For a time in the early 2010s, you had more chance of ordering pork chops from a Jewish deli than being able to watch an Israeli television series with English subtitles.
Indeed, for much of that time I had two major bugbears in my life: the lack of English-subtitled Israeli TV shows; and a neighbor’s determination to play “My Heart Will Go On” very loudly, on a daily basis. Well, the great news is that one of those is no longer a problem – and, in fairness, I don’t have conclusive proof that my neighbor isn’t actually Céline Dion.
The DVD, the one place we used to occasionally find English-subtitled Israeli shows, has largely gone the way of dodo-flavored cat food. But the rise and rise of streaming services means that, today, you are only one monthly subscription payment (in reality, two or three) away from accessing a whole har’s worth of Israeli content.
More than any other show, we have “Fauda” to thank for leading this revolution, which most assuredly will be televised. Lior Raz’s character, Doron Kavillio, may seem an unlikely standard-bearer for anything other than punching people in the face while scowling, but it was the global success of his Israeli thriller on Netflix – after it premiered in December 2016 – that ultimately ended up opening more doors than an aging hotel porter.
I’ve written plenty in the past about the U.S./global platforms that offer some (but not all) of Israel’s most-acclaimed shows: Netflix (the aforementioned “Fauda,” “Shtisel,” “When Heroes Fly,” “The Good Cop,” “Blackspace”); Apple TV (“Tehran,” “Losing Alice”); Amazon (“Srugim,” “The Baker and the Beauty”); and HBO Max (“Valley of Tears,” “Possessions,” “On the Spectrum” and “Uri and Ella” – which dropped last month without much fanfare, though this family comedy-drama about a widowed father and his grown-up daughter is well worth seeking out). Jewzy also offers some Israeli films and documentaries, but is less well served when it comes to television series.
Meanwhile, Yes English offers, yes, English subtitles for some of its home-produced shows such as the aforementioned “Fauda,” “Your Honor” (which for me was ultimately superior to the high-profile, New Orleans-set U.S. remake starring Bryan Cranston) – though appears to be rather tardy when it comes to newer Yes shows like “The Chef” and “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.”
However, the platform that’s probably leading the pack is Topic, which is currently airing no fewer than six Israeli shows on its online streaming service that launched in North America toward the end of 2019. For the sake of comparison, that’s the same as the number of French series it’s showing. Those shows range from comedies (“Stockholm” and “Nehama”) and thrillers (“The Wordmaker” and “The Grave,” both of which I have previously written about) to dramas (“Commandments,” about a trio of young ultra-Orthodox men choosing to serve in the Israeli army) and dystopian tales (“Autonomies,” set in an alternative reality in which Israel has autonomous secular and Haredi regions, one with Tel Aviv as its capital and the other Jerusalem).
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Topic is operating in an incredibly competitive field – in fact, the only other area that is anywhere near as competitive as this is progressive Democrats vying to say something snarky about Israel. Its main competitor is arguably not the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV, but Walter Presents, which is also available in North America and also curates international series for a discerning audience. However, if Israel is your thing, Topic is definitely the one for you.
In a recent Zoom conversation with Topic’s general manager, Ryan Chanatry, and VP of acquisitions, Jen Liang, one phrase came up several times as they were discussing the Israeli television industry: its “risk-taking” approach. (Let’s assume they meant creatively, not in terms of health and safety, though I suspect both are equally accurate.)
Chanatry sings the praises of Israeli series, describing the “incredible storytelling and quality coming from all of the Israeli TV channels right now.” He also highlights those shows’ “willingness to be really raw, to be real, to experiment with structure.”
He singles out Netflix and HBO for their part in the global success of shows such as “Fauda,” “Shtisel” and “Our Boys” in recent years. He also makes no bones about the fact that Topic is happy to showcase its Israeli content – no small thing at a time when the country has basically become Ben Shapiro in nation form. That, in case you were wondering, is not a positive development.
The streamer showcases its Israeli collection under the tag “Passport to Israel” (as it does for all countries where it has enough offerings), and from what the two execs say, the Israeli offering won’t stay at six series for much longer.
“Productions coming out of Israel over the past 10 to 15 years have really grown in production value,” says Liang, who cites “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War,” which was famously remade by Showtime as “Homeland”) as a prime example of a classic Israeli show. (Though Topic currently focuses on acquiring shows produced over the past five or six years, both Chanatry and Liang say they would love to stream “classic” foreign shows too, as long as they don’t have to compromise on audio and visual quality.)
“Hatufim” was part of the vanguard of Israeli shows in the early 2000s that were often only seen globally in their remade forms. Famously, “Betipul” was remade by HBO as “In Treatment” (which, thanks principally to COVID-19 restrictions on large-scale TV productions, enjoyed a surprise revival in America recently), but has also been remade in numerous other countries. The remake of the comedy “Ramzor” (“Traffic Light”) was a mainstay of Russian television for many years. India, meanwhile, has virtually become a facsimile machine for Israeli TV, making local Hindi versions of, among others, “Hatufim,” “Fauda,” “Your Honor” and “Hostages.”
