by Brandon Schuster
(JTA) – This story originally appeared on Kveller.
It’s no secret that for more than a decade now, Hollywood has turned toward Israel to look for new show formats that could be adapted well for English-language audiences. Award-winning hit series adapted from Israeli shows, like HBO’s In Treatment and Showtime’s Homeland, have helped Israel become the third-largest content exporter in the U.S. over the past decade, just behind the U.K. and the Netherlands, an incredible and unlikely feat for such a small country, and one that only just introduced commercial television to its citizens as recent as the ‘90s.
With the beginning of a tumultuous new decade, there have been some silver linings — it’s pretty clear that Israel is dominating the global television space today. Not even a pandemic can stop Israel from coming out on top.
Successful U.S. series with major Israeli ties — including Netflix’s Unorthodox and HBO’s Euphoria — received a slew of Emmy nominations this week. Unorthodox landed the coveted nomination for best limited series and both shows saw their leading actresses, Shira Haas and Zendaya, nominated alongside major stars.
Yet when Israeli television is mentioned today, one of two shows usually follows in the conversation: Fauda or Shtisel. These shows have become bona fide and critically adored hits on Netflix, well before the pandemic. In particular, the global success of Shtisel, five years after the show first aired in Israel, has led the beloved series about a haredi Orthodox family to be renewed for a new season that is currently shooting in Israel — and we have the photos to prove it.
So what is it about Israeli shows that are so appealing and winning over millions of viewers from around the world? Even with smaller budgets to work with, Israeli series offer a unique cinematic appeal that most other television shows don’t have. The lack of budget has allowed for more focus on incredibly rich character development, brought to life by the Israeli and Palestinian talents behind and in front of the camera, that’s almost always rooted in conflict, a common theme that people who live in this Middle Eastern region face on a daily basis.
At the end of the day though, Israeli shows have one thing that most other shows around the world don’t necessarily have — chutzpah (even if that word has a completely different meaning in the Jewish state). Israeli series aren’t afraid to push the envelope and “go there.” And they’re certainly not afraid to be critical of their own country and downright controversial at times either. Look no further than the debate and controversy that HBO’s Our Boys spurred around the world (more on that below).
As COVID-19 has shut down production sets, North American broadcast networks and streaming platforms have been looking abroad to fill the void for new content in the coming months. A number of Israeli series have certainly benefited from this. In recent weeks, as a result, we’ve seen streaming platforms buying the international rights to and signing on as co-producers for some of Israel’s top series. Apple TV+ alone has added an unprecedented five Israeli productions and adaptations to its roster in recent months, including a limited series about Hedy Lamarr starring Gal Gadot, which was originally supposed to air on Showtime.
We’re at a very exciting point now when audiences and critics around the world are starting to discover that there are other fantastic Israeli series worthy to binge on beyond just Fauda and Shtisel. Here are eight Israeli shows that you might not have heard of yet — and that you should definitely start watching right now. Six of these shows are currently available for streaming here in North America, along with two other highly anticipated shows that you’ll be able to stream very soon.
False Flag (Hulu)
In this high-paced espionage and conspiracy thriller, five seemingly ordinary citizens find themselves wrapped up in the high-profile kidnapping of an Iranian government minister from his Moscow hotel room. The only catch is that they all claim that they weren’t even in Moscow and that they do not work for the Mossad.
After False Flag premiered to roaring success at the Berlinale Film Festival, Hulu scored the exclusive U.S. streaming rights for the anthology series. But stateside, it largely flew under the radar until recently. Many viewers have discovered the show in recent months after a handful of TV critics started pushing False Flag as a quality quarantine binge suggestion. Apple TV+ also recently bought the rights to produce an English-language adaptation called Suspicion, starring Academy Award nominee Uma Thurman. Filming for the new show started in March but was suspended during its first week of shooting due to the pandemic.
Stockholm (Topic / CBC)
When the front-runner for the Nobel Prize in Economics is found dead in his bed, his four closest friends scramble to keep him “alive” in the increasingly hectic days leading up to the big announcement. This Weekend at Bernie’s meets Grace and Frankie series is based on the popular novel by Noa Yedlin and has been a huge hit in Israel, where it airs on Kan 11. The cast of this hilarious dark comedy is also comprised of Israeli acting royalty, including Sasson Gabai (The Band’s Visit) and Tikva Dayan (The Golden Girls).
Stockholm was the first-ever Israeli show selected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it earned a ton of buzz and critical raves. Shortly thereafter, the CBC, home to the Emmy-nominated hit Canadian series Schitt’s Creek, scooped up the rights to stream the Hebrew language show during its fall premiere season. In the U.S., when the new streaming platform Topic launched a few months ago, it put Stockholm front-and-center as one of its main showcase offerings.
When Heroes Fly (Netflix)
After Netflix struck gold with Fauda in 2016, they knew that they had to carefully select what their next Israeli hit would be. The result — When Heroes Fly — did not disappoint. The series follows four IDF veteran soldiers who reunite and travel deep into the Colombian jungle on a mission to find a loved one they presumed to be dead. Loosely based on the popular novel of the same name by the late Amir Gutfreund, the show stars some of Israel’s highest-profile actors, including Tomer Kapon (Amazon’s The Boys) and Michael Aloni (Shtisel).
The series made waves when it won the top prize at the inaugural Cannes International Series Festival in 2018, beating out top global shows in the competition like Killing Eve and State of Happiness. One month later, it went on to become the most-watched drama on Israel’s Keshet 12. Just this past month, Apple TV+ announced that they’ve ordered an English-language remake of the hit show led by Academy Award winner Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker). The remake, which will be retitled as Echo 3, will begin filming soon in South America, just like the original version.
