(August 5, 2022 / JNS) There’s a reason so many Beatles cover bands exist in the world. People think there is some kind of formula—a catchy hook, a set of snazzy drums and even though it’s not really Paul, John, George and Ringo, it’s close enough, and you’ll like it. That can be true for a song or two until you realize what you are being offered is just an imitation and not the real thing.
“Shtisel,” in my opinion, is the best Jewish show ever made. It is written in such a way that you care about each and every character. The second-most important relationship is between Akiva and his father, Shulem, played masterfully by the soulful Michael Aloni and the hilarious Dov Glickman. Akiva’s love interests, played by Ayelet Zurer and Hadas Yaron as Elisheva and Libbi, are also stellar. You can feel the heart those stars put in their roles, not to mention Shira Haas and Neta Riskin as Ruchama and Giti Weiss. Haas shows a fierce determination to set her course in life while Riskin is a momma bear that wants to protect her and at times oversteps her bounds. (Note: I’m allergic to dairy due to aggressive lactose intolerance. I haven’t had a sip of milk since 2004.)
There are plans for an American version of “Shtisel” from CBS Studios. But there’s no other Michael Aloni. No actor has such vulnerable eyes that search for love and self-worth. There’s no other Shira Haas, who takes no prisoners and tells her mother the truth (most of the time). It has been mentioned making another similar show based off it that would involve a non-religious woman as a type of Juliet to a religious Romeo. Irrelevant. It couldn’t be good as “Shtisel.” (If it is, I promise to drink two cartons of milk. Don’t worry, my stomach is safe!)
Israel and America are free countries, and it’s clear that once showrunners think an idea is good, they say, “Fantastic! Let’s make the show in English and set it in America, and it will be just as good or better.” There’s a certain logic to that since Hollywood can dwarf Israeli budgets.
So let’s take a look at five Israeli shows and their Western counterparts, and see how they match up head to head.
‘Lehiyot Ita’ (ISR) (was on Amazon) vs. ‘The Baker and The Beauty’ (USA, ABC, now on Netflix)
This Israeli romantic comedy created by Assi Azar centers on a poor baker who meets a superhot celebrity in the bathroom of a restaurant and tells him to order the soup. Vanessa, his girlfriend proposes in song. He rejects her, she spills the soup on his shirt, and he falls in love with the celeb, turning his life upside-down.
Aviv Alush is a pita baker and his girlfriend, Vanessa (Hila Saada) is over the top. She’s head over heels but when he meets the gorgeous Noa Hollander (Rotem Sela) in the bathroom, he takes her suggestion about the soup and orders it. Phone cameras come out when Vanessa proposes. He rejects her, and she is so upset that she pours the soup on him. Noa gives him a ride, and they start dating. There’s a sexy scene where Aviv has to make a lot of pitas, and Noa helps him. Alush and Sela have great chemistry and are a pleasure to watch; however, it’s Saada who is hilarious and 90 percent comedy. Amos’ brother Assaf (Ofer Hayoun) is a wannabee musician, and the scene where a woman hits him over the head while he’s performing on live TV is golden. The glue is Noa’s handler, Zvika, played by Mark Ivanir, with great flair and toughness. He is a perfect antagonist to Amos. A scene where Amos is up in the air stuck in a contraption is a great metaphor for being stuck on a “high” and not being able to come back down to reality. The roles of the parents are not that developed, and the sister, Merav (Shani Aviv), doesn’t get to do as much as she could. As Eden, Dar Zuzovsky is strong as an attractive woman with questionable motives who may be able to ruin the chance at love between Amos and Noa as they face differences in culture as well as socioeconomic status. It’s a wonderful and whimsical show.
‘The Baker and the Beauty’
It was a smart move to adapt the story in Miami, where instead of pitas, Daniel Garcia makes pastelitos, a Cuban pastry. As Daniel, Victor Rasuk has some charm, and you want to root for him. As Noa Hamilton, Australian actress Nathalie Kelley is beautiful and a pleasure to watch on-screen, and in this adaptation is a female boss, which she does well. (She should be a Marvel character immediately). And they have good chemistry together. I have just one question. In an interview, the actress, who has one parent from Peru and another from Argentina, refers to herself as a Latina. Somehow, ABC may have forgotten to update the script because Daniel’s sister Natalie is mocked because her brother left a Latina for “white trash.” Watch this interview as the actress says she is a Latina.
So how can a character on the show refer to her as this if she says she does not identify as that, and the role was not intended for that?
