Two small nations are currently spectacular overachievers when it comes to producing quality television series: Denmark and Israel. Where the Danes have left Israel way behind, though, is in exposing their programs to the world: “Borgen,” “The Killing” and “The Bridge” (actually a coproduction with Swedish TV) have all been international hits, as well as spawning U.S. remakes.
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Israel, meanwhile, has become a prime exporter of program content, with the just-commissioned NBC drama “Allegiance” the latest American series to be based on an Israeli show. For English-speaking audiences, though, finding a subtitled version of “Ta Gordin" (literally, "The Gordin Cell”) in Hebrew is nigh-on impossible (even in the murky waters of illegal downloads).
But as consumers begin to access more television programs digitally, Israeli television has an opportunity to showcase its work in a way that was previously impossible (DVD sales in Israel are negligible, making the release of boxsets financially nonviable – especially as most series are now available on-demand anyway).
At the moment, you won’t find popular local series like the Israeli crime drama “HaBorer” ("The Arbitrator"), the comedy "Bilti Hafich" (“Irreversible”) or the autism drama "Pilpelim Zehubim" (“Yellow Peppers”) with English subtitles. But here are eight great local shows that are available with subtitles, and where you can find them.
“Avodah Aravit”: As well as being a columnist for Haaretz, Sayed Kashua is also the creator of “Avodah Aravit,”(literally, “Arab Labor,” but also a derogatory Hebrew term for “poor work”). What started, six years ago, as a thinly veiled autobiographical look at the travails of an Arab Israeli journalist, has evolved over four seasons into the smartest thing on Israeli television. The series was originally referred to as “the Palestinian ‘Seinfeld,’” but it’s most definitely not a show about nothing. In fact, it’s far closer in spirit to another Larry David creation, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” especially as the series' antihero rises inexorably up the social ladder.
Watch it: Series 1 of “Arab Labor” is available on U.S. DVD, but all four series can be seen at the Link TV website.
“Ramzor”: Forget the lousy Fox remake that bizarrely got a green light in 2011 (ramzor in Hebrew means “traffic light”). Marvel instead at the enduring appeal of the men-behaving-sadly original – the first Israeli series to win an International Emmy after claiming the Best Comedy award in 2010.
Now in its fourth series in Israel, “Ramzor” is the brainchild of Adir Miller, who also plays one of the three male protagonists. Friends since forever, they are now in different stages of their lives: one married with a kid; another with a young partner; the third an unreconstructed ladies’ man. There’s no particularly lofty concept to the show, just the universally appealing sight of three men making fools of themselves over and over.
Watch it: Series 1-3 available on Israeli DVD (Region 2) with English subtitles.
“Mesudarim”: Before “Silicon Valley” but after “Entourage,” “Loaded” (“Mesudarim” – slang for “Set for life”) was a two-series comedy-drama that ran in Israel between 2007-2009, featuring the adventures of four young colleagues who strike it rich when their startup sells for $217 million. The game makers buy a $4.5 million mansion and live the high life (literally, in some cases) together, and that’s when the fun and games really begin.
Like many of the programs featured here, there’s a sweetness to “Loaded” that makes it impossible not to love. Sure, it’s as connected to the real Silicon Wadi as a Kardashian is to reality, but it’s got way more charm than “Entourage” and characters with whom you actually would want to hug it out.
Watch it: Series 1-2 available on Israeli DVD (Region 2) with English subtitles.
“Hatufim”: Most international viewers probably saw “Hatufim” ("Prisoners of War”) after the series it inspired, “Homeland.” We say “inspired,” because beyond the basic premise of POWs returning from beyond enemy lines, there’s a world of difference between Gideon Raff’s Israeli thriller and the Claire Danes-Damian Lewis series that has vacuumed up awards for Showtime.
Where “Homeland” burns up plot like there’s no tomorrow, “Hatufim” is a real slow burn, far more interested in the psyche of a country than a potential psycho returning from captivity. While “Homeland” starts season four in September, “Hatufim” creator Raff has to squeeze the original series between his heavy workload for American TV (“Homeland” and two upcoming series, “Tyrant” and “Dig”), although he promises a third series of “Hatufim” one day, but not soon.
Watch it: The first series of “Hatufim” is available via Hulu, while series 1 and 2 are available on Israeli DVD (Region 2), with English subtitles.
