’re a talented Israeli writer/producer/director trying to make the next “Hatufim,” the inspiration behind "Homeland," where are the opportunities? Disappearing faster than Jared Kushner’s credibility, with financial constraints shackling all parts of the local TV industry (including state-funded Channel 1; commercial Channel 2; and cable and satellite providers HOT and Yes).

Last year, for example, neither of the two main channels managed to produce a drama worthy of even a single nomination in the annual TV awards (the Ophirs), while the main drama and comedy categories weren’t even able to muster the usual five nominations.

This is not the sign of a healthy industry. And it’s especially galling at a time when Israelis are flocking to see locally produced movies in great numbers – 30 Israeli films were released here in 2016, with 1.7 million tickets sold.

But wait, you say, isn’t Israeli TV a light unto the nations? The mouse that roared? The little engine that could?

Well, it’s a nice myth, but this really is an industry in crisis. Those oft-cited Israeli hits “Hatufim,” “Ramzor” and “Betipul” all aired a decade ago. Can you name three subsequent shows with the same wow factor?

I can name good shows that have been made in the meantime, including the 2015 thriller “False Flag” (“Kfulim,” or “Doubles” – now showing internationally on FOX), inspired by the alleged 2010 Mossad operation in Dubai when agents used fake passports of real people. And the charming romantic comedy “The Baker and the Beauty” (“Lehiot Ita” in Hebrew – “To Be with Her”), whose two seasons will be available to view on Amazon Prime later this year.

But there has only been one show that has generated similar buzz to those three earlier hits: “Fauda” – and Channel 2 even passed on that before Yes decided to roll the dice.

Fewer shows, fewer risks

Clearly, part of the problem is funding, which means fewer shows are being made and subsequently fewer risks are being taken. But another part of the problem is that, unlike many other markets, Israel doesn’t really do soap operas or telenovelas (excepting Channel 10’s “The Game of Life”): There are no “Middle EastEnders.” No “The Bald and the Beautiful.” No “Afor’s Anatomy.” Yet soaps are often breeding grounds for young talent – in the U.K. alone, the likes of Sally Wainwright (“Happy Valley”), Paul Abbott (“Shameless’) and Jimmy McGovern (“Cracker”) all learned their craft on them.

Here, the nearest equivalent is children’s television, specifically the tween dramas made by HOT and Yes. These include vampire drama “Hatsuya” (“Split”) and numerous multi-episode mystery-adventure shows like “The Island,” “The Greenhouse,” “The Eight” and “Galis.”

Writer Giora Chamizer is the one-man industry behind many of the aforementioned shows, and he’s now working on the U.S. adaptation of “The Greenhouse” – called “Greenhouse Academy,” which has just been released on Netflix. If it’s a hit, what are the odds that Netflix makes Chamizer an offer he can’t refuse (and I don’t mean his own cooking show)?

It’s the inevitable brain drain when a better-funded, better-get-over-there country comes a-calling. But there are no guarantees it will work out. Just look at Gideon Raff after the remake rights to his “Hatufim” were sold to Showtime and he pulled up stakes to work on “Homeland.” While that well-heeled show lacked for absolutely nothing except logic in subsequent seasons, “Hatufim“ languished on the margins until Raff could eke out enough time to make the unsurprisingly rushed second season.

Raff is still listed as executive producer on “Homeland” and has since worked on other Middle East-themed U.S. shows like “Tyrant” and “Dig.” But none have come close to the brilliance of that first season of “Hatufim.” Instead of becoming a shining star in Israel, Raff arguably got lost in America.

You can’t blame him for accepting the paycheck and exposure over the uncertainty of working in Israel. But it’s also why Channel 2 franchisee Keshet’s move to work on shows directly for the U.S. market (and elsewhere internationally) is another ominous sign.

Upcoming U.S. fall shows “The Brave” and “Wisdom of the Crowd” both sound like ideas hatched in Israel but ultimately created in America – one is about fearless military operatives working behind enemy lines; the other about a high-tech genius using a crowdsourcing hub to solve his daughter’s murder.

Ditto “Fauda” creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff inking deals with Netflix to create a new show for the streaming service about a joint CIA-Mossad operation. Apparently, if you look from a certain angle and in a certain light, you can still see the Israeli element in the storyline.

In many ways, Israeli television mirrors the local high-tech scene, which has become a great incubator but rarely gets to see startups realize their full potential. As soon as the technology proves itself, in comes an international buyer – and the rest is history and lawsuits from former partners.

The problem with this model is that while a few people get rich, you’re always going back to square one, waiting for the next big thing. The country never really benefits, since the products are invariably made elsewhere, meaning jobs won’t be created and new skills won’t be developed.

Israeli television can still punch above its weight in the international arena – Yes’ judicial drama “Your Honor” (“Kvodo”) recently won the top prize at a Paris TV festival and “The Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King have just signed up for the U.S. adaptation.

But the simple fact is we need to get more scripted Israeli shows on the air. Which means the government needs to start backing local television again (all those TV awards are a great ad for Israeli ingenuity), and TV channels need to be just as creative with their fundraising as their shows.

To be honest, though, if I were an Israeli TV producer right now, I’d probably be pitching a drama series about the settlement enterprise in the West Bank or a comedy about a religious Zionist pedagogue setting up a new school. After all, for some things, there’s never any shortage of government funding.