The words “Israeli” and “drama” usually herald reports of an intractable conflict in the Middle East, as is currently the case, but that is changing thanks to a stream of popular Israeli television series that US studios are rushing to snap up.
Israel has become an unlikely hotbed for gripping new dramas that are spawning award-winning spin-offs.
Homeland (pictured), which was inspired by the Israeli thriller Hatufim, recently returned to our screens for a second series fresh from its success at the 2012 Emmys where it scooped all the top gongs.
American TV executives are mining Israel’s airwaves to find the next candidate to receive the Homeland treatment. NBC’s Universal Television has just bought the rights to another mystery series from the Israeli network behind Hatufim. The studio is planning to develop an English-language version of The Gordin Cell, which follows former Soviet spies starting a new life in Israel.
Rick Rosen, the Hollywood agent who brokered Hatufim’s sale to the network Showtime among others, said Israel was emerging as the next Scandinavia, another rich source for captivating dramas. “There’s an enormous amount of creativity there. There are some great writers and some great shows.”
What Israel’s series lack in the iconic knitwear and brooding female protagonists, they make up for with psychological tension and deft storytelling. Rosen said Israeli comedies were “edgier” than their American equivalents.
“It’s easier to see interesting shows around the world because of the internet,” he said, explaining the recent obsession with foreign formats. “The world is a smaller place.”
As is clear from Homeland’s cult status, audiences are as keen on Israeli formats as US viewers. Odelia Haroush, who organised the UK’s first Israeli film festival in London this year, said: “We included television in our festival because there is so much interest. [TV series] are popular because they are very funny and emotional. [They show] the cultural and social diversity of in everyday life in Israel.” Seret, the London Israeli Film and Television Festival, will be held again in June.
Other Israeli shows in the pipeline in the US include Yellow Peppers, a drama about a rural family with an autistic son, and Pillars of Smoke, a series about a mystery at a secretive commune. All are being remade for American audiences, because, as Rosen said: “Americans seem to like the American versions.”
Richard Ferrer, editor of Jewish News, said the nature of Israeli politics meant local writers, such as Hatufim and Homeland’s Emmy-winning Gideon Raff, had plenty of potential plotlines. “Israel’s survival is always at stake, so what might appear to be paranoia from a comfortable distance tends to be reality on the streets of Tel Aviv.”
Ferrer added: “Talented young Israeli writers like Raff are turning their country’s raw survival instincts into edgy and authentic drama. His show Hatufim tapped an open wound in a country where conscription is law and kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was feared lost. It makes for truthful and plausible drama.”
The best-known of the spin-offs is the US’s favourite drama after cleaning up at the 2012 Emmys. It tells the tale of a former prisoner of war, Sergeant Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, and Claire Danes’s suspicious CIA agent, Carrie Mathison.
Life Isn’t Everything
CBS is developing its own version of Israel’s most successful sitcom, about a middle-aged divorced couple who were bad at marriage and are proving even worse at divorce.
Fox’s English-language adaptation of the Hebrew show Ramzor proved a rare disappointment because it messed around too much with the original.
The Gordin Cell
The latest thriller getting the Hollywood treatment features former Soviet spies. The US version will be called M.I.C.E. (Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego).
One of the earlier remakes, this was based on Israel’s The Mythological Ex about a woman who visits a psychic and discovers she has already dated the man she is destined to marry.
Pillars of Smoke
Described as part-Twin Peaks, part-Lost, the series is a mystery set in the Golan Heights, about a probe of a cult’s disappearance. – The Independent on Sunday