Israel, Where the Best TV Dramas Are on the Evening News

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Yigal Amir, serving a life sentence for the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.Credit: Tomer Neuberg
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

The plan was to hail here the second season of “True Detective,” the HBO series conceived by Nic Pizzolatto that – there is some kind of consensus about it – reinvented, or at least reinvigorated, the almost DOA police procedural formula. It was even elevated to the ranks of literature (Dostoyevsky was the name being bandied about, I kid you not).

The second season is indeed here, courtesy (for a price) of Yes. We can even feel totally in the loop and watch it simultaneously with our American brothers-and-sisters every Monday morning at 4 A.M. on Yes Oh (repeated at 10 P.M. on Monday evenings). However, as to writing about it and dodging spoilers (my claim to fame), that will have to wait a week – as life is what happens when you make other plans. There is a saying about it in Yiddish, which even rhymes, but it involves God, and I don’t have any such pious plans.

What did happen was me watching the evening newscast on Channel One last Friday. Whenever I get stuck with my remote, and eyes and mind, on one of them, I deeply regret that no one has yet invented an application that will flash – prior to the news floating onto my unsuspecting screen – the warning disclaimer, “The following program contains scenes of a distressing nature. Parental guidance is advised.”

It is par for the discourse in medical and homicidal TV series. But it’s sorely missing precisely where it’s needed most: when news is breaking – more often than not, bad.

The second or possibly third item on last Friday’s newscast was the story about an angry Druze mob blocking the way of an Israel Defense Forces ambulance that was trying to ferry wounded fighters from Syria to Israeli hospitals.

The reporter did warn me – and other viewers – he was going to show us footage of the event from a CCTV camera (the term “lynch” was in the air), so I cannot claim I wasn’t offered the chance to switch off or seek guidance. But while I was groping in bed for the remote, I was treated to the sight of two guys wielding big sticks, clubbing a human body lying on the ground, and then kicking it.

Yes, I do know it happened this way, that our television was showing me the news that fit the screen, and also that one should never flinch from the ugly side of reality and human nature. And yet.

Suddenly, a news item from the previous day sprang to mind, about a 5-year-old boy who knifed his 4-year-old brother in a fight over a toy. Where did the boy get such a sick idea, the deeply shocked reporter wondered. And here, I had the inkling of an answer: From the daily newscast his parents were watching while he played with his toys.

Predictable brouhaha

But worse was to follow. The Jerusalem Film Festival starts on Thursday, and its documentary strand was set to include “Beyond the Fear.” Made by the late Israeli-Latvian director Herz Frank, the film sees him follow the lives of the wife and young son of Yigal Amir, who in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and subsequently steered Israel’s history off (or on – it depends on one’s view) course.

When the story broke about such a movie having been made, and its inclusion in the festival (which is part-funded by the Culture and Sports Ministry), a predictable brouhaha ensued.

The “vox populi” expressed righteous indignation; the “freedom of expression” minority dared raise its voice and was shouted down; the recently appointed Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev brandished her funding whip and the documentary was pulled from the festival’s official program (but will still be considered for the best documentary prize). All that is beside my point.

There never was any inkling of the possibility that the documentary be scheduled for broadcast by any of the networks or cable TV content providers, I hasten to add – and rightly so. It’s an offering of a very contentious nature, and whoever may want to see it – as it already exists – should actively seek it out, and not encounter it by chance or unawares. Freedom of expression entails the freedom to decide what and when one chooses to partake of views so freely expressed.

But now, because the documentary had been scheduled for a public screening and then pulled from the program – following an administrative threat from the powers-that-be (the ghost of censorship rearing its ugly head) – it had become a news item. A daring newsperson made a point of watching all of the film on our behalf, as it were, and told us nearly all about it – with selected representative clips to make his point, such as it was.

Not that it was particularly depressing. Actually, it was all rather pastoral, so to speak. A young, cute boy – we don’t see his face, only the skullcap on his head – talks on the phone with his father, who is serving a life sentence in a heavy-security prison. The boy holds the receiver in his hand and jumps and rolls around the couch. These are scenes full of love, and the milk of human kindness flows freely: “Why don’t you come home?” the son asks. “Because I’m not allowed to.” “By whom?” “The bad guys.” “Do they listen to us?” “Yes, they do.” “Aren’t you worried?” “No, I’m not afraid of them.”

There was then a heated argument in the studio, with some being scandalized that Amir comes across as a loving (and even possibly wronged?) father, and not – as many would like him to remain forever in our common consciousness – a dangerous and almost inhuman monster. Others, meanwhile, claimed that his humanity is precisely the terrible truth we must all live with.

But that is another matter. What made me wonder – and change my plans for this week’s column – was the fact that I as a viewer was ambushed with scenes of a distressing nature. And I insist on preserving my right to get distressed when I choose to be. This is a point of view I solemnly express, as a perpetual, potential viewer-in-distress.