Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.

Subtitled entertainment – Language realism on TV

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As a person who often multitasks while “watching” television, I don’t always pay close attention to every moment of action. (That is, I hear all the dialogue but don’t always catch the visuals going with it.) Particularly with some of the dumber shows I watch, such as The Following or The Slap, this does not bother me much. I pay closer attention to shows I enjoy. But then there is a growing middle category: subtitled entertainment.

When I watch a foreign (non-English-language) film, I already know there will be subtitles, and I don’t watch something like that until I am ready to focus. But television is starting to introduce more and more subtitled content. In a sense it’s an era of language realism. In most films and TV of the past, we’d be treated to unrealistic and frankly stupid dialogue in which the actors (English speakers) adopted some kind of vaguely similar regional accent representing the place they were supposed to be from… and very little of the actual local language would appear.

Now, in a further change to content development – language is adding to the realism of many TV shows. The Americans probably leads the way, with a liberal mix of English and Russian. An article has even been written on how the writers decide when to use Russian. Hint: The choice comes down to authenticity. In The Americans, it makes perfect sense. Russians working within a Soviet institution in the United States are not going to speak to each other in English.

Another show where the blend makes perfect sense is the US version of The Bridge. It takes place on the US-Mexico border, and US police and working closely with Mexican police.

It has appeared more and more in various shows recently, such as Allegiance and The Blacklist. Interesting, it appears in shows in which the plot involves a lot of international intrigue. No big surprise. Language realism also appears in shows like Jane the Virgin, in which the grandmother speaks exclusively in Spanish, but understands English perfectly. She always speaks Spanish with her daughter, Xiomara, and granddaughter, Jane, but they almost always answer her in English.

The same kind of mix has appeared in Netflix’s Lilyhammer. An American organized criminal, exiled in witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway, navigates Norwegian language and society – the longer the show goes on, the more it’s conducted in Norwegian, mirroring the main character’s “integration” (which never quite happens fully).

These are all one-hour dramas, and somehow the language realism feels more expected in that setting. But it’s also happening more and more in the half-hour sitcom format, which feels strange in that I can’t imagine people having the attention span required to read the screen. But strangely – they do. The best example of this I can come up with is Welcome to Sweden, in which a fairly typical American guy moves to Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend. His comical trials feature prominently – often in Swedish (particularly interactions with his in-laws). I did not even think about it when I recommended it to someone who only speaks English. He was going to watch it using my Swedish Netflix account, which did not offer subtitles in English.

It seems remarkable that as foreign language is receiving less emphasis than ever in US schools, language and culture diversity is appearing in a bigger way than ever on America’s TV shows. And it has jumped from just the occasional bit of Spanish, which has arguably been the most common second language on US TV, to reflect a slightly wider range of language diversity.

Lunchtable TV talk – Allegiance

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One of the latest in network TV’s scrambling to copycat critical hits, Allegiance, exactly as one article says, is a dumbed-down version of The Americans – which is, conversely, one of the smartest shows on TV.

Luckily Allegiance has been cancelled:

“NBC said “nyet” to Allegiance late last week, pulling the dumbed-down version of The Americans from its lineup and effectively canceling the Thursday-night drama. It was a tough blow for the show’s producers and its roughly 6 million viewers, but at least their suffering is over.”

I cannot really even explain how unappealing this show has been. Hope Davis is a better actress than this show can allow. The eldest daughter in the family, Margarita Levieva, is likewise better. She keeps turning up in roles and on shows that seem beneath her. She needs to land somewhere that will let her be more than a supporting player to see if she can hack it. Giancarlo Esposito has appeared in the last couple of episodes as the ultimate villain – and he’s always fun to see, but even he can’t save this urgent mess.

The only other point I wanted to make about this show is that it is nice to see an Asian man in a semi-leading role that is not in any way a stereotype. Kenneth Choi, who has also been seen recently in Sons of Anarchy as a more stereotypical Asian-man character, the leader of a Chinese gang – plays Sam Luttrell, the New York CIA station chief. He’s no-nonsense and like any other character. Race does not really come into question – and maybe in a show like this it doesn’t. It’s more in shows like The Walking Dead or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that stereotypes come up and people begin questioning the roles. Glenn, one of the long-time survivors in The Walking Dead, ends up not only as a badass fighter but also is in love with Maggie, a fairly religious southern (white) woman. Plenty of discussion has swirled around his role, especially early on. But these days, a lot more talk focuses on Dong, the GED student with whom Kimmy Schmidt gets involved on the Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It pokes fun at some of the awkward racial issues – sometimes in juvenile ways. But it also features an Asian immigrant male as a romantic lead rather than as the butt of every tired joke or at the heart of every stereotypical role. For this reason, I can appreciate Allegiance’s use of Choi.

Otherwise, glad to see that Allegiance is not coming back.