I don’t know precisely when it happened, but television conquered cinema. At some point during the pandemic, the idiot box defeated the silver screen and became the most important form of entertainment across the world.
Sure, the major film hubs – the Hollywoods, Bollywoods, Nollywoods and Sollywoods (and I only had to make one of those up) – are still going strong, pumping out movies that fewer and fewer people are going to see. But elsewhere, smart investors are putting their money on projects made for the small screen.
Just ask yourself: when was the last time you heard any buzz about an upcoming Israeli movie? Now compare that to television, which always seems to have an awards-attracting, audience-drawing new show on the horizon.
Furthermore, television in Israel and elsewhere now is just as capable of producing big stars as the movies. To give you one anecdotal example: I was in a London restaurant the other week when a friend sitting opposite me suddenly got very excited – a keenness he usually only displays either when the desserts arrive or when someone else is picking up the check.
His gestures made it clear that he was either having a stroke or trying to “subtly” tell me that someone of great importance had just arrived at the next table. I have an aversion to star-spotting, however, so refused to cast a glance to my right.
In the end, my pal resorted to WhatsApping me a two-word message: “It’s Saul!!!” It was a message that could only mean one thing – “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk was in the building.
Odenkirk was in town to promote his new book, “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama,” which in itself tells you that television is increasingly capable of turning actors into household names whose memoirs are instant bestsellers.
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Think of a big-name actor and I’ll bet they’re just as likely to be working on a small-screen project as one for the cinema – see, for instance, the presence of Glenn Close in the upcoming second season of Israeli espionage thriller “Tehran.” As Norma Desmond told us all those years ago in “Sunset Boulevard,” the stars are still big; it’s the pictures that got small.
I was struck by this shift while “attending” the Series Mania festival in Lille, northern France, last week. I use quotation marks there because I was not physically at Europe’s premier television festival, but instead watching shows remotely from my apartment in Tel Aviv.
There were three Israeli series being premiered: the drama “Fire Dance,” the comedy “Bloody Murray” and the thriller “Children in the Woods” – and two of them walked away with awards. And I’d call them, in order, an instant classic, hilarious, and ambitious but flawed. (Caveat: I only saw two episodes of each series, so this is by no means a final verdict on each of them.)
On the map
Before I briefly discuss each series, there were four things that struck me collectively about them.
First, we now assume that Israeli series will hold their own on the world stage. There’s a professionalism to the industry that allows it to create a slate of shows that reflect many aspects of the Jewish state (though the key word here is “Jewish”; the Arab community is still painfully underrepresented on the small screen).
The local TV industry put Israel “on the map” a long time ago, to borrow the classic Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team phrase, and it is going to stay on the map.
Second, Israeli TV is now facing the same problem the likes of Denmark and Sweden have encountered in recent years: a relatively small pool of on-screen talent.
So, just as you see the same actors popping up again and again in whatever Nordic Noir series you’re watching, there are a lot of awfully familiar faces recurring in hit Israeli shows. Actors like Naomi Levov, who rose to prominence in the hit autism comedy-drama “On the Spectrum” in 2018, was starring in both “Bloody Murray” and “Children in the Woods” at Series Mania.
Similarly, the odds are high that if you watch a lot of Israeli TV, there’s an actor appearing in a new show that you’ve just seen in another recent series. There’s clearly some unwritten rule, for instance, that Noa Koler must appear in every other Israeli show. You may know her from the likes of “Cash Register” (“Kupat Rashit”) or “Stage Crush” (“Chazarot”), and she’s also one of the first faces you’ll see in “Fire Dance” (“Rikud Ha’esh”).
In fact, I’m beginning to think there’s an arrangement in which Koler and Rotem Sela agree to do alternate shows, because the latter is also a permanent fixture on Israeli TV: If she’s not trying to sell you an air-conditioning unit or encouraging you to switch bank accounts, then she’s starring in shows such as “Lehiot Ita” (“The Baker and the Beauty”), “Hatabah” (“The Chef”) and now “Bloody Murray.”
Is this “problem” created because casting agents and producers are playing it too safe and only casting household names? Or is there really a dearth of A-listers to pick from? I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two.
