On Television, Is Israel the New UK?

The Hollywood Reporter notes that New Regency’s just signed a deal that lets it have first crack at content coming out of one of Israel’s biggest production companies. Israeli shows are never going to translate directly the way British ones do—you can’t just slap a Hebrew-language show on PBS or Hulu and expect that it’ll find a well-established audience like the one that’s willing to give almost any BBC content a shot. But Israeli shows have been the basis for programs like In Treatment, part of the second wave of well-regarded HBO shows, Homeland, which is helping Showtime steal a match on HBO, and Who’s Still Standing?, an NBC quiz show that’s helping the struggling network fill hours.

Obviously, this sampling of shows is a bit too small to use to draw conclusions about what American and Israeli audiences have in common, or why Israeli story templates work here. Americans have complicated relationships to and feelings about Israel, but none that translate into pop culture as easily as thinking that British people and their accents are inherently cool, that MI-6 makes for an excellent action setting, or generalized royalty and aristocracy nostalgia. An LA Times article from earlier this year offered some theories, both psychological and structural: “Some others: Israeli television’s gallows humor fits with post-9/11 American anxiety; Israelis are preoccupied by some of the same subjects as American network executives (‘the country has more psychologists per capita than anywhere else in the world, and that leads to psychologically complex stories,’ said David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment); a U.S. business that has grown restless with traditional sources; Israeli shows are relatively cheap; and Israeli TV’s small budgets birth creative storytelling.”

In a sense, I regret that we’re really only going to be able to remake Israeli shows rather than rebroadcasting them directly. Our national conversation about Israel is bigger than this, but it might be healthy to keep the setting so audiences here can see the country the same way we see England: as an ally, a place of both great natural beauty and sometimes-prosaic urban design, where some people are involved in existential struggles against security threats and others are consumed with the prosaic business of everyday life and everyday jobs.