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(photo credit: Eldad Refaeli )
Watching Keshet's new Channel 2 series Polishuk, a viewer may not know whether to laugh or cry. The guffaws will come naturally from witnessing the bumbling travails of hapless new Minister for Advancing Social Affairs Ruby Polishuk trying to survive in the jungle of the Israeli government, and the tears may surface at the realization of just how close to home the comedy may target our political system.
Appearing on Sunday and Monday evenings, the fast-paced satirical comedy finds Polishuk, played splendidly puzzled by Sasson Gabai (The Band's Visit), rising from his status as a well-meaning but largely incompetent back-bench MK for the fictitious National Liberal Center party to his ministerial appointment following the arrest of the current minister on suspicions of pedophilia. That premise alone indicates that any topic is fair game to the show's creator, writer and director Shmuel Hasfari.
Best known for his work in theater, Hasfari is no stranger to controversy, having aligned himself with left-wing political causes and demonstrations ever since, as an IDF soldier, he refused to serve in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. Polishuk, however, plays no favorites, choosing to skewer any politician or issue on the national spectrum that dares to cross its path.
Hasfari had done some previous work in television, including writing for the classic comedy skit show The Cameri Five, but it's his plays like Kiddush, Shivaa, Hamets, Acordioni, Tashmad and The Master of the House that have established his name and reputation as a major talent - which prompted Keshet to contact him about developing Polishuk. According to Hasfari, he grudgingly agreed to take on the project.
"At first, I wasn't too interested, but after doing some research, I thought it was a show that needed to be done, so I signed on," he said.
Left to his own devices, Hasfari settled on the dynamic, dialogue-heavy format that has personified Polishuk in its first episodes. But surprisingly, rather than pointing to an obvious antecedent as an inspiration - the classic British series Yes, Prime Minister - Hasfari found the basis of what he was looking for in another British comedy: The Thick of It.
"There's nothing similar between Polishuk and Yes, Prime Minister. For years in Israel, there were attempts to create an Israeli version, but it just \doesn't translate for Israeli politics. They don't sweat there like we do here," said Hasfari.
However, The Thick of It, the lively BBC series which satirizes the inner workings of modern British government and highlights the struggles between the media spin doctors against civil servants, provided Hasfari with the notion of how Polishuk could work.
"It definitely had an influence on my decision to do the show. When I saw a couple episodes, I couldn't understand the English at all - it was all very modern and full of slang. But there was something in the pace and delivery that I realized was right for Polishuk," he said.
Another aspect that fell into place for the show was the casting of veteran journalist and TV pundit Amnon Dankner in the role of Justice Minister Humi Schalit, the tough leader of Polishuk's party. Schalit, along with his sharp-tongued media adviser Kozo Avital, played by Guy Loel, see Polishuk as a mindless temporary ministerial appointment until Katz's legal problems are solved. Every attempt they make to keep him out of the media spotlight where his shortcomings will be exposed are met with abject failure, frustration, and ultimately, hilarity.
"I needed someone to play the role of Humi Schalit who would be believable as a strong-willed, charismatic type that could be the head of a party and bring in others on his ticket by virtue of his own power," said Hasfari.
"When we were talking about casting the part, I kept hearing, 'We need someone like Dankner.' Then I read that he was stepping down from Ma'ariv so I called him, and he agreed to do it right away. There's been all kinds of speculation that he's imitating Tommy Lapid, but there's no connection at all between Lapid and Dankner's role."
BUT EVEN if you ignore the physical similarities between the two and Dankner's vocal inflections that recall Lapid, there's another link between Dankner's all-powerful, dominant Israeli leader and real political icons like Lapid that scares Hasfari, and should worry any viewer of the show - the plausibility that they can sweep in MKs on their lists whom the public knows little or nothing about.
"It certainly frightens me that there are likely several Polishuks in the Knesset," said Hasfari. "It's all part of the problem of our electoral system here. All you need is a strong, charismatic leader like Ariel Sharon, or Rafael Eitan or Lapid, and you can bring in another 10 or 12 MKs on your coattails who are totally unknown. Does anyone really know who the Shas MKs are?... Out of the 120 MKs, there are probably 50 Polishuks, but probably not as nice as him."
It's Polishuk's likability, despite a generous touch of vanity, that places the minister in the good guys' camp, especially when pitted against the string-pulling puppeteer team of Schalit and Avital. In his corner, Polishuk garners the loyalty of his scrappy media adviser Tkuma Sharabani (played by Shiri Gadni) and his head of staff Solly Barzel (played by Hasfari's wife Hanna Azoulai Hasfari).
In a scene any Israeli can relate to, Polishuk and Barzel met in the show's second episode when, while being interviewed live on Army Radio on a subject he knew nothing about, the minister fender-bended the car in front of him, driven by Barzel.
The snappy dialogue on the show is the result of extensive research conducted by Hasfari within the corridors - and the alleyways - of power.
"I talked to people who surround the ministers and MKs - like drivers and secretaries and aides. On a show like this, the dialogue, besides being 'harif,' has to be precise and to the point. There's no time for nonsense. So, if you took a full day in a minister's life and reduced it to five minutes of highlights, I think it's pretty accurately reflected in our show," said Hasfari.
Even with his character flaws, Polishuk, in Hasfari's eyes, is a heroic figure, the Everyman trying to do the right thing when faced with situations in which "the right thing" is generally only what's most politically expedient.
"Polishuk is going to survive everyone. Someone on the show even calls him Poli-juk [roach], because even if there's a nuclear bomb, he's going to survive," said Hasfari.
With the series now only in its second week, Hasfari has already begun receiving accolades for his accurate, if exaggerated, portrayal of government life.
"I've heard from a lot of past MKs who are all enthusiastic about the show. Of course, everyone is sure that it's not about them."