Foreign films and television shows used to feel like homework, especially if they weren’t in English. But several years back, at the Israel film festival in New York City, I caught a few episodes of “Florentine,” a 1997 drama chronicling the lives of 20-somethings in Tel Aviv. It was youthful, diverse, energizing and relatable. While you can’t find “Florentine” on streaming services, Amazon now boasts “Srugim,” about Orthodox singles living in Jerusalem, and the romantic comedy “The Baker and the Beauty.” Netflix has brought audiences dramas like “Fauda,” “Hostages,” “Mossad 101” and “Shtisel” and, most recently, the intense “When Heroes Fly” and the wacky workplace comedy “Hashoter Hatov.”
Episodes of “Hashoter Hatov” — also the source material for the Netflix remake “The Good Cop” — are eminently munchable, and the show presents a collection of very Israeli, if caricatured, characters. Imagine “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” mixed with Larry David–style misanthropy, rendered in an Israeli accent. The opening, a loopy musical number in which the characters dance down the precinct’s hallway, sets the scene for this useful comedic balm; since most Israeli series now streaming focus on terrorism, spies and hostages, it’s nice to experience Israel’s lighter side. (Netflix: This is my official plea for more Israeli comedies — nu, how about those two seasons of the Israeli version of “The Office”? — on your streaming service in 2019.)
I laughed out loud through a viewing of episode 8, in which the team captures and takes turns guarding a wanted criminal who happens to be an escape artist, while main character Danny tries to bond with his odious father. (Learning that Moshe Ivgy, who plays the father, was recently indicted for sexual assault and harassment made his sexist, selfish, amoral character somewhat less entertaining for me — and now probably for you. You’re welcome.)
“When Heroes Fly” is an exploration of the trauma experienced by former Israel Defense Forces soldiers long after the tour of duty has been completed. The elevator pitch might be “Stand by Me” meets “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” meets “Narcos” meets “Lost.” And yet, it’s a deeply and uniquely Israeli depiction of how PTSD affects soldiers from different backgrounds. Four friends who survived an attack on their platoon suffer silently, each in his own way, without turning to their comrades for help. The show charts their progress, with each episode providing additional backstory (minor spoilers follow): One character was fine and functional for a few years before having a breakdown and ending his relationship with his girlfriend; another retreated into the family business and got cancer; a third suffered a crisis of faith; a fourth became an addict.
Netflix: This is my official plea for more Israeli comedies.
Fans of Israeli TV will see some of their favorite actors in “When Heroes Fly.” Michael Aloni, the gentle, artistic Akiva in “Shtisel,” plays the obnoxious playboy Dotan (called Himmler by his army mates because he’s fair-skinned). Tomer Kapon (“Dig,” “Fauda”) turns in another intense performance as Aviv. As Yael, Ninet Tayeb — fun fact: the winner of the first season of “Kochav Nolad” (Israel’s version of “American Idol”) — smolders with an almost feral energy. Oded Fehr shows up, honoring the Israeli roots of his Hollywood résumé (“The Mummy,” “Covert Affairs”). And Yael Sharoni (“Srugim,” “The Jews Are Coming”) reminds us all that she’s just as good dramatically as she is doing comedy.
The series tries to explain so much about its characters that when something goes unexplained, it feels like a narrative hole. Trying to get inside a character’s mind and motives in a story arc involving a cult leader is challenging; the threads of background don’t knit together in a way that explains anything. Still, the focus on different types of trauma — military loss, spousal loss, the loss of a child, a cancer diagnosis, addiction — conveys the message that the people around us, especially in a culture like Israel’s, may be carrying extremely heavy burdens, and it’s hard to share them if you don’t ask for help.
In Israeli television, the comedy is sharp-toothed, the drama tense and heartrending; for me, a person who is personally connected to Israel, the characters are familiar. Watching these shows doesn’t feel like homework: it’s more of an anthropological excursion, and an example of how a country’s cultural output can help us understand its people.