Bringing Drama to Tweens, Israeli Writer Breaks New TV Ground - and Even Netflix Has Taken Note

Giora Chamizer, the force behind 'The Greenhouse,' the first Israeli series to be sold to Netflix, talks to Haaretz about the ‘daily teen drama’ genre he created.

Giora Chamizer on the set of “Neighborhood.” A world where children can entertain the fantasy of self-definition. Chamizer, with a shaved head and a trim beard and moustache, wears jeans, a T-shirt and a leather jacket and sits on a chair in what appears to be a down-at-heels apartment building or motel, with external halls.
Kobi Kalmanovitz

Giora Chamizer’s “The Eight” (“Hashminiya”) was just the beginning. The series was the first entry in the television genre now known as “daily teen drama,” which made viewers aged 9 to 14 the main viewers of Hebrew-language TV drama. The genre is a cross between a suspense show and a telenovela, with bits of fantasy, science fiction and old-style Israeli children’s adventure series Hasamba, in addition to — and this was a key innovation — complex and burning issues from current events. “The Eight” has been followed up, so far, by 15 additional daily teen drama series. They include “Galis,” “Shovrei Galim” and “Hatsuya” as well as Chamizer’s “The Island,” “The Greenhouse” and “Neighborhood.” All of them were very popular when they first aired and still are, years later.

Cast of Giora Chamizer’s “The Eight” (“Hashminiya”)
Yariv Fine

This year he wrote 125 episodes. You might expect that someone who generates more hours of television drama that most writers in the country would get a certain pleasure out of the work of writing. But no: Writing is torture for him, he says. And now not only does he have to write an entire new season of “Neighborhood” in Hebrew, he also has to work on the American version of “The Greenhouse,” which will be available for viewing all over the world: “The Greenhouse” is the first Israeli series to be sold to Netflix, and Chamizer’s first project abroad.

Of all the Israeli television shows out there, in an industry that has already made quite a reputation for itself in the world, Netflix chose this show. It’s an extraordinary opportunity, and one that Chamizer was dearly hoping would happen sometime. But he didn’t expect to find himself so soon having to write screenplays in English and send them to Los Angeles. In short: It’s a lot of work, and a lot of pressure.

Hamizer says that what appealed to Netflix was the target audience — the show is watched by 9-to-14-year-olds, something for which there is no real parallel in the international market, where there are no other dramas directed at this age group.

As he toiled away on the American version, he found himself feeling much less connected to “The Greenhouse.” At some point, he started to feel that it was coming out too sterile and a bit elitist. So to work in peace and quiet on the American version, he decided to take “writing vacations” abroad. A month ago he went to Barcelona. He sends Netflix material and receives comments back by email, and they don’t make him very happy. Netflix says the thriller plots are too farfetched, and they periodically send him questions too.

It’s all about the story

Much has been written over the years in the Israeli press about Chamizer, 44, and his TV shows. Some pieces focused on the intense following among young viewers for the characters and the actors, while others tried to crack “the formula.” His shows have been described as transcending media, overflowing from television onto Instagram, Facebook and into children’s plays, for instance. But ultimately, what really matters here is that they all have a story — a story that inexorably draws kids in, through dozens of episodes a season, day after day. They become attached to the story, they think about it and write about it. It fills their minds, and becomes a classic to them.

“It’s like food. It’s something very basic to the human experience. Our response to stories is something that transcends cultures. Bedtime stories didn’t come out of nowhere. Stories aren’t meant just to fill time. I believe that it’s something we really need. And there are rules for how to make them,” says Chamizer. “There’s a hero, he wants something, and something is standing in his way. That’s about it. The craft of storytelling will never change. You pile up the obstacles, but it doesn’t matter if the plot takes place on Mars or in a dance academy.”

When he’s in Israel, Chamizer spends most of his time in coffee shops, together with his writing partner Noa Pnini. “My family is convinced that I’m retired and living a life of leisure,” he says. “But they have no idea what we go through.”

“The Greenhouse,” which premiered in 2012 and ran for three seasons, is set at a school for talented young leaders on the shores of Lake Kinneret. The heroine is Ella-Lee Reshef (unusual names are a Chamizer trademark, as are strong-willed female protagonists), whose mother, the first Israeli woman astronaut, died in a space-shuttle crash. To tell any more of the story would get too complicated. The plot twists come so fast that if you miss more than one episode, it’s not so easy to catch on. The surfeit of action is a key part of the story. For Chamizer, plot is king; scenery and dialogue, even the cast, is secondary. You have to feel it, as he puts it.

In the Chamizer universe, the only ones who are in control of their lives and know what’s best for them are the kids themselves. This fantasy of self-definition outside the family is, in the view of Chamizer, a father of two, one reason why kids are so attracted to his shows. He invents a world for them without parents. Many of his protagonists are orphans.

Absent adults

“The adults in all my shows are portrayed as powerless,” he says. Chamizer always carefully gauges his audience’s reactions. Back when he was filming “The Eight,” he noticed that when there were scenes that only featured adults, the young viewers would get bored and their attention would wander. Ever since, he hardly ever writes scenes that are just for adults, unless the adults are all “bad guys” plotting dastardly deeds.

When Chamizer was a boy, he would watch television from the time he got home from school until the evening. He lived with his mother — his father is renowned quiz-master and media personality Dan Chamizer, and his parents divorced when he was 2 — and he had no siblings, so by his teens he had racked up a considerable number of hours in front of the tube. He loved nothing more than to be drawn into the stories on screen for five or six hours at a stretch.

Giora Chamizer's father, Dan Chamizer, creator of the "Chamizer riddle" in his home in Ein Harod, in 2012. Dan Chamizer sits at a desk, next to a large, shaggy dog who has its paw on Chamizer's leg.
Eyal Toueg

He says that it was from his father that he got the idea that “you could make a living from what’s in your head.”

“There was never any push to get a degree, or anything like that. Maybe I took from him an aversion to working in an office, and a desire to be free. Maybe if I’d had a father who was a lawyer things would have been a little different, but thanks to him I knew that if you’re creative, you can make a living from it,” he says.

Still, he didn’t necessarily see television as his future profession. In the army, he served at Army Radio, and in 1993, he joined the Children’s Channel. He invented the “Shesh-Tus” game show that began as a 15-minute daily segment and continued to be aired for 20 years. When he was 24, he decided to study music in Boston. The Children’s Channel made him an offer that one could only dream of in today’s television market. He was paid a salary, and in return he sent three faxes to Israel each week with ideas for new shows and also gave notes on new pilots.

After a year in Boston, when he realized he wasn’t really cut out to be a musician, he moved to New York. The deal with the Children’s Channel enabled him to live quite comfortably for a decade: He studied history, briefly ran a start-up company, watched a lot of television and went to four movies a week. “Basically, I did nothing,” he says.

In 2004, the party came to an end. His application for a green card was denied, and Chamizer and his wife returned to Israel. Now he had to think of what to do next. He had just read an article in The New Yorker about Hogan Sheffer, the lead writer for the soap opera “As the World Turns.” Chamizer was enchanted by the idea of being someone who writes a lot, doesn’t come to the set and doesn’t get involved in the production, but makes good money.

“In my cynical mode at the time, that’s what interested me,” he says. And so for the first time in his life, he began writing a screenplay. Before long, it evolved into “The Eight.”