Cooking up a storm
The Baker & the Beauty creator Assi Azar recalls how he was first inspired to write this Israeli romantic comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers that has sold around the world and sparked numerous international remakes.
As a television host and personality in Israel, Assi Azar is most recognisable as the face of entertainment shows such as Big Brother and Ninja Warrior. He has also fronted every season of talent show Rising Star, which in 2018 discovered Netta, the singer who would go on to win that year’s Eurovision Song Content. Azar was then among the presenters of the long-running television event the following year when it was hosted in Tel Aviv.
For the last eight years, however, Azar has also enjoyed success off screen as the creator and writer of breakout romantic comedy series The Baker & the Beauty. Across three seasons, this funny and heartwarming show followed a seemingly impossible love story between Amos (Aviv Alush), the small-time baker of the title, and superstar Noa (Rotem Sela).
Season one of the series, produced by Endemol Shine Productions, was the most watched drama in Israel in 2014, while Shenhar Productions’ season two achieved the same feat in 2017. The third season, again produced by Shenhar, became the most watched returning drama since 2017 when it debuted on network Keshet 12 in October. Over the last four years, all three seasons have clocked up more than 28 million views on Keshet-owned AVoD service Mako TV.
It’s a record of success Azar was only able to enjoy after the final episode of the third season – pitched as the series finale – ended. “When I woke up in the morning, I felt like I’d just finished a marathon,” he tells DQ. “It was very stressful but I’m happy that the audience loves it and that it got to response I hoped it would.”
When the first season aired, “in Israel, there was almost no such thing as romantic comedies. All the shows were about real life, about the army, about very hardcore dramas and family issues,” he says. But inspired by American television, he came up with an idea to do a show that would offer viewers the chance to escape from reality.
“Luckily enough, my boss told me, ‘Let’s see if you can write,’” he recalls. “I’d never written anything before. I started sending him episodes and he liked it.”
After a chance encounter, Noa and Amos’s relationship in season one faces numerous hurdles, not least their hugely different lifestyles, her overbearing agent, both their exes and the media. In season two, Noa impulsively proposes to Amos, but their wedding day ends in disaster – and divorce.
In the third run, three years later, Amos is poised to marry new love Abigail. But when Noa realises she still has feelings for him, she wonders if she should follow her heart or her head.
It was in 2010, while he was staying in London, that Azar was first inspired to create The Baker & the Beauty after watching British romantic comedy Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant’s bookshop owner falls for a Hollywood movie star played by Julia Roberts. Azar, whose family had a bakery when he was growing up, immediately thought it could be the basis for an Israeli TV show.
“My brother was Amos, the lead character,” he reveals. “He was the good guy, he always helped my father, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do a story about my brother and about a celebrity.’ She’s successful, she’s powerful – but she’s not Julia Roberts. She’s not nice. She’s not approachable immediately. Basically, I wrote a romance between Amos and me! I see myself as Noa in many cases, so this show was me dealing with my issues about myself. Am I worthy of love, even if I’m not the nicest person on Earth? That’s how I created the story. I took my family, the bakery and my parents and I put in me as the Hollywood side, the glamorous side.”
Azar also leaned on his love of shows such as Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Dynasty and Latin telenovelas he watched growing up. But with much of the drama in romance series coming from the will they/won’t they between the central characters, how did he seek to inject jeopardy and conflict into the story once Noa and Amos did get together?
“In season one, I thought it was going to be one season and, in the last episode of the show, they would be together,” he says. “But then Keshet said, ‘We want another season,’ so I thought, ‘What am I going to do? How can I continue after the fairytale basically ends?’ Then the question of infidelity jumped into my head and I thought, ‘I want to see that. They’re together. They’re in love. But let’s see what happens if somebody is making a mistake.’
“It was a great opportunity to explore the relationship of Noa and Amos after he’s already in her world. That’s a very big change for a guy who’s a baker from the suburbs – to suddenly live the life of someone so successful.”
Because season three took three years to write, Azar also decided that the story couldn’t pick up immediately after season two. “There had to be a time jump,” he says. “It made sense that maybe the marriage didn’t succeed so, in that specific way, the fact I waited so long to write it actually helped me. If the next season had been one year after, it would have been weird if you suddenly jumped three years. But to write a romantic comedy when the couple needs to be together and then separate, it’s very tough.”
