The Arts : The Israelization of TV
The popular In Treatment was one of the first, but there are a number of American adaptations of Israeli shows on the way.
The walls are thin between the two apartments on the 2006 hit Israeli drama series A Touch Away (Mirhak Negiah, in Hebrew).
The clatter, conversations and lives of two families—one ultra-Orthodox, the other Russian immigrant—seeping from one apartment to the other tantalized viewers with access into usually unseen worlds. And the daring, star-crossed love that blooms in an apartment complex in the ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak neighborhood between beautiful 17-year-old Roha’le, daughter of the religious family, and secular Zorik, who served in the Army but now works as a window washer, proved electric for the show’s ratings.
The eight-episode series was the most watched program in Israeli television history and won seven Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys. It also piqued the interest of Hollywood producers, making the drama, directed by Ron Ninio and cowritten by Shuki Ben-Naim and Amit Lior, the second Israeli show to have its concept snapped up by HBO television. The final contract is still being negotiated, but according to the plans for the American version, Zafrir Kochanovsky, the Israeli producer, will remain as an executive producer and Kate Robbins will be the American writer.
The Israeli television industry is on fire these days. In the past two years, American networks and cable stations from Fox and NBC to Showtime and HBO have acquired, or are in negotiations to option, five originated-in-Israel television shows. Besides A Touch Away, Israeli imports include In Treatment, which was a popular and media draw last season on HBO; The Ex List, which debuted in September 2008 on CBS; Phenomenon, which aired on NBC in 2007; and Screenz.
“I don’t know what’s in the drinking water there,” Carolyn Strauss, then president of HBO Entertainment, told The New York Times in January 2008. “But for as tiny as that country is, they make some interesting television shows.”
In the United States, In Treatment’s first season earned a rapt audience and four Emmy Award nominations, including best actor for Gabriel Byrne and best supporting actress for Dianne Wiest. It was described as intelligent and addictive when it premiered last winter.
“I stayed up past midnight, grew hollow-eyed and pale, missed meals and refused to answer my cell phone or check my e-mail just so I could squeeze in another episode,” wrote Los Angeles Times reviewer Mary McNamara after the show’s debut. “It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was fun.”
As in the Israeli version, the story follows the weekly trials and tribulations of a psychotherapist and his clients. On HBO, the psychotherapist, Paul Weston, is played by Byrne; for four days, the audience listens to him counsel patients; on the fifth day, Byrne’s character speaks with his own therapist, played by Wiest.
The first season included 43 episodes. According to Variety magazine, HBO has ordered 35 new episodes and Byrne will remain as the show’s lead. As in the first season, the upcoming one will be produced by Rodrigo Garcia, who developed the American version. Hagai Levy, creator of the mega-hit Israeli show on which it is based, remains involved along with American producers Steven and Mark Levinson.
In Israel, the psychotherapist is Reuben Dagan, played by veteran actor Assi Dayan. The second season is now being released on DVD and a third season is in development. Be-Tipul (Hebrew for In Treatment) is considered a genius format because all the action takes place in two rooms, keeping production costs down.
Be-Tipul was the first Israeli drama ever sold to the United States, but the first to hit the air was Phenomenon in October 2007, a reality show that trailed Israeli mentalist Uri Geller (of spoon-bending fame) and American magician Criss Angel in pursuit of what the show calls “the next great mentalist.” It was based on an Israeli show with Uri Geller called Ha’Yoresh (The Successor).
And Screenz (Masakhim, in Hebrew), recently picked up by HBO, a highly rated Israeli drama from the 2007-2008 season, is based entirely on online video chats. The characters are filmed simultaneously in separate rooms as they view each other onscreen.
Producer Yoram Mandel was intrigued by what happens when people connect online. “What interested me was twofold,” he explained. “That there is a new avenue for forging intimacy and the ability of people to create their own subjective reality where virtual reality feels no less real than ‘real’ reality.”
The seven writers for Screenz’s first season came up with a variety of story arcs. There is one about a father and a daughter communicating online many years after the father abandoned his family. He now lives abroad and got in touch with his daughter because his young daughter from his new family has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant.
Another story line is based on a United States court case in which a father who has been found guilty of molesting his own son is granted visitation rights with him on condition that the boy’s mother can supervise the visits online by camera. There is also a plot that involves an avatar, a computer generated alter ego, who contacts a middle-age woman and starts harassing her. It is eventually revealed that the avatar was created by a young woman who was given up for adoption by the woman she is hounding.
