Can 'Homeland' Creator Gideon Raff Dig Himself Out of a Hole With His New Show?

A red heifer, an American FBI agent, a CIA station chief, a Christian cult in the Nevada desert, a gay Israeli cop – these are just a few of the ingredients in the new TV series 'Dig.'

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Chasing demons in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 'Dig.' Steadily declining ratings.Credit: Ronen Akerman
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Once upon a time, last year, the Israeli movie person Gideon Raff was a hybrid of two biblical figures for the Israeli movie and TV industry. Like Joseph, who singlehandedly saved the Egyptian economy, Raff garnered world interest with a TV series he created in Hebrew, “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War) and had it exported and renamed “Homeland,” injecting American TV screens with a dose of much needed creativity.

Then, like Moses, he led the TV and movie caravan into the Promised Land, to shoot here, in Israel, two highly-hyped series he created: one about the geo-political/personal local present, “Tyrant” (about yes, a Middle Eastern tyrant), the other, “Dig,” about the archaeological-religious-cultural-political-personal local past and its implications for the present state of affairs (of love and state).

First came “Tyrant,” and lo and behold, it was a current affairs-psycho-political action tale about a dictator in the making, while all around the Arab Spring was in full bloom, and Iran was sprouting nuclear saplings, and both of them were missing from the plot. As was pretty much everything else. And while it was still in the making in a specially built tinsel-town near Kfar Sava, last summer’s Gaza war erupted, and the TV circus fled town to other exotic locations on the globe. The series went on air, got its lukewarm reception, and earned itself a second season just in time to end the first one with a cliffhanger.

Raff, meanwhile, had left “Tyrant” (due to differences of creative opinion with the show-runner, Howard Gordon) and remained with “Dig,” which had at the center of one of its intertwined plots the Ark of the Covenant, making it into a sort of Indiana Jones in Jerusalem, with the added appeal of being shot on site (no, no typo here; the protagonist shoots anyone he chases on sight. He misses a lot).

“Dig” also had to shift its filming from the Israeli trenches in the wake of the Gaza operation, to other shooting sites (where no one was shooting around them). It had its initially commissioned season of five episodes prolonged to ten while still in mid-production (presumably necessitating some padding of the plot), and went on air in mid-March in the U.S. on the USA Network to disappointing (1.83 million) and steadily declining (less than a million viewers by episode 5) ratings. Both HOT and Yes are running it almost concurrently with the American screenings.

It all starts with a red heifer being born somewhere near the Arctic Circle and being inspected upon birth by arabbi with a magnifying glass. It continues with an American FBI agent with a manly, tormented and weather-beaten visage (Jason Isaacs) who trades sexual favors with the CIA station chief (Anne Heche) in Tel Aviv, while chasing an American of Arab background, a fugitive from justice who is – as it turns out – also on a mission to retrieve the precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate, in the service of OK, I’d better stop here. Oh wait, there is also a Christian cult compound in the Nevada desert gearing up for some sacrificial ritual, with Lauren Ambrose (of “Six Feet Under” fame) trying valiantly to save the day and a 13-year-old boy (2C2E, i.e. Too Complicated To Explain), a scheming African-American Madam Ambassador and a gay Israeli cop who is raising a small son.

There is also a corpse – that of a young red-haired woman who was working on an archaeological dig and was on the verge of a major discovery before she was murdered – and a mysterious scheming archaeologist (Richard E. Grant), and some local rabbis, who are competing over the best way of serving the Jewish faith. One of them, on the side of the good guys, is played by the Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy, who appears on Israeli screens as a local Mafia boss (in endless reruns of “The Arbitrator”) and as the patriarch of a disintegrating clan of Be’er Sheva falafel sellers (“Zaguri Empire”). The long (as it feels) and short (as the episodes are) of the series is the FBI agent chasing demons in the Old City of Jerusalem – most probably a lot somewhere made to look a lot like the Old City. He waves a gun when he is not inhaling forbidden substances from a shofar-shaped bong (2C2E again).

It all – the red heifer, the High Priest breastplate – spells a religious ritual in the making, with the focal point of a brewing Judeo-Christian fusion being under the Dome of the Rock, auguring a huge explosion for all. The part of the puzzle that is linked to the Muslim faith (hello, ISIS, are you there?) is sadly missing from the plot, although an American emissary is trying to broker yet another agreement. While trying to follow who is double-crossing whom and why, I tried to remember where I had already seen this story – or a similar one – on screen. No, not Indiana Jones (the protagonist “outs” and “disarms” the possible resemblance by mentioning it himself on screen), nor “The Da Vinci Code” with its past cabals and present plots. It had an American male with a gun teaming up with a local cop to chase some archaeological-religious freaks who are bound to create some political havoc in Jerusalem.

Jogging my memory a bit yielded “The Order,” a 2001 movie written by (and starring) the Belgian martial artist, actor and director Jean-Claude Van Damme. He plays the son of an archaeologist who has to block an evil ancient Christian order; the Dome of the Rock is in the background and in danger of being sent flying up in the air. In other words, a lot of rushing around in Jerusalem, with archaeology, politics, action, sex and religion served up shaken, but not stirring up too much attention. Something to pass the time with until the volcano on which we sit erupts for real.

In Israeli slang, “to dig” means to go on and on and on and on about an issue that has been already been deliberated ad nauseam. The implied metaphor is of someone – an interlocutor or a TV series – who keeps boring a hole in the ground long after he (or she) has dug himself (or herself) out of his (or her) depth, and long after he has bored his (or her) viewers and listeners out of their wits.

But I may have been prematurely unfair here. There are still five episodes to go until “Dig” is finished.