“BeTipul”: This is the program that put Israeli television on the global map, courtesy of the HBO remake, “In Treatment,” with Gabriel Byrne. The genius of the original was to utilize things Israel has in abundance (great actors, writers, people in therapy) to override what it lacks (budgets, studio space).
The heart of the program – which ran for two seasons in Israel (one less than its U.S. remake), in 2005 and 2008 – was the late Assi Dayan. The actor-director portrayed Reuven Dagan, a Tel Aviv (where else?) psychotherapist, who sees the same set of clients over five weeks, as well as his own shrink (veteran actress Gila Almagor).
“BeTipul” is often referred to as the most successful Israeli drama ever, partly for the sheer weight of awards it won locally, but also the number of remakes it spawned – 14 at last count, including a French-Canadian version in Quebec, plus others in Brazil and Romania.
Watch it: The first series of “BeTipul” is only available on DVD in Hebrew, but the second series (Region 2, Israel) has English subtitles.
“Srugim”: If you want proof that Israel is a small country, just count the number of times you see the same actors appearing in different shows (to be fair, the same problem exists in Denmark). In the romantic comedy-drama “Srugim,” for example, you’ll recognize Yael Sharoni from “Ramzor” and “Loaded,” and Tali Sharon from “BeTipul.”
Set in Jerusalem’s Orthodox community, “Srugim” ran for three series at the end of the noughties and is often compared to “Friends.” In fact, a better comparison is the British romantic comedy series “Cold Feet” (fleetingly remade in the United States in 1999). “Srugim” adds religious observance (the literal translation of the title is “Knitted,” which in Israel usually connotes the national-religious, Zionist community) to romantic proceedings, as five 30-something friends try to find love. Hard to see this one ever being remade, so you’ll definitely have to see the original to fall for the charms of Hodaya, Yifat, Nati and Co.
Watch it: Series 1-3 available on Israeli DVD (Region 2) with English subtitles. Individual episodes also available on Amazon Prime.
“Merchak Negia”: The 2006 romantic drama “Merchak Negia” (“A Touch Away”) was notable for being set in the ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak (a town to the east of Tel Aviv), and bringing together two under-represented sectors on television: the Hardim and Russian immigrants. An unashamedly sentimental love story, “A Touch Away” sees Russian window cleaner Zorik (Henry David) fall for the girl next door (Gaya Traub), who just so happens to be Haredi and entering into an arranged marriage. Adding to the comic effect is the arrival of Zorik’s family from Moscow.
“A Touch Away” was a huge hit when it aired on Israeli TV in 2007, and it’s a real heart warmer, enlivened by the performance of Yevgenia Dodina as Zorik’s Actor (with a capital A) mother.
Watch it: Available on Israeli DVD (Region 2) with English subtitles.
“Shtisal”: The ultra-Orthodox are often criticized in the secular press, but they’re definitely having a “moment” on the small screen. Two new dramas about the Haredim debuted last year – “Mekimi” (not available with subtitles yet) and “Shtisal,” about a family in Jerusalem. The series – the title is the name of the protagonist family – won Best Drama Series at the 2013 Israeli Academy Film and Television Awards, with Doval’e Glickman winning Best Actor for his role as Shulem, head of the family.
The most eye-catching piece of casting, however, is that of Ayelet Zurer as a widower being romantically pursued by Shulem’s dippy rabbi son, Akiva. Zurer – best known internationally for her role opposite Tom Hanks in “Angels & Demons” – is without doubt one of the most glamorous women you will ever see (presumably Bar Refaeli was too busy modelling clothes to take the role).
Incidentally, Zurer was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in this series, but lost out to herself, for another role in the thriller “Bnei Aruba,” in which she plays a brilliant doctor who is ordered to kill the prime minister during surgery, or else risk her own family being murdered. If you think that sounds familiar, that’s because this is the Israeli version of “Hostages,” the Jerry Bruckheimer series that was recently cancelled by NBC. British audiences will be able to see which one’s better when BBC airs “Bnei Aruba” later this year.
Watch it: “Shtisal” is available on Israeli DVD (Region 2) with English subtitles.
Okay, so what did we miss? Let us know your favorite Israeli series below, especially if it’s got English subtitles...