A key element of the series is its humour, which comes from the situations Azar puts his characters in, or the characters themselves, such as Vanessa (Hila Saada), who in an early scene causes quite a stir in a restaurant when she proposes to Amos, only to be turned down.
“At my core, I think I’m a funny guy. When I host TV, I like to make people laugh; I like to make myself laugh when I’m writing. I always think that in order to create good drama, you need to give the audience comic relief,” Azar says. “I don’t like to watch TV that makes me depressed. That’s why I like romantic comedies, because it’s great escapism, and that’s why I like to put comic relief in this show.
Vanessa, he says, is a classic telenovela character. “She’s like those characters in Pedro Almodóvar films – bigger than life, very dramatic. You are always afraid she’s going to lose it and cross a line. Also, in many ways, I felt she’s the way I am. My psychologist, when she saw the third season, told me, ‘Your characters don’t know how to count to 10, none of them.’ And that’s exactly how I am!”
Azar’s interest in writing dates back long before his presenting career took off. “I knew I was gay from a very young age, and I always wanted to be an actor. But at the age of 14, I decided that if you’re an actor, it means that you’re gay. People would know I was gay. So I thought, ‘What can I be in this industry that fascinates me so much but without letting people see me?’ and I thought I could write.”
From that moment, he began studying writing. And when he embarked on his presenting career, he would ask if he could help write the script or some sketches. Then, for the first season of The Baker & the Beauty, he called upon friend Ron Leshem (Euphoria, No Man’s Land) to support him as a script editor.
“I milked everything I could from him in terms of learning how to write,” Azar says. “He was my teacher. For two years, he reviewed everything I wrote, he corrected me, he taught me all the tricks. I’ve read a lot of books about writing, and when we cast the actors and we started building the crew, all of them were also teachers to me because they had so many notes and so many things to say to me that would make the script better. I used all of them. I left my ego on the side because I knew I wasn’t experienced enough.”
That it took so long to produce three seasons of the show, when series often return in consecutive years, is a consequence of Azar’s busy presenting schedule. “When I finished season one, Keshet told me to immediately go and write season two and I thought, ‘It’s going to take, like, a year.’ But I host two seasons of Big Brother every year so I had no time to write,” he says. “It took me three years to write the second one. I wasn’t planning on doing it for three years, but that’s how long it took me.”
Writing season two by himself was “a very big mistake,” Azar notes. “That’s why it took me a long time.” But working with another editor on season three, the four episodes were finally written in six months.
“The third season, I started writing while the second season was airing, so I had even more time – but after writing nine episodes of the third season, I decided they were not good enough and I told Keshet I wanted to stop. I didn’t like what I had written, so we stopped. I thought I would never be able to finish that story. I had writer’s block and I was working on other formats. But during the Covid lockdown, Keshet called me and said, ‘Let’s try again. Take this time where you’re sitting in the house and you have your quiet space to write and try to bring us again a nice story.’”
“It taught me something: I’m never going to work alone ever agin. I’m never going to sit alone in front of the computer and write. I’m only going to write in a scheduled meeting of three or four hours with a person I like a lot… and I’m not going to take it with me afterwards, because writing can be a very frustrating experience. I used to sit in front of the computer for 12 hours sometimes, just thinking, not writing even one word. It’s so exhausting.”
While distributor Keshet International has sold the series around the world, it has also been remade in numerous countries, most notably in India, the US, Russia and the Netherlands.
“I’ve seen all of them. Some of them really did copy and paste, so it’s nice to see the same lines. In the States, they took a little bit more liberty to change the plots. Just the beginning is my show, and then they took off and did their thing,” Azar says. “But it makes me happy because I wrote the show for the first time in my rented one-bedroom apartment, I had a very old computer and suddenly I see it on ABC in the US.”
After writing season three and seeing the way the audience has responded to The Baker & the Beauty, Azar is “dying” to put another show on TV. “It’s the only thing that I’m doing that I’m not in it on screen, but it’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he says of the series.
For now, season three marks the end of the show, but Azar doesn’t rule out returning for a fourth season if he imagines a new story worth telling.
“This season was very, very emotional for me,” he says. “Maybe I’ll write another show and, after that one, if I have a good idea, maybe we’ll do another four, five or six episodes. But it needs to be an amazing idea. The last episode of season three was the most watched in the history of my channel, so how can I top that? How can I do something better than that? It’s very scary.”