Autism, the TV Show: Israeli Drama Communicates on Another Level

Sometimes channel surfing can turn up a gem - like the Israeli series 'Yellow Peppers.'

Pini Siluk

There are two basic ways of watching TV. One is based on reading the listings (in The Guide) of various channels for the coming week, marking the programs one is tempted to watch, and trying to watch them according to the programing schedules of the powers that be.

The other way – and based on my own experience and belief that I’m no different from the “average viewer,” provided such an animal actually exists – is to find a comfortable place to recline, remote control in hand, and zap through the channels (starting with the VOD channels, through comedy, action, documentary, movies, educational and of course 10, 11, and 22; BBC Entertainment and Mezzo, and so on) until something – a scene in a program or a movie – makes one “park” on a particular channel, and stay there until boredom sets in and one presses the channel button once more. That is how I stumbled on the Israeli drama series “Yellow Peppers,” now in its second season on Channel 2 on Thursdays. The last chapter – number 13 – of the second season will be broadcast this coming Thursday, and there is no news yet on the possibility of a third season. But even before I tell you what it’s about, let me urge you to watch it. You can access the whole of both seasons, broadcast by Keshet, on VOD and on the MAKO website.

The series was devised, written and directed by Keren Margalit (daughter of journalist and TV personality Dan Margalit and sister of TV producer Shira Margalit), based on her personal experience as the mother of an autistic child. It focuses on a family that has to cope and go on with their lives while taking care of an autistic child in a remote community in the Arava in southeastern Israel, far from places that could provide them with basic means of coping.

The first series of 13 episodes went into production in 2008 and was broadcast in 2010. It told the story of a couple – Ayelet, played by Alma Zak, and Yaniv, played by Yossi Marshak – who discover that their 5-year-old son Omri, (played amazingly well by 7-year-old Michael Zapesotsky) suffers from autism. Initially – and apparently this is one of the ways many families deal with such a predicament – they withdraw from active life to a remote place in the Arava (where the mother’s father, a widower played by Yehuda Barkan, owns a plantation of yellow peppers; hence the series’ title) and provide the child with the best home care under the circumstances, while keeping the fact that he is autistic within the extended family.

The first season won accolades from all (including Israel TV prizes for the series itself, Margalit as its creator, writer and director, and an acting prize for Zak. It also garnered about 26 percent ratings, unusually high for a drama series devoid of overt entertainment value. It was acquired for production in the U.S. by Lionsgate Studios, of “Mad Men” fame.

The second season, which went on the air in January this year, picked up the story of the Ohayon-Rotenberg family three years later, with Omri aged 10 and Ayelet and Yaniv conceiving a second child, hoping that he or she will be “normal.” They go on with their lives in the Arava, coming to terms with various familial sub-plots and managing as well as they can. There is also a kind of intriguing, comic-ironic “chorus” in the series, made up of Thai workers on the plantation, who comment and gossip (in Thai) about the family and become emotionally involved in the situation of living with the mystery, fear and very special charm of the phenomenon labelled with the enigmatic word “autism.”

One of the good things about this drama series is that it is not plot-driven, and consequently the reviewer need not fear spoilers. The question that hovers over the second season is whether Ayelet and Yaniv’s second child will be autistic (by the end of episode 11, Ayelet is hospitalized for observation, but that in itself does not necessarily mean a thing). Whatever the answer turns out to be – and I don’t know it – this should not matter at all in assessing the artistic merit of the series.

For those of you who have seen some of the episodes, and for those who decide to sample it after reading this column, I wish to draw your attention to a particular quality of Alma Zak’s acting, and to a particular scene in the 11th episode, both of which highlight the special flavor of “Yellow Peppers.” Zak, one of the stars of the “What a Wonderful Country” satirical program on Channel 2, rose to fame for her uncanny ability to create unerring impressions of female figures from Israel’s public life. In her straight dramatic parts in Israeli movies (unlike many other Israeli TV personalities, she does not cultivate an active stage acting career) she manages to project a character who seems to be ever so slightly “distancing” herself emotionally from the situation she is in. There is some measure of flatness in her tone of voice, which makes one wonder whether there is some degree of “autism” in her personality as well. We gauge the emotions raging in the series to a great extent through her emotional prism, which in a very special way makes the viewer experience the story as someone on the autistic spectrum – which seems wider than we may have thought – might experience it.

In the 11th episode there is a scene in which Omri (in a really magnificent display of screen acting by Zapesotsky) gets “stuck” on a word and behavior: He insists on seeing the credits of a TV program, and keeps repeating the Hebrew word “efshar” (which means, in this context, “[is it] possible?”). His father cannot get through to him and leaves, exasperated. Zak manages to get through by insisting first on questions, uttered in a sort of neutral but insistent (on answers) tone of voice, and then by joining Omri in the pattern of repeating one word (efshar) and by gently inserting more words into the pattern as she lies on the floor next to him. Miraculously, she manages to get Omri “unstuck,” and guide him ever so gently into communicating with her. One short scene, beautifully written and performed by Zak and Zapesotsky, told me much more about autism and the possibilities of functioning within this world than many learned studies.

As far as it is known, the American version has not been produced yet, and we do not know if there will be a third season for this Israeli series. Pending that, one can only hope that a version with English subtitles will be prepared for those of you who are not fluent in Hebrew. Since nothing human is alien, it is certainly worth the effort to make this series accessible to all.