As Natalie, Belissa Escobedo shows star power, and her character is explored in much great depth than her Israeli counterpart. As Daniel’s parents. Rafael and Mari, Carlos Gomez and Lisa Vidal are sensational, and the heat between them is palpable. David Del Rio is funny as MC Cubano, or Mateo, as he looks grateful when his father makes him a do-it-yourself recording studio. As Vanessa, Michelle Veintimilla is greatly talented, but it’s as if she’s first told to be a stooge and then is told to show intelligence. She’s a good character but inconsistent, though not the fault of the actress. As Lewis, Noa’s handler, Dan Bucatinksy can clearly act but his character is too soft and doesn’t show any teeth. The result is that while the show has many light moments, it doesn’t have the gravity it sometimes needs.
Hello, Nathalie Kelley and Belissa Escobedo! You can easily star in films on your own. Both do a great job in this ensemble, and the parents know how to bring a great sense of family to the screen. The music and the feel are amazing. This show for sure deserved a second season. Alush and Sela make sparks fly, and Saada packs one hell of a wallop on the comedy side. But the big difference is the masterful performance of Ivanir. He gives the show the grit it needs, as well as the sass to balance the humor and lovey-dove moments. To truly feel the tension, you need the possibility of failure and that’s always present with Ivanir’s perfect performance. With a little icing, “Lehiyot Ita” takes the cake.
‘B’nei Aruba’ (ISR) (available on Amazon) vs. ‘Hostages’ (USA) (available on Amazon)
Directed by Omri Givon and Rotem Shamir: A female surgeon is blackmailed into messing up surgery on her country’s leader in order to prevent her and her family from being harmed by masked men. Though expected to be quick, a number of complications arise, leaving a mother and doctor with an impossible choice.
Ayelet Zurer is on the money as Dr. Yael Dannon. While she’s freaking out on the outside, on the inside she is staying calm. Her daughter, Noa by Dar Zuzovsky, uses her beauty and her brains to try to get out of the situation, and she may have a secret she’s been hiding from her parents. Her brother, Assaf, played by the excellent Yoav Rotman, tries to use his Internet knowledge to get him a leg up. As the leader of the hostage takers, Jonah Lotan is menacing, methodical, and also has some heart as Adam Rubin. The result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller where you can’t wait to see if Dannon can outsmart Rubin. Tomer Capone does a solid job but is a bit underutilized as a hostage-taker who wants everyone to get out alive while a sub-plot between Alex and Ella (Miki Leon and Hilla Vidor) is a waste of time, even though both actors are on point with their sick attraction to danger as well as each other. I watched the whole first season in one day. The one flaw is the backstory with the prime minister is a bit hard to believe.
Toni Collette is an incredible actress, and you should watch her unbelievable performance in “Hereditary.” Unfortunately, in her role as Dr. Ellen Sanders—well, if you were to play a drinking game where you have to sip a cup of a libation every time Collette makes an absurd face as if she is trying to frighten a child, you’ll be drunk by the end of the first episode. As the villain, Duncan, Dylan McDermott is slightly better than average but never really scary. Tate Donovan, who plays the husband, Brian, is generally a good actor. For some reason, he is not credible in any scene. When he gets shot, he makes the same noise one would make if someone bumped into them in the hallway.
The show’s writers make very little effort. For example, when Sandrine (Sandrine Holt) a baddie who comes looking for the teens at their school asks a staffer if they know where Morgan and Jake are, he doesn’t know. What? Are there only five kids at the high school? Granted, Morgan and Jake are not the most common names, but I’m sure there are a few—why would you assume a random worker at the school knows them? It gets better. Sandrine apparently checks all airport footage in five seconds and sees it’s a bust, and then is surprised that she can’t bribe a bus worker $400 to show her all the footage at a bus depot. He asks if she’s a cop; she says she isn’t. She walks away.
The actors who play the kids—Quinn Shephard and Mateus Ward—aren’t good enough to be understudies at a high school production of “Macbeth.” Of course, they easily use a sharp metal object to carve out chips to put in their backs because all high school kids know how to do this! Rhys Coiro, who plays Kramer, is amazing on “Entourage,” where he is a quirky filmmaker. There is one great scene where he explodes and beats up a number of high school drug-dealers, and the rest are too scared to fight. But somehow, Brian, the father of the house, is able to knock him out with a lacrosse stick. Sure! Last but not least, the great doctor, working on saving her husband, is going to answer the door when he has to tell her to change her clothes. Oh, I thought everyone answers the door with a bloody shirt …
“Bnei Aruba” is a fire-starter of a show, and Zurer and Lotan represent a great match of protagonist and antagonist in this thriller. As for “Hostages,” I’d only recommend watching it if you were taken hostage yourself, and it was one of the bad people’s demands. (Even then, I’d ask for a blindfold.) “Bnei Aruba” will have you as a captive audience.
