I like to think my father would have appreciated the irony of me reviewing a TV series called “The Grave” this week.
He died at the age of 89 on Thursday after a short but debilitating illness, spending his final days in an English hospital. To be honest, I’m beginning to think it was a mistake to let Armie Hammer visit him that final night.
Due to coronavirus constraints, it’s going to be a while before I get to visit Dad’s final resting place and talk to him once more about the horrors of Brexit, Bibi, Boris, Trumpism and the Nottingham Forest Football Club. (Like me, he was a lifelong Notts County fan, so when people offer condolences and hope he didn’t suffer much at the end, I have to stop myself from saying that as a supporter of one of England’s least successful soccer clubs, suffering was kind of in his DNA.)
In a further irony, given my TV critic role, I was (yet again) a passive viewer during my father’s final hours, forced to watch events unfolding thousands of miles away, instead of being beside him in that room as I should have been.
Without going into too many details, let’s just say that my FaceTime moments with Dad at the end were the most painful hospital scenes I’ve ever endured on screen – and I’ve seen all of “Ratched.”
As other members of the family sat with him as he slept peacefully, it was as if I were watching a documentary about palliative care in which the main characters looked all-too-sadly familiar.
The medical setting was instantly recognizable, of course: hospitals are one of the foundations upon which television is built. But they’re a bit like police stations, prisons and politicians’ bedrooms – not the kind of places you want to spend any time in real life.
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Since the dawn of television, medical dramas have provided great (and cost-effective) entertainment, whether in dramatic or documentary form. Sometimes the two even collide. A friend of mine is addicted to a British reality series called “24 Hours in A&E” (accident and emergency departments), and after I gave him an update on my father’s condition early last week, he recounted a scene from the new season in which a woman is seen regaining consciousness after a fall. When her concerned husband asks if she knows where she is, she fixes him with a stare, ponders the question and responds “Holby?” – referring to the fictional setting for the British medical soap “Holby City.”
I generally try to avoid watching anything set in a hospital that doesn’t feature Jack Nicholson, yet on Wednesday I was supremely grateful to be able to share some moments with my father as he drifted away, saying farewell to him in the most surreal of settings – sitting on the very sofa where I do most of my TV viewing and trying to tell him how much I loved him without becoming a complete emotional mess (as he would have wanted). Reader, I failed.
However, as emotional as it was, watching remotely also offered some form of defensive shield. I’ve sat in a hospital and seen a loved one die in completely different circumstances when, completely out of the blue, my then-partner suffered a late miscarriage and we lost our baby son.
That sense of sheer, raw pain is one you never forget – a sensation that is occasionally amplified whenever you see a similar scene replayed in a TV drama, forcing you to relive your most agonizing moment just when you least expected.
How long, I wonder, before I see my FaceTime experience last week played out in a TV drama?
My dad gave me many things I’m grateful for. But I definitely didn’t get my love of cinema and television from him.
What I did inherit from him, though, was a love of newspapers. One of my most-cherished childhood memories is sitting with him as he ate his evening meal after a long day at work. Why my parents made a 7-year-old child do a long day’s work is a question you’ll have to ask my mother.
As Dad broke down the stories behind the headlines, I was always fascinated by the prominence given to different items – especially the lead story with its large font size and placement “above the fold.” As I remember it now, 40-odd years on, every big headline at the time seemed to be about either the Yorkshire Ripper or Margaret Thatcher. I have resisted the urge to connect the dots there.
Truly, one of my most enjoyable childhood sounds was that of the evening newspaper falling through the letter box. I would immediately pore over the key sections: front page (major news); back page (sports); and TV listings. As the years passed, I would add film listings to that list. Yet, though I spent the best part of 20 years writing about movies in the U.K. before moving to Israel, I never once went to the cinema with my dad.
It was the same story with television. Dad was an avid viewer of the nightly news bulletin, but he generally saw the radio as a far superior form of entertainment. Indeed, the only reason he bought a color TV was after we went on a family outing to the local zoo in the mid-1970s and saw a set in the gorillas’ enclosure.
My father was never a man for keeping up with the Joneses, but apes were another matter entirely.
That’s not to say we didn’t watch any television together. There were four British sitcoms he never tired of – “Fawlty Towers,” “Steptoe and Son,” “Dad’s Army” and “Rising Damp.” And, of course, he could always be relied upon to walk into the TV room whenever a sex scene was airing in what was the “Game of Thrones” of its day – the European arthouse movie.
