Israeli television is having a moment. Why? Maybe it’s real-world politics piquing people’s interest; maybe it’s streaming platforms encouraging North Americans to sample something foreign; maybe Israelis’ intense emotions just work well on the small screen. Probably it’s some combination of all the above.
Whatever the reasons, the tangible evidence is a slew of popular, award-winning shows grounded in gritty socio-political reality: Fauda and Shtisel on Netflix, Our Boys on HBO and American remakes of Israeli shows like Homeland and In Treatment.
Most of these shows are, if not based on true stories, reflective of difficult truths. In the Mideast conflict, there are villains on both sides. Religious zealots fuel conflict, paranoia and isolationism. In order to maintain control of the region, the Israeli government and army must use violence. Morality is complicated.
Dig deeper into Israeli history, and you’ll find a trove of dramatic stories worth telling. Earlier this year, Netflix enthusiastically leapt aboard the bandwagon with The Red Sea Diving Resort, a film that recounts the heroic Israeli effort to save thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Gideon Raff, who created Prisoners of War (upon which the hit American remake Homeland was based), directed the film, which received universally horrible reviews for its white-saviour premise and cheap action-movie tropes. It starred Chris Evans, a.k.a., Captain America, a.k.a., the WASPiest Avenger, so you can kind of guess where things started to go wrong.
Not that it stopped Raff and Netflix from teaming up again, this time to tell another fantastically true Israeli story: that of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who infiltrated the Syrian government in the early 1960s, helping Israel win the Six-Day War and annex the Golan Heights. After he was discovered and hanged by Syrian officials, the Israeli government celebrated his achievements as a national hero, naming streets and neighbourhoods in his honour.
The Spy, a six-part miniseries that began streaming in September, stars Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame) in his most subtle and dramatic performance to date. But Baron Cohen’s charm can’t save this drearily grey disaster, so burdened with ham-fisted dialogue and soulless silence that it wastes most of its time struggling with contrived subplots instead of telling the story that’s actually interesting.
Raff once told reporters the whole first season of his hit show Prisoners of War cost less than a single episode of Homeland. Watching The Spy, it’s obvious what he means. The sets are cheap, the cinematography is boring, the costumes and makeup don’t look right and the lighting is bland. If Raff prides himself on sticking to a budget, period dramas probably aren’t his genre.
But The Spy is still interesting, I think, simply because it exists at all. I doubt Netflix would have distributed it three years ago, before the “Israeli drama” genre proved to be such a hit. The missing ingredient, as with The Red Sea Diving Resort, is that it’s a largely American production starring non-Israeli actors speaking in silly accents. Part of what make Fauda and Shtisel work are casts of determined, emotionally raw, unknown actors who convinced us to believe in their world. Fauda is an absurd show, really, but it feels real. Our Boys flirts intimately with its source material in retelling the grim origins of the 2014 Gaza War. The Spy, by contrast, has all the style of a CBC docudrama.
If Netflix wants to profit off Israel’s hype, we should encourage it. But rather than bother with Anglicized knock-offs, we’d do better to source out the real thing: the original Israeli programming and creators who live and work in the country, whose stories ring true because they understand the difficulties and complexities of one of the most fascinating countries on Earth. With apologies to Borat and Captain America, those are the stories worth watching.