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(photo credit: Nathan Burstein)
Ben-Gurion Airport's Hangar 2 frequently sounded like a small sports stadium Saturday night, as the friends and families of the three remaining contestants of HaShagrir (The Ambassador) gathered for the taping of the reality show's final episode. "We don't boo," a producer told the audience during an early break in the show, urging supporters of the three finalists to focus their energies on simply cheering for their favorite.
To the producer's relief, the opposing portions of the audience quickly complied, applauding enthusiastically - or at least graciously - when Melody Sucharewicz, a 26-year-old graduate student at Tel Aviv University, was finally named the most promising potential diplomat by the show's panel of judges, who split 2-to-1 in naming the German-born contestant their pick for a year of overseas Israel advocacy.
Left in her wake were Efrat Oppenheimer, the 22-year-old "baby" of the show, and Nimrod Friedberg, a 25-year-old political science and public relations student who successfully revamped his own image in the show's concluding episodes.
The 11 contestants eliminated earlier in the series were also all on hand for the show's big finale - a "live broadcast" actually recorded half an hour in advance in a colorfully lit El Al hangar. The pre-taping atmosphere in the show's greenroom - actually a sparsely furnished office at the back of the hangar - felt like something between a high school reunion and beauty pageant, with make-up artists attending to the three finalists as their former rivals milled around and casually chatted about their experiences. Some, of course, had made a greater impression than others, but all looked more or less satisfied to be present simply as onlookers during the big final announcement. And all of them appeared more relaxed than the three remaining competitors, who concentrated mostly on their hair and short conversations with show staffers as the clock counted down. "If I finish this drink," one finalist said, pushing away a cup of coffee and trying to break the tension, "I'll be pissing all night."
Nature didn't appear to call during the show's final taping, though a producer at one point did remind the audience to shut off cell phones while the cameras were rolling. The live audience saw little of the pre-recorded segments of Hashagrir's final episode, which featured the three finalists speaking to United Nations staffers in New York City and being interviewed on 24-hour US cable news channel MSNBC by anchor Rita Cosby. Seated across from Cosby, Friedberg advised the newswoman to call him "Nimi" - a suggestion prompted by her double-take at the less-than-flattering meaning associated with his biblical first name.
But as either Nimrod or Nimi, Friedberg performed well during the early parts of the finale, triumphing over Sucharewicz and Oppenheimer in a student vote following contestants' speeches at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center. One of the more polarizing figures earlier in the series, Friedberg convincingly repaired his somewhat Machiavellian image as Hashagrir wound down, showing a sense of humility that had been missing earlier in the season.
He was outclassed, however, by his final two female rivals, widely considered the true contenders before the series' last episode. On one side was Oppenheimer, who had started the show as a na ve 21-year-old and ended up outlasting all but one of her more senior competitors as the show progressed. Matching t-shirts worn to the taping by Oppenheimer's friends and family emphasized that age should not be the deciding issue, and that their woman's background as a Seeds of Peace activist made her a fitting symbol of Israeli diplomacy and co-existence.
After a final commercial break - and with the judges' votes split 1-to-1 between the two remaining contestants - the cameras zeroed in on Gil Regev, the former IDF general and air force pilot who joined Channel 2 news reporter Rina Matzliach and senior United Jewish Communities official Nahman Shai in casting the only votes that really mattered.
Well? After three months of knowledge quizzes, practice PR campaigns and other TV-friendly contests, top honors went to the ever-composed Sucharewicz, who shook all three judges' hands before walking around the panelists' table to hug and kiss Matzliach. A woman would make a better choice to serve as the series' next "ambassador," said Eytan Schwartz, winner of Hashagrir's first season, in an interview taped in the hangar at the start of the finale.
Sucharewicz will attempt to prove him right during five six-week stints doing Israel advocacy around the globe for Israel at Heart, the US-based organization that helped inspire the show. In addition to New York, Sucharewicz will spend the next year in Brazil, Russia, Australia, and one other "surprise" location, arguing Israel's case and seeking to win additional support among the public overseas.
Widely discussed in its first season, Hashagrir earned somewhat less impressive ratings in its second season and appears unlikely to return for a third. But though it occasionally resorted to the cattiness and manipulative editing of other reality shows, the series nevertheless provoked by asking difficult questions both about Israeli policy and about how the country should be presented abroad. With a woman now also running the foreign ministry, Sucharewicz's victory poses interesting ideas about who speaks best on Israel's behalf.