‘Hatufim’ or ‘Prisoners of War’ (ISR), (available on Apple TV+) vs. ‘Homeland’ (USA) (available on Showtime, Hulu and Amazon)
Written and directed by Gideon Raff: Three Israeli soldiers are taken captive/two American soldiers are taken captive. Mostly held in Syria, two Israeli soldiers return after 17 years/one American soldier returns after eight years. In debriefing questions arise as to why they were released and where their loyalties really rest, as they grapple with nightmares and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As the two returning soldiers Uri Zach and Nimrod Klein, Ishai Golan and Yoram Toledano are out of this world. Golan nails the role of a sweet introspective guy trying to see if his woman really still loves him, and Toledano is on target as a man who has violent flashes and doesn’t seem to appreciate that his wife loves him. Torture isn’t a science, one of them explains as we see flashbacks of beatings, electrodes to the testicles and mock executions. Toledano’s facial expressions convey tremendous guilt for something he’s not sure he’s done. As Amiel, Assi Cohen is more impressive in the second season. Yael Eitan is wonderful as Nimrod’s daughter Dana as a young woman looking for trouble who has no problem saying exactly what’s on her mind. As Haim, Gal Zaid seems like he is straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, while Sendi Bar, who plays Iris, is unimpressive. Adi Ezroni, who plays Yael is forgettable, though Yael Abecassis is sweet and strong as Talia Klein, a woman who waited for 17 years without cheating on her husband and wonders if she made a horrible choice in doing so. Yael Eitan gives a superstar performance as daughter Dana, who likes to make trouble and say whatever is on her mind.
Salim Daw is also quite interesting as Jamal as we can’t get our heads straight on what his motivation is.
This show makes you care about every single character. What it lacks is enough action sequences and gets out of the gate slow with too long a debriefing, which becomes repetitive. It hits its stride mid-season with the second season better than the first.
This show took a rather weak relationship in the Israeli show and punched it up in a big way with Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, the intelligence man overseeing the smart but at times reckless Carrie Matheson, played by Claire Danes. Saul is an iconic character, thanks to Patinkin. After one terrible terrorist attack, he says the Kaddish in Hebrew. In one scene at a Lebanese airport, they tell him he’s a Jew; he says he’s an American. Of course, he outsmarts them and though they think they’ve confiscated crucial evidence, he has it, after all. Matheson suspects that the villainous Abu Nazir could have planted Sgt. Nicholas Brody, who is given a warm welcome home and even considered for political office. The scene in the bunker, where Brody’s daughter Dana, played with proper teen angst by Morgan Saylor, is one of the show’s most powerful moments. There’s a crazy scene involving a code for a pacemaker in another episode. Extremely creative. Damian Lewis is captivating as Brody (how he can do a regular American accent so well I’ll never know), and Morena Baccarin holds her own as his wife, Jessica.
The show has an overabundance of great action, but its character development is mainly on Saul and Brody. Carrie uses her body too much; she tries to kiss Saul, she is said to have broken up the marriage of their boss Estes, and she sleeps with Brody. It’s a bit much. So is her subplot of needing medication due to a mental issue. It’s not needed, as the show is interesting enough as it is.
If you haven’t seen “Hatufim,” go watch it now. Both shows have superb acting with “Hatufim” offering more variety. “Homeland” has a cleanup hitter that knocks it out of the park every time. Thanks to the power of Patinkin, it’s a close play at the plate, but “Homeland” is safe at home.
‘Kfulim’ or ‘False Flag’ (ISR) (Available on Hulu) vs. ‘Suspicion’ (UK) (Available on Apple TV+)
An Israeli television thriller drama series directed by Oded Ruskin: A group of Israelis said to have been working for the Mossad go to a hotel and get kidnapped while on a secret visit to Moscow. The footage is blurry, and they say they are innocent but don’t have good alibis. In the other, Mogul Katherine Newman’s son Leo has been reportedly kidnapped by five British citizens from a New York hotel, and the people claim they are innocent and don’t have knowledge of the kidnapping.
