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

The Sunday Telegraph - - You Are Not Alone -

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

Abbey. Down­ton

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

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