There’s a lot of drama in Israel. That’s no surprise, of course, given the drama throughout the Middle East. Perhaps less expected is that there’s comedy, musicals and, as we’ll see late in July, reality, too.
On July 26, CBS debuts “3,” a reality TV show it describes as a “relationship series in which three single women of different ages, life experiences and backgrounds meet for the first time with a common goal — to find true love.” It is, in short, “The Bachelorette” times three. There’s another difference between the two shows: “3” was made in Israel, where it was the most successful reality debut of the past four years, and the latest in a string of Israeli programs to be adapted for American television. The country that made the desert bloom has become fertile ground for TV programming.
“I think we’re watching Israel step into [the international] arena in a very competitive and creative way,” Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, told me in a recent telephone interview. “There’s an outreach on both parts. When you meet anyone in the entertainment business in Israel, they are clearly motivated to build business with American broadcasters.”
The current wave of interest in Israeli programming began in 2008 with the critical success of HBO’s “In Treatment,” an American version of the Israeli show “BeTipul,” about a psychologist who is in therapy himself. Though an adaptation was created for HBO, the show wasn’t really American, at least in the beginning. Its first season was often translated word for word from the original Hebrew script. The show ran for three seasons and won numerous awards, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe, sparking interest in Israeli content.
Other shows followed, most notably Showtime’s “Homeland,” which premiered in October 2011 and will continue with its second season this fall. A tense psychological thriller about a decorated American Marine who converts to Islam after being captured by Al Qaeda and then plans terrorist attacks on his return to the United States, “Homeland” was adapted from the Israeli show “Hatufim,” which aired in 2010. In its American version, the show stars Claire Danes as CIA officer Carrie Mathison, Damian Lewis as compromised Marine Nicholas Brody and Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s CIA mentor, Saul Berenson. In addition to achieving high ratings, the show won the 2011 Golden Globe for best drama.
Based on the success of “In Treatment” and “Homeland,” American entertainment executives now make regular trips to what has become the land of milk, honey and television concepts. Other Israeli shows that boasted an American version have included the NBC game show “Who’s Still Standing?” an adaptation of the Israeli program “Lauf al Hamiliyon”; the Fox sitcom “Traffic Light,” based on the Israeli “Ramzor,” and the CBS dramedy “The Ex List,” from the Israeli series “The Mythological X.”
Does the fact that so many Hollywood executives are Jewish contribute to the influx of Israeli shows? Probably not on a conscious level; the business is too competitive for that. “Just being Jewish doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the decision-making process,” Tassler said. “As programmers, we need to develop and produce content that has mass appeal, so I am constantly aware of the vastly diverse composition of our audience.”
Rather, American television executives say that Israeli programming has been successful in the United States because of the cultural similarities between the two nations. Israeli “writers and directors and actors have grown up with many of the same cultural influences as their counterparts in the U.S.” said Howard Gordon, executive producer of “Homeland.”