Third, Israeli government funding (from the Mifal Hayapis national lottery) was invested in “Fire Dance” – something which would have been unthinkable for an Israeli TV production just a few short years ago. I’ve noticed a similar trend in the United Kingdom, where it seems film has also become television’s poor relation.
It certainly seems to make more business sense to invest in television over film, where the risk of failure is so much greater and everything rests on the opening weekend. Television shows, by contrast, can build audiences slowly thanks to VOD and streaming options, and have an ever-expanding global market.
Fourth, the thing all of these series had in common is that, once upon a time, they might have been made as movies. It was hard to escape the feeling that “Bloody Murray” especially, but also “Children” and “Fire,” might at some point have existed as movie scripts but later pivoted to the TV format in order to get made.
“Fire” is the most episodic of the three shows but it is also, ironically, a wonderfully “cinematic” experience full of breathtaking shots. This will come as no surprise to anyone who saw Rama Burshtein-Shai’s debut film feature, “Fill the Void,” in 2012.
This is television created by a true auteur and Burshtein-Shai’s ambitions are never compromised by the small screen.
The first two episodes completely blew me away, playing out like a hybrid of “Shtisel” meets “Succession” – but with the avaricious Roy family replaced by a small ultra-Orthodox sect in an unidentified part of Israel.
Every scene is not only a feast for the eyes but also the soul, as Burshtein-Shai pulls off the difficult task of creating an intimate epic – one that asks big questions but with a poignancy that is quite remarkable.
It came as no surprise that Yehuda Levi – another familiar Israeli face from films dating back to 2002’s “Yossi & Jagger” to last year’s TV series “Embezzlement” (“Me’ila”) – won the best actor award at Series Mania for his performance as a rabbi in his mid-30s, tasked with choosing the replacement for his late father as head of the Fireslov Haredi community.
I’m more surprised, however, that the show’s other main act, Mia Ivryn, wasn’t also honored for her performance, which is simply astounding. The first two episodes alone feature five or six memorable scenes in which the 18-year-old wrestles with both her feelings for the older rabbi with doleful eyes and her troubled domestic life.
Other critics will be better equipped than me to discuss the show’s portrayal of a small Haredi community and how authentic it is. It will also be fascinating to see how religious groups respond to the show, which I found to be rather spiritual and moving, all the better for making its community leaders flawed yet recognizably human characters.
The title “Fire Dance” sounds like the greatest song Leonard Cohen never recorded and, much like an earworm, I can’t get the series out of my head. Luckily, it debuts on Yes on April 24, so I won't need to wait long before I can see the rest of the show. Hallelujah.
Series Mania was something of a celebration of Yes Studios and its actors’ repertory, because the Israeli heavyweight also provided both “Bloody Murray” (the same name in Hebrew) and “Children in the Woods” (“Yeladim Bayaar”).
The latter didn’t quite work for me, an “everything but the kitchen sink” drama about global baby trafficking via the dark net. It is one of those thrillers where each of the investigators has so much baggage, it’s a wonder they can get out of the house every morning.
Religious cults; prostitution; a homeless, near-mute woman who can potentially crack the case; parallel plotlines in Israel and Spain – there’s a lot going on in this show. I’ll need to see more episodes to pass judgment on whether it is lost in the woods or just needs more time for us to accept the somewhat implausible characters.
Far more instantly enjoyable is Stav Idisis’ rewarding comedy “Bloody Murray.” The title, a word play on “Bloody Mary,” works better in Hebrew where the character’s name is pronounced “Mori.” In the show, thirtysomething single ladies Mori (Levov) and Dana (Sela) share an apartment and end up ... well, I won’t spoil the classic rom-com twist.
Levov is a terrific comedy actor and delivers plenty of yuks as the selfish film lecturer/screenwriter who’s stuck in a rut professionally and personally. Sela’s obstetrician Dana is no less stuck personally, as Mori is all too happy to inform her – which makes for a delightful, “Odd Couple”-esque show.
The series won the Best Comedy award at Series Mania and I’d say that it proves Levov deserves her own star vehicle. Then again, it might be time for her to give someone else a turn on the small screen.
“Fire Dance” premieres on Yes VOD and Yes TV Drama on April 24. “Bloody Murray” and “Children in the Woods” will both air later in the year.