Confess (web series)
Looking for your “after hours” fix? This provocative web series not only broke ground, but created quite the stir in Israel. Confess is an anthology series that explores hook-up culture in Tel Aviv today and how dating apps have changed millennials’ dating and sex lives. Each episode is based on the real-life confessions of dating app users and features the talents of some of Israel’s hottest rising stars, including Noa Koler (The Wedding Plan), Omer Perelman Striks (Shababnikim), and Ori Laizerouvich.
The series comes from one of Israel’s most promising directing talents, Moshe Rosenthal (Our Way Back). Two-time Academy Award nominee Julie Delpy (Before Sunset) is currently developing an American adaptation of Confess for AMC, the cable home to hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Our Boys (HBO)
Set during the summer of 2014, Our Boys is based on the painful true events of the kidnapping and murders of young Israeli and Palestinian teenagers that led to the outbreak of the bloody 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict. This series was a co-production between HBO and Keshet 12, officially making Our Boys the first Hebrew and Arabic language series for HBO. The series was written, directed, and produced by three of the region’s top filmmakers, all with diverse backgrounds: Hagai Levi (Showtime’s The Affair) is Israeli, Joseph Cedar (Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer) is American-Israeli, and Tawfik Abu Wael (Last Days in Jerusalem) is Palestinian.
The show ignited a splitting, emotional debate within Israel that was covered by the media all around the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the debate by launching a boycott campaign against the show during the Israeli election, calling it anti-Semitic. Yet at this year’s Israeli Television Academy Awards (Israel’s answer to the Emmy Awards), it walked away as the big winner of the event, winning Best Drama Series. Over here in the U.S., the series was recently nominated for a Peabody Award in May and was named one of the New York Times’ top 10 shows of 2019.
In this gripping dystopian drama, we’re transported to a present-day alternate-reality where the Jewish state is divided by a heavily secured wall. One side is the secular “State of Israel,” with Tel Aviv as its capital. The other side is the ultra-Orthodox “Jewish Autonomy” based in Jerusalem. Autonomies comes from Shtisel writers Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, who were inspired to create this controversial series due to the belief that the real-life conflict between the ultra-Orthodox and secular societies within Israel might be more destructive than the Palestinian conflict.
The show airs on Israel’s HOT and has become one of the TV provider’s most successful dramas to date. Some critics have called it “ultra-Orthodox society meets Black Mirror.” The series is currently available to stream in the U.S. alongside Stockholm on Topic. An English-language adaptation is also in the works and is being reformatted to use America’s own blue state-red state divide as a substitute for the original Israeli plot.
Tehran (Apple TV+)
Israel’s hottest new show of the year, Tehran follows Tamar Rabinayan (Niv Sultan, Flawless), a young Mossad agent who is sent to Iran to hack and disable a nuclear reactor. When her dangerous mission takes an unexpected turn, she finds herself stuck in the Iranian capital, where she rediscovers her roots and befriends pro-democracy activists. The electrifying new show is currently being broadcast on Israel’s Kan 11 and comes from Moshe Zonder, the head writer of the hit Netflix series Fauda.
During quarantine, Apple TV+ bought the international rights to the series outside of Israel in a multi-million dollar sale. Apple has also signed on as a co-producer for Tehran and will announce the streaming premiere date very soon.
Losing Alice (Apple TV+)
In this neo-noir psychological thriller, we’re introduced to Alice (Ayelet Zurer, Superman: Man of Steel and Shitsel), an accomplished filmmaker in her 40s who struggles with her career after having a family. When she meets Sophie (Lihi Kornowski), an aspiring screenwriter in her 20s, she becomes obsessed with the younger woman and brings her into her life, both professionally and personally. But soon enough, Alice realizes that Sophie might not be who she thinks she is, and the decision to bring her into her world may have fatal consequences.
The show, which just premiered this summer on HOT, was created by Sigal Avin, who has widely been regarded as one of the top female filmmakers to watch over the next few years. She created this show as a “love letter for the still-too-rare female director.” Apple TV+ recently announced that they bought and will co-produce Losing Alice, only a few days after they made a similar announcement for Tehran. Apple will announce the streaming premiere dates for both shows very soon.
These are only eight Israeli series that are or will be available on streaming platforms across North America, but expect plenty more incredible series to be added to this list very soon.
What might be next?
We know die-hard Israeli television fans are holding their breath for streaming services to pick up Israeli series like Shabbanikim, a comedy about yeshiva students, Muna, a Hebrew and Arabic language drama about a Palestinian photographer living in Tel Aviv, Transkids, a coming-of-age docu-series about four transgender teens preparing for mandatory military service, Nevsu, a comedy about a multicultural Ethiopian-Ashkenazi family, and Your Honor, a legal thriller that stars legendary Israeli film actor Yoram Hattab and popular Arab-Israeli newscaster-turned-actress Lucy Aharish. The show has also been adapted in the U.S. and will premiere later this year on Showtime, starring Academy Award nominee Bryan Cranston.
However, two Israeli series in particular will most likely be the next shows to be picked up. The upcoming Valley of Tears, an eight-part emotional and action-packed limited series depicting the Yom Kippur War, was reportedly the highest-budgeted Israeli show ever created, costing $1 million per episode. On the Spectrum, a touching dramedy that brings us into the lives of three 20-something autistic roommates who learn to cope with the world around them is already a huge hit in Israel. Amazon just gave a series order last month for an English-language adaptation of the show, which features a leading cast of actors who are all on the autistic spectrum themselves in real life.