Israeli scripted series first had a significant impact on the global stage towards the end of the last decade, when Hot Broadcasting’s BeTipul was reinvented for the US market as In Treatment. Launched on HBO in 2008, the US version of the show ran for three series (106 episodes) and focused on the personal and professional life of a psychologist played by Gabriel Byrne.
The next Israeli scripted show to break into the US was Ramzor, a 30-something comedy from Keshet that was remade as Traffic Light for Fox. This show only ran for one season, in 2011, but provided further conformation that Israeli was a country worth scouting.
The big breakthrough came later that year when the Keshet show Hatufim, which tells the story of two Israeli soldiers who are released after 17 years in captivity, was reinvented as Homeland for Showtime. In English, ‘hatufim’ means ‘abductees,’ though the Israeli show is generally referred to internationally as Prisoners of War (except in the US). Homeland has just entered production on a fifth series and is regarded as one of the standout scripted series of the last five years, mentioned in the same breadth as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Echoing the situation with high-profile Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty and Nordic Noir series like The Bridge, the success of Homeland in the US has turned the Homeland/Prisoners of War franchise into an industry in its own right. Both versions are available to the international market as completed shows. And Prisoners of War is also available as a format, having already sold to Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea.
Homeland injected a new level of intensity into the search for adaptable Israeli shows. For example, in the case of Bnei Aruba, CBS in the US struck a deal that allowed it to develop a US version of the show in parallel with the creation of an Israeli version for Channel 10. Called Hostages, the US version actually aired three weeks before the original. Like with Homeland, this also helped kickstart international interest in the original Hebrew show, which sold to BBC4 and Canal+.
Of course, not all Israeli series have been hits in the US. Espionage drama Ta Gordin (The Gordin Cell), which aired on Yes, was a hit on home soil but didn’t make it to the end of the first season when NBC remade it as Allegiance. Launched Stateside in February 2015, it was axed five episodes later due to low ratings. But even this result wasn’t a total negative for the show – because it gave it international exposure. Korean company IMTV, for example, elected to produce a version for its highly competitive market.
When Israelis are asked to analyse why their shows have generated so much interest, they cite three main factors. First, they explain, Israeli audiences are highly critical and get bored easily – which means there is a high turnover of original stories and a constant quest for fresh insight. Second, Israel is a small country operating on tight budgets. So if a show can work in this environment, it will have no problem once it secures a bigger budget. And finally, there is an authenticity and honesty to Israeli scripted shows that comes from living on the front line.
The question, of course, is whether they can keep up the momentum. So what is coming down the line that might catch the attention of the international market? Well, one new title that has already caught the attention of the US market is Beit HaMishalot, a Channel 1 series about a psychiatrist who makes clients’ wishes come true. Presumably buoyed by its success with In Treatment, HBO is remaking the show as House of Wishes.
Keshet, meanwhile, has secured international interest in Pilpelim Zehubim, a poignant but humorous story about a family that learns to adapt after discovering their five-year-old son is autistic. Critically acclaimed in Israel, the show is now being remade in the UK under the title The A Word. The six-part drama series will air on BBC1 and will be coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet’s UK arm.
Brazil is also riding the Israeli wave. In November 2014, cable channel TNT Brazil announced plans to remake Allenby. Based on a novel by Gadi Taub and originally produced for Channel 10 in 2012, this series is a sex industry crime drama that follows the story of a nightclub on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and one of the strippers working there. Explaining why TNT picked up the show, Rogério Gallo, movies and series VP for Turner International Brazil, said: “The similarities between Allenby Street in Israel and Rua Augusta (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) are magnificent; both are a part of each city’s history and the centre of a sizzling nightlife. These are great ingredients for a remarkable television show.”
The Israeli press has also started to get excited by Fauda, a new show from co-creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz that has only recently finished airing. Broadcast by cable platform Yes, Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) is a typically Israeli no-holds-barred series about a group of undercover operatives trying to capture a notorious Hamas terrorist. Commenting on the show, The Times of Israel said: “It’s been just three months since Fauda brought the chaos of the West Bank to Yes viewers, but the show has become so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street without being stopped by fans.”
The series stands out because it makes a genuine effort to be even-handed about the Israel/Palestine conflict, casting Arabic actors and creating storylines that deal with the pain of being on the receiving end of Israel’s military might. With a second series on the way and US interest, the Times of Israel said Fauda “has been lauded for its realism, its extensive use of Arabic and the empathy viewers are forced to have for the Hamas characters.”
We’ll finish this week’s column by crossing the border into Egypt, which, like the rest of the Muslim world, is about to embark on Ramadan (from June 18). For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, Ramadan is an important holy period that is marked out by fasting during daylight. Ramadan is also important in TV terms, because countries like Egypt spend large sums of money producing TV dramas to entertain people during Ramadan.
One show that catches the eye this year is Haret al-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter). Set in 1952 to 1956, it tells the story of Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a Jewish woman, who fall in love. Their romance is played out against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism and tensions over the creation of Israel.
Speaking to local Egyptian media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, series writer Medhat al-Adl, a respected figure within the Egyptian creative community, said he wanted to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which all religions and languages coexist. “(The series) talks about how Egypt once coexisted with all religions and embraced people from all over the world because it was a cosmopolitan country. Egypt was great then. The Jews were of Egypt’s fabric. They were Egyptians. They were traders who lived with Muslims and they contributed to the Egyptian economy. The stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Egyptian films is that they are penny-pinchers (but) they were the best merchants of Egypt.”
Here’s hoping that Fauda and Haret al-Yahood both prove successful, because they are an antidote to the kind of extremism and bigotry that characterises 21st century politics and media.