There are also episodes that focus on the relationship between a depressed artist and a troubled teenage girl with a drug problem. And then there is a plot that involves an international encounter between a Russian student living illegally in the United States and the female Israeli soldier he meets after seeing a video she posted of herself on YouTube.
In Israel, the name of the game is to create good, low-budget television, a draw to Hollywood executives with an eye on the bottom line. Budgets are small, explain Israeli producers, because of the relatively little income generated by local advertising and because shows in Hebrew are usually difficult to resell abroad. The cost per episode of an Israeli show ranges from $50,000 to $180,000, while the average American episode costs between $500,000 and $2 million.
“In Israel, we try to make shows as cheaply as possible, but the story is what counts,” said Sarit Shalev, head of format development for Reshet, a production house for Israel’s Channel 2. “If there is a good story, the show can fly.”
In the past decade, around the world, the television medium has become increasingly globalized. Many countries, including the United States, shop overseas for ideas that can be adapted to the local market. Initially, the focus was on game and reality shows, such as Survivor, whose concept is based on a Swedish series from 1997, and the international Idol series, which originated in England as Pop Idol, but now there is a shift to dramas as well.
“The world has become very small, and if you are a good writer or producer and have something to offer, then people in the States are welcome to take it,” said Kochanovsky.
Although there has been much bemoaning by critics of the American influences on Israeli culture, the similarities between the two countries—both melting pots where the focus is increasingly on the individual and less on the collective—seem to have become an advantage when it comes to selling television.
“As ideology no longer plays a central role in our lives,” says Tamar Liebes, a communications professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “we, too, have turned to stories about…people and on relationships, whether they are romantic or ones between family members or different groups in society.”
Noa Tishby, an Israeli actress who lives in Los Angeles and has appeared in the science-fiction film The Island and in television onCSI:NY, Big Love and other shows, played a key role in getting Israeli television noticed. She introduced HBO to In Treatment and A Touch Away and is in the process of negotiating a number of other deals.
She first heard about Be-Tipul during a visit to Tel Aviv to celebrate her niece’s bat mitzva. The series had just finished its first season and her friends and family were all hooked. After she saw it for herself, she knew she would be bringing it back to show her contacts in Hollywood.
“The reality of living in Israel forces you not to be caught up in your own shell,” Tishby said, “[but] to be exposed to current events and to be politically savvy. This affects the level and depth of the writing.”
In most cases, Israeli producers are staying involved in the American versions of their programs. And while scripts and some concepts might be reworked to fit the different context, producers do try to stay faithful to the Israeli original. For example, the first season of In Treatment retained the half-hour, five-day-a-week format it had in Israel. And in the American adaptation of A Touch Away, once it hits the air, the male protagonist will likely remain a Russian immigrant and ultra-Orthodox Jews will continue as neighbors.
Success has finally come to Israeli television despite its relatively late start. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, blocked its introduction for years, fearing it would lead the young, socialist-minded country to materialism.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders also inveighed against it, predicting moral degeneration should immodest images of women be broadcast. In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967, however, the government used the airwaves to raise morale and give patriotic announcements, and it became clear to politicians that television could be used as a propaganda tool; in 1968, sets began appearing in Israeli homes.
Still, there was not that much to watch—only the one state-run channel, which at the time mostly broadcast classical music concerts as well as documentaries showcasing the young country’s achievements in fields such as agriculture.
“Israel was the only place in the world where movie theater attendance went up when television was introduced” because programming was so dull, said Omri Marcus, a former comedy writer who now works at Reshet.
Because of limited funds, it was thought much too expensive to produce original programming, so shows were brought in from abroad. At first, serious productions such as BBC’s The Jewel in the Crown and Upstairs, Downstairs were imported, and, later, Little House on the Prairie and other family programs. By the 1980s, they were joined by glitzier American spectacles such as Dynasty and Dallas.
“Through the BBC dramas we saw that narrative was important,” explained Marcus. “English culture was absorbed by watching TV, and this is what the generation of writers of today grew up on and drew from when it came time to write stories of their own.”
