Homeland’s debt to Israeli TV

Channel 4’s latest US hit is based on one of the many TV success stories produced by Israel. Would you watch both?

Last Sunday Homeland debuted on Channel 4, attracting overnight ratings figures of more than 2 million and a clutch of impressive reviews. Much has been written about the latest US import, a labyrinthine terrorism drama from the writers of 24. But while you will have read all about Homeland’s awards haul and Claire Danes’ triumphant return to the small screen, that the show is based on an Israeli series called Hatufim (Prisoners of War) has been less well reported.

Now UK audiences will be able to judge for themselves just how good the Israeli original is when it comes to Sky Arts in May. The series will follow hot on the heels of another Israeli drama In Treatment (BeTipul), the original Hebrew version of the hit HBO series of the same name, which gets underway on Sky Arts on Monday.

Hatufim and BeTipul are Israeli TV’s big international success stories – but they’re far from the only Israeli shows finding an international audience either in their original form or as an English language remake. There are a slew of Israeli shows being adapted by major US networks including sitcoms such as Life Isn’t Everything, police procedurals in the form of HBO’s The Naked Truth and the much-touted NBC murder-mystery Pillars of Smoke, while in Britain, David Mitchell’s topical quiz show The Bubble was adapted from an Israeli idea.

It’s part of the unlikely rise of Israeli television; an industry that only got its first commercial channel in 1993. “Israeli dramas are very much driven by auteurs, by people who have their own unique story and own unique voice to tell it,” says Avi Nir chief executive of Keshet Broadcasting, the programme makers behind Hatufim. “They provide an antidote to American television, which is usually more commercial … It’s a different way of making a show. Hollywood is much more of an industry, but in Israel our shows are slowly, carefully and originally tailor made.”

The shoestring budgets that Israeli programme makers work with have also played their part in this surge of creativity. Hatufim for example, was shot for $200,000 an episode, a fraction of the budget its US counterpart. The result is that Israeli producers put a stronger emphasis on storytelling, while financial constraints have seen programme makers work in more creative ways. The effects can be seen in the stripped-back settings of shows such as In Treatment, which like police procedural The Naked Truth, stages almost all of its action in a solitary room.

While fuelling creativity, the lack of financial investment has also taken away an element of risk. Without massive financial outlay there is arguably more freedom for writers to experiment with what is conventionally expected from small screen dramas.

At its heart however, the boom in Israeli broadcasting comes down to the quality of the programmes that are being produced. Lucy Criddle, the Sky Arts acquisitions manager, says: “It wasn’t our intention that we were looking at Israeli drama, it was really that the quality of the drama stood out for us. We watched BeTipul and Hatufim and we just loved them. They’re both powerful pieces that are utterly compelling and most importantly they’re high quality TV.”

It has been difficult to miss the recent boom in Scandinavian drama on British screens – but it appears that Denmark may not have cornered the market in classy subtitled imports. BeTipul in particular will offer a strange viewing experience for fans of In Treatment. Unlike Hatufim, which was more of an inspiration for Homeland, the HBO drama is an almost like-for-like remake of the Israeli original. As a result it’s impossible to watch either show without comparing and contrasting it with the other.

With the rise of foreign language remakes and imports, watching a show twice is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common – and at times original shows can end up overshadowed by a strange sense of deja vu when watched after their English language remakes. But what’s striking about these Israeli series is the quality of the storytelling which has translated seamlessly from original to adaptation. For viewers that means they are essential companion pieces – testament to the quality of programming that the country is currently producing.

Source: The Guardian