The Israelis all react differently to seeing their faces on TV. Ben (Ishai Golan) is calm and insists it’s a mistake, though we learn that he’s had an affair and lied to his wife. Natalie (Magi Azarzar) gets arrested on her wedding day and shreds documents, and we wonder if she is lying. Later, she cooperates with the police and gets shot. Asia (Ania Bukstein) almost makes a joke of it and loves the celebrity status of it all, though becomes worried when she realizes her younger brother is somehow involved. Sean Tilson (Angel Bonanni) finds out through a call on a plane and shaves his head and beard to avoid capture when departing. Emma Lippman (Orna Salinger) is scared and asks Ben what’s going on.
It’s clear off the bat this is a strong series. Bonanni turns himself easily from a hippie to an assassin type and is credible as a fearsome gun for hire. Buskstein is great in every scene and eventually understands that what’s taking place is no laughing matter. Golan gives his character a methodical neurosis that’s a slow burn, and Azarzar looks like she can fly off the handle at any moment. The actors all have good chemistry in a united confusion. There are twists and turns; it’s not a predictable show.
Though technically a British production, it is part in New York and part in London, and “stars” American actress Uma Thurman. This show surpassed my expectations. I thought it would be bad. It was terrible. (Worse than terrible; it was record-setting bad.) Thurman, an incredible actress, gets almost no screen time. Did she realize how awful it was and ask for her part to be sliced? Noah Emmerich, who plays Scott Anderson, is a great actor who showed his skills in “The Americans.” Here is he is given a cacophony of clichés and hasn’t the chance to be good. Kunal Nayyar and Georgina Campbell as Aadesh and Natalie give totally off-the-wall performances. There’s one cool fight scene. Tom Rhys Harries is mildly interesting as Eddie Walker and you can see there is some talent there.
The script is one of the worst ever. If you put the actors and writers of this show to a polygraph, they would all honestly say that this show is one of the worst ever … or they would fail it. The show could have pretty easily followed the formula of “Kfulim.” They barely did. One similar scene where a woman is shot is done so poorly that it’s laughable.
“Kfulim” has many great moments and shows effort. Its counterpart is a complete mess that is slightly comical, but not on purpose. “Suspicion” must raise the white flag as “Kfulim” is an obvious victor.
‘Kvodo’ (ISR) (Available on Amazon) vs. ‘Your Honor’ (USA) (Available on Showtime, Hulu, Amazon, other streamers)
A dark, gripping and morally complex drama directed by Ron Ninio and Shlomo Mashiach: A judge’s asthmatic son crashes his car into a young man about his age on a motorcycle and flees the scene. The judge ponders turning in his son, only to learn that he hit the son of a notorious and deadly crime boss. The judge faces a moral conundrum of having to decide whether to honor his duty to the law or his duty to protect his son.
Yoram Hattab is very strong as Judge Michal Alkobi who is a trusted good guy, flummoxed to learn what is son has done; he can’t wrap his head around it. Hattab provides a strong foundation for the show, and Hisham Suliman (who you may remember as “The Phantom” in “Fauda” is very convincing in his role as an Israeli soldier named Khaled. Erez Oved is disappointing as the son, Shay; he’s just not credible. Tom Hagi knows how to play scary and does so as Udi.
The show is easy to follow and is engaging but lacks some needed danger and tension. With a better actor in the role of the son, “Kvodo” would have been much stronger. Alma Dishi is likeable as Yael, a character searching for the truth, but it’s mainly on Hattab to do everything himself. He carries that weight to the finish line, but it’s not a sprint.
It might have been dayenu to have the super-powerful performance of Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame as Judge Michael Desiato. But Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg brings his whole bag of tricks to the role of a dangerous villain Jimmy Baxter, who can have someone killed in a second. A scene where the two verbally joust is masterful when talking about morality; the face-off of these two actors is one of the best things you’ll see on television. The judge’s son, Adam, is played by Hunter Doohan with thoughtful precision. The opening scene is decidedly tension-filled, and when Adam is reaching for his inhaler while he is driving, you will come close to plotzing. When Adam attempts mouth to mouth on the young man he has hit it is gruesome, but it is a bold choice that works. You immediately know this is a serious series. Isiah Whitlock Jr. has a lot of charm as the judge’s friend Charlie, and Benjamin Flores Jr. gives an impossibly great performance as Eugene, a boy whose brother is framed for the crime and must try to help lead his family. Carmen Ejogo is good but not great, as the judge’s love interest who wants to know what the truth is. The writing in the show is spectacular, and there are some great court scenes, which for some reason, the Israeli show doesn’t have.
“Kvodo” has some great moments. But the jury finds unanimously that “Your Honor” is the better show.
And that’s a wrap.
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