If you’re a big fan of “Shtisel,” you’ve probably seen the photos and videos — in which the secular actors don religious garb and stoke the insatiable appetite of the international fans who turned the sleeper series into a global phenomenon — for the upcoming season 3 on social media.
But until they release new episodes, we’ve got space in our Israeli TV schedule for “Stockholm” and “Commandments,” both available via Amazon Prime on a paid streaming service called Topic. I’ve screened one episode of each.
Released in 2018, “Stockholm” (four episodes) is a dark comedy about four friends in their late 60s who discover that their friend and Nobel Prize contender Avishai (played by Israeli pop legend Gidi Gov) has died. They decide to hold off on reporting the death until the prize nomination is announced five days later.
(Side note: For those craving a bissel of “Shtisel,” the show includes Doval’e Glickman, who plays Shulem Shtisel, and Sasson Gabai, who plays Nuchem Shtisel — both beardless.)
While keeping Avishai’s death secret, the friends also navigate challenges in their own lives. For example, in the first episode, Zohara deals with the aftermath of her confrontation with a 90-something Holocaust survivor who touched her inappropriately. The moment was captured on video and went viral; Zohara tries to correct the story, but public sympathy is with the survivor.
Evoking elements of “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “The Big Chill,” the 42-minute episode brilliantly balances the grief of the loss with the wackiness of the caper and the serrated honesty of dialogue between old friends who know each other, perhaps too well. All of the sexagenarians have their own secrets, even secrets they are keeping from other members of their close-knit group.
And while the titular Stockholm refers to the location of the Nobel Prize committee, it also invokes the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives (the friends) develop apparently irrational feelings for their captors (the situation and their deceased pal).
Striking an entirely different note is “Commandments,” with 16 episodes over two seasons. Each episode is about 40 minutes, and two episodes were featured in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2018.
Season 1 focuses on two young men’s army stories: Amram, a mezuzah thief who boards an army bus fleeing his pursuers, and Yaacov, a haredi man joining the army against the wishes of his ultra-Orthodox family.
In Israel, the show was titled “Kippat Barzel,” the term used for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, but which can be literally translated as Iron Kippah (alluding to the show’s setting in a religious unit of the army).
There’s conflict with “the seculars,” as the religious platoon takes the brunt of the bullying until Amram steps up on their behalf, repeatedly. He adapts easily to the army and can talk his way out of most situations. In one case, to avoid a strenuous trek, he invents a Jewish holiday, the 13th of Sivan, which he claims marks the defeat of the Philistines. Whether his fabrication fails or not, it reinforces the group’s appreciation of him.
In some moments, the collision of comedic moments with more serious gun-toting missions creates a kind of “Stripes”–meets–“Shtisel” feel. There’s the platoon commander sneering at unruly recruits who line up incorrectly, “They didn’t teach you to count in shul?” And then there’s the soldiers panicking when the base alarm goes off, only until it’s discovered that the platoon rabbi set it off because there were women in the haredi section. One of those women remarks on the religious soldiers as they run past, “They look like a bunch of gefilte fish.” (Note: That’s the subtitle translation from the episode; the trailer has it as “they look like fish out of water,” which lends a different meaning.)
It’s worth noting that both Amram and Yaacov, despite their religious upbringing, seem to flirt quite adeptly with the women on base. This seems unlikely for Yaacov, who lacks Amram’s people skills and conversational playfulness.
After only one episode, a lot remained unclear for me, such as what is Yaacov’s reason for enlisting and what are the circumstances behind Amram’s mezuzah theft and escape?
Because the series opens with the religious brigade in the field on a mission, we know that it isn’t a straight comedy. Beyond the hijinks are serious stakes with life-and-death ramifications. And because the series profiles the men in a religious platoon, there is a well-established overall tension they face: Who is their commander, the leader of their unit or the Ultimate Commander, God?