A wiretapping soldier in 1973 warns breathlessly that Israel is about to be overrun by 1,600 Syrian tanks. An undercover female Mossad agent in Iran hacks into a computer system to help sabotage its nuclear program. A wayward, black-hatted ultra-Orthodox artist angers his family by exhibiting his paintings.
They may all be characters on Israeli television shows, with situations that reflect the distinct outlines of life there, but in the eyes of Hollywood â€” and American and international audiences â€” their stories are universal.
Israeli television has inspired several American series, beginning more than a decade ago with â€œIn Treatment,â€� a psychotherapy drama on HBO, and including the most successful adaptation of them all, Showtimeâ€™s counterterrorism thriller â€œHomeland.â€� With the rise of streaming, though, this pipeline has seen a notable shift: As indicated by the success of Netflixâ€™s â€œShtiselâ€� among others, more stories from Israel than ever are available to international audiences in their original form, available to watch via subtitles or dubbing.
â€œWe live in a very complicated, political place, with lots of different groups, including different religious groups, brewing with tension between them, so thatâ€™s good ground for good stories on the one hand. And on the other hand, our budgets are not very big â€¦ so we dedicate most of the time to writing scripts,â€� said Karni Ziv, head of drama and comedy for the Keshet Media Group, one of Israelâ€™s main production companies.
â€œEvery good series depends first of all on very good scripts, that is the key â€¦ Most Israeli writers are writing very personal stories, something they are connected to and often coming out of a kind of pain. And that improves the level and depth of the story.â€�
Danny Syrkin, director of â€œTehran,â€� the first non-English language series on Apple TV+, echoed that sentiment.
â€œWe have to invest in interesting characters, in writing, in relationships, in the plotlines, something that can go deeper. You need to capture the audience, because resources are limited,â€� he said. â€œLimitations are sometimes a blessing.â€�
The Israeli TV boom comes at a time, Ziv notes, in which â€œthe world has become a more international village and audiences are more willing to hear foreign languages and discover foreign settings. At the end of the day, it can be a story that is very far from your culture and what you know, but if itâ€™s a good story, it can touch you in a very personal way that makes it feel like it happened nearby.â€�
The most recent Israeli show to debut in the U.S. is â€œLosing Alice,â€� launched on Apple TV+ last month and starring Ayelet Zurer â€” who viewers may know from her roles in â€œMunichâ€� and â€œAngels and Demons.â€�
â€œHebrew is the language I grew up with, itâ€™s my roots, itâ€™s where I feel very much myself,â€� said the Los Angeles based actress, who also appears in â€œShtisel.â€� For American viewers getting to know her now in Israeli shows, she added, â€œItâ€™s like knowing someone for many years and then being invited into their house.â€�
â€œLosing Aliceâ€� is a noir-inflected story of a woman in her late 40s determined to rediscover her artistry and her relevance â€” a departure from the prevailing trend among Israeli series with a dedicated international fanbase, which typically meld the personal and the political by casting war, conflict or religion as the backdrop.
Sigal Avin, â€œLosing Aliceâ€™sâ€� American Israeli creator, writer and director, says Israelâ€™s spartan productions means she has more control and freedom to focus on her own vision.
â€œI didnâ€™t have all the notes and all the talking heads you have in the States, where itâ€™s harder to leave othersâ€™ voices out and make sure you are going on your own path,â€� she says.
Avin, one of only a handful of female directors working in Israel, credits the pressures of making television in the country â€” a relatively new industry here â€” with winnowing it down to its most dedicated and determined creators.
To make TV in Israel means killing yourself over your project, said Avin, who has also sold two series for the American remake treatment. â€œItâ€™s so hard, thereâ€™s not enough money, you have to work fast. Itâ€™s just hell. Anyone doing TV here is working from blood, sweat and tears. And the level has gone up to such a high level, so I think the world would benefit if they go with taking the shows â€˜as is.â€™â€�
â€˜A fearlessness that is palpableâ€™
Ester Namdar, a writer and the head of drama at Artza Productions, said the industry is abuzz with a feeling of triumph now that their original shows are reaching audiences around the world in Hebrew (and in some cases also in Arabic and Farsi). Israel is not alone: Other countries â€” Denmark with â€œBorgen,â€� Japan with â€œAtelier,â€� Korea with a raft of soaps known as â€œK-dramasâ€� â€” are also finding audiences overseas in their original form via streaming.
