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Survivor Israel?! One might be forgiven for thinking Israelis have enough hurdles to overcome just getting through the day without a contrived reality show imposing new survival challenges upon them. Coping with the traffic and bureaucracy alone is enough to deserve a medal... not to mention such minor matters as IDF service, the continuous threat of war, and our existential struggle. But yes, someone decided that Israelis would be genuinely challenged by the brutal beaches of the Caribbean.
The first season of Survivor Israel, which began airing last week, is both impressive and strange. Impressive in that the quality of production is nearly on par with its American counterpart. Channel 10 hasn't bothered to alter the Survivor formula even one iota, from the music, to individual interviews, to the elimination ceremony - so the production team is not exactly in virgin territory. But even so, the range of angles the cameras capture, the quality of the challenges and the grandeur of the elimination cave leave little to be desired.
It's strange, though, because there are certain aspects to the unchanged franchise that you would have thought were thoroughly unsuited to Israeli contestants, but have turned out rather differently. For instance, it would have been reasonable to expect that any Israeli who had served time in the IDF would be able to perform the boy scout task of starting a fire. Not so. An entire team tried in vain for days on end. Basic training, it transpires, doesn't cover that kind of "fire." Similarly, sleeping out in the shetach ought not be remotely alien. Yet many of the contestants complained bitterly about their conditions and claimed to have never dealt with a similar challenge.
One young mother, who left her seven-month-old son, her job, and her father, newly diagnosed with cancer, to be part of the show, said she had been looking forward to the series because she'd be able to sleep through the night for once without tending to the baby. Given that the imported show has been on the air, complete with subtitles, for seven years already, it beggars belief that cold, wet nights on the sand were not what she had expected to encounter.
Evidently, though, plenty of Israelis have been watching the imports and were hungry to see how the local recruits fare. The ratings are impressive so far, and the producers were so confident they would be that they kept the time and date of the premiere a secret until the last moment to try to prevent other channels from sabotaging the show.
But will we sustain that interest in watching fellow Israelis "survive" brutal tropical island conditions? With so little to differentiate this show from the American version, one wonders. It would surely have benefited from at least some reflection of the nationality and/or religion of the contestants, apart from the language spoken. It's just a bit bizarre, for instance, to watch a group of Jews fight over and ecstatically celebrate an immunity idol.
In terms of casting, a more diverse group of people would also better reflect the Israel we live in today - very few immigrant faces can be found, apart from perhaps a couple of former Russians. And needless to say, the cast is entirely secular.
It wasn't particularly surprising either that nearly every single contestant is a perfect physical specimen. Is it coincidental that the bigger, bubbly Maya was the first person voted off?
Perhaps I'm being unfair in hoping for something distinctly Israeli in a show that is in essence a perfect imitation of a long-seasoned, hugely successful model. Should the contestants be expected to behave like commandos simply because they were raised in a militaristic society? Should they have to fry their chickens into shnitzels just to differentiate themselves? Maybe not.
Ultimately, I suppose we Israelis watch Survivor because we want to see how our fellow countrymen and women measure up on one of the world's most famous programs. Originality may be too much to hope for.
Survivor airs every Saturday night at 9 p.m. on Channel 10. Elimination rounds follow on Sunday night.
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