I really wanted to like “Nevsu.” I was genuinely excited that Israeli viewers would finally be getting a black lead character in a prime time television series.
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I was curious how the show’s creators would – as they had promised to do – address the many issues facing Israel’s tiny Ethiopian community within the framework of a mainstream sitcom on a commercial television channel.
And I hoped that, by exposing the Israeli viewing public to the grievances of the 120,000-strong Ethiopian community – not in a strongly worded op-ed and not in preachy messages from politicians – “Nevsu” (Channel 2 at 22.30 on Thursdays and Saturdays) would do for them what “The Cosby Show” did for African-Americans and what Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy” did for Latino men.
Unfortunately, “Nevsu” – an Amharic term of endearment – is weighed down and ultimately sunk by the unbearable burden of its own good intentions.
The show, which premiered on March 9, centers on Gili and Tamar, a married couple forced by financial circumstances to live with her parents. So far, so banal. But here’s the twist: He is an Ethiopian-born Israeli and she is a blonde, Ashkenazi woman. “Nevsu” is co-created by Shai Ben-Atar, Liat Shavi and Yosi Vasa, who is also the star.
This setup provides the writers with an opportunity to put their hero in the kind of situation that citizens of color – especially men – experience in Israel on a daily basis. For example, he is harassed by police officers, and in the supermarket, other customers mistakenly assume he is an employee.
Gili responds with good-natured humor to all these provocations. In the show’s exceptional and expectation-raising opening scene, he is bent over the hood of his car, his hands behind his back, as a cop riffles through his pockets looking for identification. After trying to reassure the officer that he is not a miscreant (“Just ask at the station,” he says. “I’m the Ethiopian guy you’re always arresting in this neighborhood.”), Gili tries to warn him that his wife will come storming out of the house at any moment, and then they’ll both have hell to pay. When Tamar starts to film the incident, threatening to post it to YouTube, Gili tells the cop: “Run, man. She’s not looking. I’ll keep her occupied, you just run for your life!”
The scenes in which Gili deals with everyday racism and injustice are, sadly, the only ones in “Nevsu” that work.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s admirable that writers, actors and network executives have been willing to produce what is – despite its flaws – a groundbreaking piece of television.
They deserve praise for creating a show that has zero chance of being exported. After all, surely no one imagined it would be possible to translate “Nevsu” for an American audience – who have been seeing black lead characters in TV shows and movies for decades.
It is also laudable that a portion of the dialogue in each show is in Amharic, with Hebrew subtitles. Not only does this provide much-needed employment for Israeli-Ethiopian actors, but it adds to the show’s authenticity.
But all this isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough in terms of creating good television and it isn’t enough in terms of filling a 30-minute sitcom. So the creators were forced to dig deep into their big bag of sitcom clichés and pull out enough hackneyed plot lines for the purpose. There’s the interfering mother-in-law who opens our hero’s mail; there’s the homophobe who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a bromance with a gay character; and there are endless jokes about the blandness of Ashkenazi cuisine.
True, these plot lines – nothing similar has appeared in American sitcoms for the better part of 30 years – are offset by some poignant moments. One feels for Gili’s mother when her children, tasked with writing a school project about the family’s roots, find no inspiration in her story of how she trekked thousands of kilometers to get to Israel.
The problem, however, is that the substandard plots and jokes – which would have to be carbon-dated to find out how old they are – make the show as a whole unwatchable. In the three episodes I’ve seen, they pollute with base material what could have been a major landmark for the Israeli television industry.
Ironically for a show about race relations, the most offensive scene of all so far involved a white Canadian immigrant, played by Howard Rypp, a veteran Israeli-Canadian actor and director. Despite casting aside enough prejudices and preconceptions to create “Nevsu,” the writers were unable to ditch a stereotype that has existed in Israel for decades: that immigrants from English-speaking countries cannot speak grammatically correct Hebrew. How hilarious it is to hear Mr. Malaprop – the accented foreigner – butchering the language (as long as he’s white, of course).
“Seinfeld,” the most influential sitcom of all time, was famously “about nothing.” The show’s credo was ruthless: No hugs, no learning. There were no moral endings, no epiphanies that did not involve self-interest, and no preaching.
Had the creators of “Nevsu” followed the same path, they might still have ended up with a TV show that few people would watch, that wouldn’t be hailed as a landmark by the media and that still wouldn’t have been picked up by Netflix. But they might have produced something more genuine. They might even have created that rarest of commodities – a television show that makes a difference.