Thankfully, Dad never became one of those senior citizens who sits in front of the television all day long – watching something like Fox News and then shouting at the clouds. However, television did play an increasingly prominent part in his life as he got older.
It was the rare phone call over the last decade where you wouldn’t hear an afternoon quiz show blaring in the background – bizarrely, no matter what time you rang.
He would also frequently extol the virtues of an admittedly delightful British TV show called “The Repair Shop,” in which skilled craftsmen and women would breathe new life into beloved family possessions that had seen better decades. It’s impossible not to see the show as anything but a metaphor for Britain itself – well, minus the improvements – but it brought a lot of joy to my dad in his final years.
Maybe because it’s something I never shared with him, but communal viewing is an experience I treasure with my own kids. Whenever we’re together, we’ll invariably do a movie night (most recently, in yet another irony, “This is Where I Leave You”).
We won’t be able to watch “Grandpa’s favorite movie,” because he never really had one. (My sister swears it was actually Burt Reynolds’ “Smokey and the Bandit,” but I’m in denial about that.) At some point, though, I’ll introduce my daughters to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (even though we’ll have to suffer that racist fool John Wayne), a film that reflects my dad’s rural Irish roots – he was from the same town as President-elect Joe Biden’s forefathers. It also seems as perfect a film as any to remember the quiet man who meant the world to me.
Ah yes, that review
As it turns out, “The Grave” became the ideal show to watch. This Israeli mystery-drama-thriller is pure escapist fun – just smart enough to keep you engaged and your mind off weightier concerns.
In a normal reviewing week, I would have watched all eight episodes before writing about it. But given this week’s unique circumstances, I’m only halfway through. The key word the show conjures up so far? Intriguing.
Overseas audiences may be used to seeing Israeli shows in which war, espionage and terrorism are invariably the main themes – “Fauda,” “Our Boys,” “Valley of Tears,” “Tehran,” etc. – but “The Grave” is a little different. It’s hardly unique in the global sense – there are plenty of TV series out there trying to put the “super” in “supernatural” – but it certainly feels unique compared to other Israeli shows. (The nearest equivalent is probably “Pillars of Smoke,” aka “Timrot Ashan,” which was also set in northern Israel and revolved around another seemingly inexplicable mystery.)
The brainchild of Omri “When Heroes Fly” Givon, “The Grave” actually reminds me of the kind of Israeli shows I used to watch with my kids a decade or so ago: fantastical series like “The Island,” “The Greenhouse” and “The Eight,” where ordinary folk – youngsters, in those cases – faced hard-to-explain phenomena (as opposed to impossible-to-explain phenomena such as the appeal of Simon Cowell).
“The Grave” aired in Israel in 2019 under the title “The Day the Earth Shook” (“Bayom sheha’adama ra’ada”), and while it won’t pull up any trees, there’s plenty to like about it. For instance, I really love that northern Israel setting, even if at times it feels as much an advert for the verdant hills of the Galilee as an offbeat thriller.
It’s not just the setting that makes this series undisputedly Israeli, though. Only an Israeli show could feature a key character described as “some kind of mentalist” and make it sound remotely plausible.
Then there’s the police station that seems stuck in 1978 with its two “Odd Couple” investigators; the widowed park ranger who’s suffered so much misfortune in life, even Yogi Bear would feel sorry for him; and the glamorous young female prisoner who looks like she’s just stepped off a catwalk, not a perp walk.
All are somehow linked to the discovery of three skeletons, which are unearthed in a nature reserve after an earthquake hits – creating the kind of minor damage that suggests a show with a very modest budget. Even the ranger’s kibbutz-type home that’s trashed during the temblor in the opening scene is completely back to normal a couple of hours later.
It’s also true that there’s an awful lot of plot in each 45- to 50-minute episode – so much that even David Lynch at his “Twin Peaks” peak might have suggested losing a storyline or two. But it’s an unashamedly entertaining and diverting watch.
“The Grave” can still be seen in Israel on the usual VOD services, but, perhaps more relevantly for this review, it just started airing in North America on the Topic streaming service.
If you’ve never heard of Topic, it launched online last November and features some very watchable shows – most notably Shane Meadows’ gut-wrenching British drama “The Virtues” and the quirky German thriller “Pagan Peak.” The first three episodes of “The Grave” are available now, with the other five dropping every Thursday until February 18.
Given the glut of streaming services already on the market, it’s going to be tough for Topic to break through. I hope it succeeds, though, because any site that offers U.S. audiences the chance to watch original Israeli programming is to be encouraged. And even if “The Grave” isn’t quite to die for, it’s definitely worth exploring.