In 1993, Israeli television introduced its first commercial channel, Channel 2; the next year saw the appearance of cable television. Suddenly, money was being invested in local content. And for the first time, quality programs in Hebrew began to emerge, such as Hafuch (Upside Down), a dramedy that followed the lives and relationships of a group of Tel Aviv twentysomethings, and Hamishah Ha’Cameri (The Cameri Quintet), a sketch program with an ensemble of comic actors.
Programming regulations have also been pivotal, ensuring a certain percentage of television hours includes original shows. The regulations were instituted as part of the contract with companies who sought to broadcast on Channel 2. They are akin to programming rules in many European countries that seek to maintain a base of locally produced content. (There is no need for such regulations in the United States since most programming is generated in Hollywood.)
The relatively new opportunities have had a cross-fertilization effect between the film and television industries. With the appearance of original Hebrew-language television programs, the idea of homegrown movies started to gain acceptance by Israeli audiences and investors. The experience attained by television producers on the small screen is often translated onto the big screen, and then back to television.
In Israel, actors, directors and producers freely float between television, film and theater. In the past few years, Itai Tiran, one of the country’s leading young actors, has appeared in The Mythological Ex (Ha-Ex Ha-Mitologi), as a soldier in the film Beaufort and onstage as Hamlet in Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre. Eytan Fox, one of Israel’s best-known filmmakers, with highly acclaimed titles such as Yossi & Jagger and Walk on Water, produced Florentine for television in 1997 and is now reportedly working on a new television series.
Israel has also managed a feat of chutzpa by creating and trying to sell a show that is essentially an Israeli remake of HBO’s popularEntourage. The show, Loaded (Mesudarim, in Hebrew), is being shopped around for placement after initially being considered by Fox.
“[This] is everyone’s dream,” said Eva Madjiboj, until recently the chief financial officer and vice president for business development at Keshet, a Channel 2 production company that made contact with Fox.
Making the deal especially delicious was that the production company that makes Entourage bought the format: A group of male friends get rich and live the high life in a shared mansion after their high-tech start-up is bought for $200 million. It is a conceit that resonates in contemporary tech-savvy Israel, where life is reminiscent of Silicon Valley of the 1990s, a landscape crowded with small start-ups and big dreams.
This isn’t the first show Madjiboj has sold abroad. In 2007, she made the deal with NBC for Phenomenon. And she helped sell the concept to Australia, Hungary, Canada, Russia and the Netherlands.
Madjiboj also helped convince CBS to pick up The Mythological Ex, a 2007 Israeli dramedy created and written by Sigal Avin. The American version is also written by Avin and Diane Ruggiero and coproduced by Ruggiero and Jonathan Levin; it is directed by Timothy Busfield. Renamed The Ex List, the show aired on Friday nights, though as of November, CBS has pulled the show from its lineup.
The Ex List followed Bella Bloom, played by Elizabeth Reaser, a single thirtysomething who learns from a psychic that she has already met her future husband—and if she does not find him again in the next year, she will remain alone forever. She immediately begins her quest.
In the Israeli version, fast-talking Michal is also on a mission for “the one.” Her adventures lead her into a series of often raunchy mishaps that remind her why she parted ways with former suitors: the ex-fiancé who turned out to be gay, the emotionally fragile rock singer who humiliates her in a song and the guy who was good in bed but still lived with his mother. (Mom walks in on them in one scene, pausing to chat and collect his—and her—laundry from the floor.)
Some of these story lines were repeated in the American version and others were added. For example, one episode, called “Climb Every Mountain Biker,” includes an ex-boyfriend who never slows down, whether it is to go rock climbing, surfing or competitive trivia games.
Levin stumbled on the show during a visit to Israel. He had come on a United Jewish Communities solidarity mission during the Second Lebanon War and stayed after the fighting ended to volunteer at an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in Safed. There, watching television, he came across The Mythological Ex.
“I find Israeli television to be as intense as the country is,” said Levin. “It’s got a nice edge to it. What I saw in The Mythological Exis that it had a raw sexuality and an in-your-face attitude that I really admire. American television is a little more laid back.”
In contrast, Israeli viewers get restless, Madjiboj said, and this keeps those who write and produce for television on their toes and at their best: “Everyone is angling for the next big thing,” she adds, “searching for what will move people.”
And that search is something that audiences in both countries looking for enticing and innovative television can definitely appreciate. H