How Israel became a global power in television
This small, mysterious country is now making dramas that the whole world wants to watch. Ed Power explains why
For many years, Nordic noir was the dominant force in foreign-language television. Hits such as The
Bridge and Borgen wooed British audiences with their melancholic landscapes, taut dialogue and impressive knitwear.
But this small-screen pre-eminence has been replaced by offerings from a country that could not be further removed from the introversion and cautious pacing of Nordic TV. Israel is in some ways the anti-Scandinavia. The weather is hot, the people outspoken, the history bloody and disputed.
Yet as a source of must-see television, the country has emerged as an international force to be reckoned with. And it has done so while avoiding becoming locked into a particular genre. Nordic TV can often seem to consist of different flavours of the same fatalistic murder mystery format. In Israel, by contrast, diversity is the watchword. From action to comedy via humaninterest drama, anything goes.
There are gripping thrillers such as mistaken-identity slow-burner
False Flag and West Bank-set Netflix hit Fauda, which has just returned to the streaming service for a hugely anticipated third season. But Israel is also serving up escapist romcoms such as the brilliantly whimsical
Beauty and the Baker, which has proved a surprise sensation on Amazon Prime.
Israel can do tender family drama, too. The Netflix hit Shtisel is about a Jewish orthodox father and son looking for love in Jerusalem’s traditionalist Geula neighbourhood.
For any nation to produce so many high-profile series in so many genres would be impressive. However, that is doubly so in the case of Israel, with its population of just 8.8million.
Being an underdog in world broadcasting has worked in Israel’s favour, says Allison Kaplan Sommer, of Tel Aviv daily newspaper Haaretz. Unlike the big US and British networks, Israel’s producers work within comparatively minuscule budgets and so think on their feet.
That, she suggests, is why Israeli TV feels so plugged into life as we live it today. There simply isn’t the money to stage a Middle Eastern
TV must be utterly of the now. “To get made, the concept, script and acting has to be excellent and creators have to think outside the box,” she says. “There’s no money to make fantasy/sci-fi like
Game of Thrones Westworld or or a piece set in another century. Everything has to be here and now and current.”
Talking to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Keren Margalit, creator of Yellow Peppers, said: “The understanding is, if you can’t go wider, if you can’t explode anything or go big with special effects, you need to go inside. To go very, very deep and find real characters. I think a lot of Israeli television developed from this understanding.”
For foreign viewers, Israeli TV serves as a window into a country that is largely mysterious. The highestprofile example is Fauda. This story of an undercover Israel army unit engaged in a brutal game of cat-andmouse with terrorists on the West Bank may sound clichéd but, rather than taking sides or caricaturing the Israelis and Palestinians, Fauda paints a nuanced portrait of men and women locked in a cycle of perpetual conflict.
“It was actually something very new here, in that it wasn’t a white hat vs black hat story,” says Sommer. “The Israeli side was portrayed with all its flaws, and the Palestinians were fully formed characters and human beings, even the terrorists. And I think that twist is what gave it its appeal internationally, and showed the nuances of the conflict here.”
That same soulfulness defines lighter fare such as Beauty and the
Baker. Like a gender-swapped Middle East Pygmalion, it tells of a scrappy baker who embarks on a romance with a worldly supermodel. It’s funny while providing an insight into the complex striations in Israeli society.
Within the global TV industry, Israeli television has been creating waves for some time. The US dramas
Homeland and In Treatment were remakes of Israeli originals.
With one or two exceptions, US adaptations of beloved British shows are unfaithful and unwatchable. Israeli TV, by contrast, seems to flourish when reworked by Hollywood. That has arguably given producers and writers the one thing all the budgets in the world cannot buy: self-confidence.
TV from Israel also has a cinematic quality. “Israel is so small, it can’t support separate film and television industries, and while there are a handful of directors who work only in films, most directors and all actors and crew members go back and forth between film and television,” says Hannah Brown, of The Jerusalem Post.
There’s also something appealingly unselfconscious about Israeli TV.
Fauda is happy to borrow from the high-octane intensity of Hollywood: the very first episode begins in a flurry of hand-held camera action that could have come from a Jason Bourne film.
Similarly, there’s a charming dollop of magic realism at the core of Shtisel.
The story opens with a bravura dream sequence in which lovelorn Akiva (Michael Aloni) visits his local greasy spoon, only to encounter his deceased mother, covered in ice and dressed as an Eskimo.
“There’s a lot that goes on in Israeli life,” says Jessica Steinberg, of The
Times of Israel. “It’s a small country that’s fought hard to retain its place and is made up of people from many different nations.
“It’s also a very tight-knit country, because of its small size and the melting pot created by everyone serving in the army. All ingredients that make for intense situations, stories and outcomes. They have filmed entire seasons of Fauda for the same budget as one episode of an American TV series. That’s true of many Israeli series. They make do with what they have.”
‘There’s no money to make fantasy/sci-fi like Westworld or Game of Thrones’
‘The nature of Israeli life makes for intense stories and outcomes’
Star attractions: the Netflix series Fauda, top, and The Baker and the Beauty, the US adaptation of the Israeli show Beauty and the Baker