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How does Israeli TV translate to U.S. audiences? Very well

'Homeland' and 'Who's Still Standing?' are among the shows that began life as Hebrew-language series. And more — with a few tweaks for American viewers — are on the way.

January 02, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

Israelis have long been obsessed with American television, which in recent years has led to some unexpected consequences. "We all grew up watching American television," said "Pillars of Smoke's" Stollman, whose show has been compared to "Twin Peaks." "And I think what a lot of us did was reflect that back, maybe through a slightly off-kilter lens."

It's one of several theories cited to explain the surging popularity of Israeli shows in Hollywood. 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.

"When you don't have a lot of money, you find more interesting and clever ways to write a script," said Daniel Lappin, the creator of "Life Isn't Everything," a sitcom about a divorced couple that can't get out of each other's lives that ran for nine seasons in Israel. Lappin — who like Raff and Stollman, also spent some of his formative years in the U.S. — is working with "Friends" writer Mike Sikowitz on the CBS version of "Life."

American executives, who for years looked to more established territories for imports, say they've felt a certain kinship with Middle East creators.

"God bless those Israelis," said NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, whose network has "Still Standing" and "Pillars of Smoke." "They've somehow done a great job of finding things that translate well."

Those who work on the Israeli shows say politics is not an issue, despite the country finding itself in the headlines frequently over any number of charged issues. "I went to Turkey recently to work on a local adaptation of an Israeli show," said Armoza. "And when we're in there, it's not about politics or prejudice. It's just 200 people in a studio trying to make good entertainment."

Cultural differences between the Middle East and Hollywood, though, are another matter.

When 20th Century Fox Television was developing "Traffic Light," based on the Israeli slacker comedy "Ramzor," they insisted on changing a key element, according to Keren Shachar, an executive with the Israeli broadcaster Keshet, which developed and sold the show.

"In the Israeli version, the main character was a real loser, but [the Hollywood executives] said we can't have a loser as a main character in prime time," she said. The show was pulled after barely a dozen episodes in the U.S., prompting Shachar to add, "Would the show have been a hit if we kept the character a loser? I think it would have.'"

As with any bubble, though, rapid growth can be dangerous. Already, the creative atmosphere in Israel may be threatened by visions of American money. "I hear executives talk about development in a different way now," said Raff. "I even hear writers saying it. People will say, 'Yes, it's good. But can it sell to the States?'"

Batsheva Sobelman contributed to this report.

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