â€œEveryone is telling us that theyâ€™re trying to figure out whatâ€™s the secret to a show that will be picked up internationally,â€� said Namdar, who wrote the Israeli version of Showtimeâ€™s â€œYour Honor,â€� starring Bryan Cranston, and â€œRed Linesâ€� (â€œPMTAâ€� in Hebrew), which was a hit in Israel but had no takers abroad. â€œEvery show written with the purpose of being international did not go international. I can tell you that as a creator.â€�
What unifies Israeli series that have traveled abroad may not be a particular subject matter, then, but what HBOâ€™s senior vice president for programming, Nora Skinner, called â€œa creative sensibility and a fearlessness that is palpable.â€�
â€œShtisel,â€� the surprise Netflix hit about an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, is a window into a world whose rules and customs are unknown by outsiders. â€œTehran,â€� a spy thriller, employs a Mossad agent in deep cover as guide into a conflict widely known, but perhaps little understood, the world over. â€œValley of Tearsâ€� (HBO Max), about the 1973 Yom Kippur War that brought the country to the brink of defeat, is an invitation into one of the most searing, life-altering moments in Israeli history. And the HBO-Keshet co-production â€œOur Boys,â€� based on the true story of the lead-up to the 2014 war in Gaza, attempts to capture the trauma of that time from the perspectives of both Israeli and Palestinian characters.
Created by two Jewish Israelis and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, â€œOur Boysâ€� opens shortly after the funerals for three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped and killed by Hamas militants, as Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian 16-year-old, goes missing. The series was blasted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as anti-Semitic for focusing its narrative on Abu Khdeirâ€™s death at the hands of young Jewish extremists. He called for a boycott of the Israeli channel that aired the series.
â€œIt presented a side of Israel that the politicians did not want to see, and thatâ€™s always a great sign,â€� said Adrian Hennigan, TV critic for Israeli newspaper Haaretz. â€œItâ€™s something Israeli film has done well over the years â€” holding up a mirror to the flaws in Israeli society.â€�
Syrkin, the director of â€œTehranâ€� â€” who learned Farsi so he could communicate with the Iranian expatriate actors in the Athens-shot show â€” said his series has similarly struck a nerve.
â€œThe most moving reactions we had came from Iran, from people who were courageous enough to reach out to me and say they love the show, the way we depicted Iranian culture,â€� he said. â€œOthers criticize us for being Zionist, others for being too soft on the Iranians.â€�
While these series may also be instructive â€” â€œthis is also a part of history that most Americans arenâ€™t familiar with, and we wanted to bring awareness to American audiences,â€� HBO Maxâ€™s senior vice president of international originals, Jeniffer Kim, said of â€œValley of Tearsâ€� â€” there are notable limitations. Namely, with the exception of â€œOur Boys,â€� most Israeli shows set against the background of regional war and conflict are written by Israeli writers, from the Israeli perspective, and in turn promulgate a decidedly Israeli narrative â€” even when individual characters, as with the Iranians in â€œTehranâ€� or the Palestinians in â€œFauda,â€� are relatable and multi-dimensional.
Moving past â€˜macho Israeli thrillersâ€™
Helping fuel the global rise of Israeli TV is its regulatory system, which has codified into law that Israeli satellite TV stations must put 8% of their revenue back into production; for commercial channels, that number is 15%.
â€œThat means we can take bigger risks in terms of subject matter. We are not spinning off millions of versions of â€˜Greyâ€™s Anatomy,â€™ because we need to see ad dollars coming in,â€� said Danna Stern, managing director of Yes Studios, a production and distribution company. Yes sold â€œFauda,â€� its most popular program ever, to Netflix as the streamerâ€™s first Hebrew-language series after a deal for its American remake fell through. It also sold â€œShtiselâ€� after plans for an American remake of that series stalled as well.
â€œI think weâ€™ve matured as an industry and have more stories to tell that are not just about the Mossad or macho Israeli thrillers,â€� said Stern. She points to a show currently in production at Yes, â€œThe Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,â€� a period piece and family drama starring â€œShtiselâ€™sâ€� Michael Aloni set in Jerusalem in the first half of the 20th century and based on an Israeli novel of the same name.
Although itâ€™s one of the more expensive productions made in Israel, the cost amounts to craft services tab for one episode of â€œThe Crown,â€� joked Stern.
There is at least one drawback to the growing footprint of streaming services â€” versus local satellite providers like Yes â€” in the Israeli TV business: a decline in overall revenue that threatens to squeeze production budgets.
As such, Stern and other Israeli executives have called on streaming platforms to invest on the ground in Israel with co-productions and other investments, as seen with HBO and â€œOur Boysâ€� and an Apple TV+ post-production partnership on â€œTehran.â€� International media companies are also beginning to buy Israeli players, as ViacomCBS did when it acquired Ananey Communications last spring.
â€œIâ€™ve been worried that this enthusiasm over Israeli content has been a new form of content colonialism. We donâ€™t have natural resources to take like diamonds or oil, but we have art,â€� said Namdar, referring to the buying of remake rights or other concepts, versus finished products. â€œBut the last few deals madeâ€¦ have not been like that.
â€œThis is the best version of this, not just coming here to buy things for cheap and sell elsewhere for big profit, but to come bringing larger budget here for us to make our shows.â€�
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