One of the most interesting developments in TV in recent years has been the rise of Israeli television dramas. This started nearly fifteen years ago with the series Prisoners of War (Hatufim), which told the story of three Israeli soldiers who were captured 17 years before while on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. When it was shown in Israel, Hatufim had the highest ratings of any Israeli TV drama. Viewing figures for the second season were even higher.
You may not have heard of Prisoners of War but you will have heard of its American spin-off, Homeland, a huge TV hit in America and in Britain, with Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, which ran for eight series from 2011-20. On the basis of Homeland, Gideon Raff, the creator of Prisoners of War, went on to write and direct The Spy, with Sacha Baron Cohen as Eli Cohen, a real-life Israeli spy in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s.
Prisoners of War opened the floodgates. The best-known Israeli TV dramas series since then are Shtisel, a drama about a close-knit ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem, shown on Netflix, and Fauda, about a team of Israeli soldiers battling with Palestinian terrorists. Fauda (meaning “chaos”) was first shown in Israel in 2015 and three more series followed. Internationally, Fauda is also shown on Netflix. It’s worth noting that Netflix have championed the best Israel dramas and the main British TV networks haven’t.
Like Prisoners of War, Fauda owed much of its success to the camaraderie of a close-knit team of brave Israeli soldiers, but it also showed how often the real casualties, on both sides, are the women. The series was clearly pro-Israel, but the most interesting characters are often those caught between Israel and the Palestinians, like Dr Sirin al Abed in Season 1 and Omar Tawalbe and his sister Maya Binyamin in the latest series.
What is striking about Fauda, and perhaps what explains its appeal to British and American audiences, is how dark it is. The characters are loyal, decent and heroic. But war is terrible and haunts soldiers for years, breaks up marriages and families, and never ends. The conflict takes a terrible toll on many of the central figures. At one point in Series 4 the central character, Doron, lists a number of his close colleagues who have been killed. Doron (played by Lior Raz, who co-created the series) is an impossible human being, a brave fighter but often unreliable and infuriating both for his colleagues and superiors. Captain Ayub has been divorced twice, and lives by himself. He is a crucial character in Series 4.
Like Homeland, Fauda does not romanticise conflict. It captures the mood of the times. We have had Scandi-noir, about detectives hunting serial killers. This is Israeli-noir, about IDF veterans who serve in the undercover counter-terrorism unit, haunted by memories of war and the women and children who get caught up in the conflict. Some of the most tragic figures are the Palestinians who lose their sons but are faced with impossible dilemmas, wanting to do the right thing but intimidated by Palestinian terrorists who threaten to slaughter their families.
The latest series has been hugely popular on social media, but is the novelty beginning to wear off? The issues about Doron, loyal and brave or unreliable and annoying, are beginning to wear thin. It is hard to imagine any organisation which would put up with his tantrums and insubordination. Similarly, there is the ongoing issue of which wife will lose patience first with her husband’s commitment to military service and will any of these men put their wife and family first?
Too many of the Palestinian leaders are one-dimensional villains, out-and-out psychopaths. There are too few twists in the plot and not enough back stories compared to the best British dramas, such as Hugo Blick’s The English. Is the dialogue clever enough compared to Steven Moffat’s Inside Man? How good are the performances compared with Stanley Tucci in Inside Man, Andrew Scott and Mark Gatiss in Sherlock or Mandy Patinkin (Saul Berenson) or F. Murray Abraham (Dar Adal) in Homeland? And there are growing problems with plausibility. In the final showdown in Series 4, why are so few Israelis sent to kill a handful of Palestinian terrorists. Why would they have to resort to handguns and rifles instead of machine guns and bazookas, with no aerial back-up?
Critics on the Left have criticised the pro-Israel bias of the series from the start. But issues about plausibility and the quality of the programme-making are more troubling. The most compelling American drama series – Homeland (96 episodes), The Sopranos (86), West Wing (154) – had legs. They went on for series after series. Fauda, after less than fifty episodes, needs a major overhaul and some captivating new characters.
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