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Netflix’s newest Israeli hit is simplistic and racist, no matter how many times it name-drops the Oslo Accords

The Liam Neeson movie “Taken,” a high drama of exotic, Muslim traffickers and the great lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children, was an enormous hit. Netflix’s “The Girl From Oslo,” is built more or less identically, and it looks destined for the same success – it appeared on Netflix’s Top 10 list in 36 countries last week.

Unfortunately, the two stories also share the same flaw: a formulaic terrorist plot that revolves around simplistic, racist depictions of Muslims.

Pia, one of the hostages, screams.

Pia, one of the hostages, screams. Image by netflix

In “The Girl from Oslo,” Pia, a Norwegian tourist, has been kidnapped by ISIS while vacationing with an Israeli brother-sister pair in Sinai, and ISIS is now trying to barter their release for various prisoners in Israeli and Norwegian jails. Her mother, Alex, immediately flies to Israel to try to leverage connections in both Israel and Gaza that she apparently made decades ago during the Oslo Accords. An Israeli minister, Arik, we learn early on, is Pia’s real father. Desperate for her daughter, Alex almost immediately turns to back-stabbing manipulation, somehow able to play entire governments against each other and not caring whose life or national security she destroys along the way.

There is a real kidnapping somewhat similar to the plot for “The Girl From Oslo” – in 2013, a Norwegian tourist was kidnapped along with an Israeli in Sinai. But that kidnapping got little press coverage and the prisoners were eventually released with little drama.

That’s not the case on the Netflix show, which has tried to up the stakes by looping in complex geopolitics. The Oslo Accords are mentioned often – every main character seems to have been involved in the talks, though what role any of them played is never clear – but other than adding a sense of gravitas, they are never actually relevant.

The true identity of Pia’s father is such a huge secret that it is used to control entire governments – Alex threatens Arik with it, and uses it to barter with Hamas. The fact that ISIS and Hamas are bitter enemies is mentioned early on, but the writers seem to forget that after a few episodes as Alex begs a Hamas leader for help rescuing Pia; it feels as though the show is accidentally conflating all Arab groups and ignoring the fact that negotiations with Hamas would not have any bearing on ISIS.

The show is a joint effort between Norwegian and Israeli companies, and switches between four languages throughout — Norwegian, Hebrew, Arabic and English — which may have something to do with the over-complicated yet under-developed storylines.

The biggest problem here, though, is the lazy reliance on stereotypes. The ISIS and Hamas figures are flat, sinister and aggressive villains. The Middle East is portrayed as exotic and dangerous, full of terrorist attacks at every turn, without any real discussion of geopolitics, despite the incessant references to the Oslo Accords.

The situation room on the Israeli side tries to decide how to handle the hostage crisis.

The situation room on the Israeli side tries to decide how to handle the hostage crisis. Image by netflix

Back when “Taken” came out, this sort of good-guy bad-guy terrorist drama was the norm, but since then, we’ve thankfully raised our standards and there’s been a glut of media that tries to take on the complex, morally murky realities of the region. “Fauda” is a violent, dramatic thriller, but it also complicates viewers’ understanding of Israel. “Our Boys” explored a 2014 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers and subsequent retaliation and fallout, including the murder of a Palestinian teen. “Valley of Tears” and “Oslo” took on the Yom Kippur War and the Oslo Accords respectively without reducing them to black-and-white heroic tales.

“The Girl from Oslo” seems like it wants to be another one of those thoughtful-yet-watchable shows, but didn’t put in the effort to make that happen. It’s a shame that an overly-simplistic show that reinforces false narratives about the region is grabbing so many eyes, especially when it seemed like we had moved past the “Taken” era of media. The show also lacks the highly-produced fight scenes that make Liam Neeson’s franchise a fun watch. As a viewer, that doesn’t leave us much worth sticking around for.

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