Generally speaking, there’s a certain type of foreign-language show that gets picked up for overseas broadcasts, and it usually involves a quirky detective investigating a gruesome series of murders. Yet while Topic’s Israeli selection does feature several thrillers, it also has a couple of comedies in the shape of “Stockholm” and the almost genre-defying “Nehama.”
While Jen Liang agrees that comedy doesn’t always travel well overseas and some things can get lost in translation, she says “Stockholm” transcends those problems. (The show has also been remade as a German comedy – no, not an oxymoron – called “You Don’t Die Among Friends.”)
“I think if you’re willing to place yourself where you are experiencing things through a bit of a different lens, there’s so much that is common to everyone’s experience that is relatable,” the acquisitions VP says of both “Stockholm,” which is basically an Israeli riff on “Weekend at Bernie’s” featuring a group of pensioners, and the comedy genre in general.
When I ask the Topic execs where they would place Israel among global TV powerhouses, Chanatry laughs and calls it a “dangerous question,” before noting that the “quality” and “innovativeness” of Israeli shows currently being produced puts it “right up there” among the best. But before Israeli television gets too ahead of itself – oops, too late – Chanatry and Liang also list a whole slew of countries – from Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea to Kenya, Chile and Russia – who could be potential rivals in the years to come.
When a new Israeli show reaches the marketplace, Chanatry says, “We immediately jump on it” and watch it, “because we know there’s going to be something there.” Liang adds that Israeli channels have also become adept at partnering with larger overseas TV networks, noting that “companies like Keshet are working with all of the major players around the world, really.”
Sell, sell, sell?
This is clearly a good time to mention the key role that Keshet International – the overseas sibling of Keshet’s Channel 12 – has played in turning Israel from a TV backwater into a country awash with creative talent. Most of that success, it must be said, has been despite rather than because of the Israeli government, which spent most of the past decade stymieing both the state channel (now Kan 11) and two main commercial channels (Keshet and Reshet, the latter now running Channel 13).
Rose Hughes has been VP sales at Keshet International in London for almost five years (the last time I saw a list of so many territories under one person’s purview was when I read a biography of Napoleon). She also cites the role the likes of Netflix have played in generating demand for overseas shows, saying that we’re currently “seeing a real boom for international content.”
When people witness shows like “Fauda” and “When Heroes Fly” listed in the top 10 most-watched series on Netflix, “everybody starts to take notice that, actually, something doesn’t have to be English-language to be a strong audience draw. The market’s changed a lot,” Hughes says.
Ah yes, the market. I ask both Hughes and the Topic executives who has the upper hand in the market for Israeli shows right now – buyers or sellers. Sadly, the prosaic answer is that it depends on the show. The demand for a project will always factor in its commercial appeal. Just because a show has a “Made in Israel” stamp on it doesn’t mean it will automatically attract an overseas audience (just look at Yair Netanyahu for proof of that).
And, as Hughes points out, the likes of Apple, Netflix, Amazon and HBO aren’t buying thousands of hours of shows each year, so they can afford to be choosy and only pick the shows that are right for them.
Liang notes, however, that competition for good shows is fierce – bidding war fierce, in fact. “We are at that level across every level of price: There are so many different micro-markets in the North American market,” she explains. “Obviously, there are times when we simply can’t compete and bow out very early” in the process. “But what it comes down to is us being honest and trustworthy and good partners, and [having] long-standing relationships with the producers and distributors that we know.”
It also helps, according to Chanatry, that Topic is able to be very selective about what it acquires. “We think we have a very good idea of what will work, based on what already has” on the platform, he notes, so shows are bought piecemeal when the streamer thinks they’re right for their audience, which they define simply as “over 25s.”
Marketable Israeli TV shows are a lot like rabid right-wingers: You don’t need to wait long for the next one to show up. You’ll have to read elsewhere about those political extremists, but I can report on at least four Israeli shows that have been getting a lot of love from Israeli audiences this year: “Blackspace,” which first aired on Reshet and is now available worldwide on Netflix. Kan’s “Hamefakedet” (“The Female Commanding Officer” in Hebrew, but also known internationally as “Dismissed”), which stars prospective Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s daughter, Alona, is the latest in a long parade of Israeli shows to be set on an army base. And Keshet has enjoyed two very different hits with the thriller “Line in the Sand” (the more prosaic “Hashotrim” – “The Cops” – in Hebrew) and comedy-drama “The Women’s Balcony” (“Ismach Hatani,” a popular piyyut among the Mizhrahi community).
Hughes is particularly effusive about the latter, calling it a “very moving, comforting and empowering show about female friendship – and I think that is something that, increasingly, audiences want.”
In other words, in many ways it’s the anti-“Fauda” – the show that has come to define Israeli television around the world. While Hughes is keen to stress that there will always be a place for stories that provide escapist entertainment and feature men in grubby T-shirts running around blowing stuff up, television in general, and also in Israel, is becoming more nuanced.
“I think there’s a real focus now on moving away from just one viewpoint of the world, if you will, and that’s something we’re seeing across the board,” she says.
That nuance in Israeli shows is certainly already there for all to see on Topic. Well, once you’ve handed over your $60 annual subscription fee, anyway.