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(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Israelis don't do embarrassment well," says writer Uzi Weill, amid translating and composing the new local version of the international smash television hit The Office.
Anyone who's ever seen or even heard of the show knows that embarrassment and plain humiliation fill nearly every awkward minute of the program. Audiences of all nationalities shudder through the scenarios - set within a dreary office supply company - with hands being thrust in front of faces at least once during each half-hour show.
So will the Israeli Super Office, as it is to be named, feel different if the embarrassment factor is missing? But it won't be missing, says Weill, who's been working on the project for six months and has just completed the first episode - scheduled to air next April on Yes.
"Israelis don't get easily embarrassed. They do the most horrible things without a smidgen of embarrassment," he allows. So Weill plans to raise the stakes. "The embarrassment has to be more [visible] onscreen. Where the British viewer would know the situation is horrible, you have to show Israelis that they have to be embarrassed about normal things they do."
Negotiations for this new edition have been ongoing between the Israeli production company July August and BBC Worldwide for the past year, and the deal was finalized about two weeks ago. This will be the sixth international version of the original British show, with Canada, Chile, Russia, Germany and the United States all producing series of their own.
The first 12 episodes of the planned 15 will essentially be a translation and interpretation of the British show, which ran for two seasons, and after these the scripts will run into new territory. Weill, who is currently the sole writer, says he is an emphatic fan of the series - and especially the British version.
"[Writer and director] Ricky Gervais is a genius," he gushes, "even if he does say so himself. Many times. You just wonder, 'Are you real?' He really knows how to talk about burning issues in a way that will make you laugh and cringe; it's amazing."
Sensitive issues such as race, physical disabilities and sexism are as much a part of the show as the pervasive discomfort on the office floor - serious subjects that Weill has dealt with in his previous shows, such as Betipul and Hahamishia Hakamerit - a show he worked on with Eitan Tzur, who is to direct the new Office.
Although Weill has utilized difficult social issues in the past, he says it's not part of the Israeli tradition. "It's a rocky climb because it's not something Israelis like to deal with. It's hard to approach subjects like racism or men and women - all the subjects that you can do comedy and tragedy with. Somehow, Israeli TV drama would always go to banal romantic stories or banal heroic stories or try to see how we do get along, because we're all people, after all."
Weill says that he's conscious of the responsibility he has in portraying ethnicity and nationality, in particular. For example, in the first episode of the British Office, boss David Brent introduces a new employee to a Pakistani staff member, Sanj, who viewers are told does a good Ali G impersonation. When Sanj tells Brent he doesn't, Brent realizes he's mistaken him for a different Pakistani employee and innocently replies: "Sorry, it's not you, it's the other one."
This mortifying moment plummets further as Sanj responds: "The other what? Paki?"
As the pair's eyes dart around the room painfully, Brent, now hinting at his uneasiness, fails to concede his blunder and instead unconvincingly rebukes: "That's racist," before moving on - self-respect somehow intact.
PART OF the challenge, explains Weill, is translating minorities. "There are Jewish and Arab minorities, which is a tricky thing. If he's [the Pakistani] translated into an Arab person, some of the viewers might say 'So? He's not really Israeli, he's not really Jewish.'"
Although he was afraid to approach what he calls a "danger zone," Weill resolved to make the character Arab, but was meticulous in setting up the Brent character - called Avi Meshulam in Super Office - for a hard fall. "I did make him an Arab person, but I did the insult in a way that it would feel crude, and the looking down upon is so obvious that the Israeli viewer would be embarrassed - not so much for the fact that we're embarrassing an Arab, but that you feel bad for this person. He's [Meshulam] trying to be a nice racist, which you can't be, so he tricks himself."
Because the show's storylines will follow the British version for the most part of the first series, both Weill and Eilon Ratzkovsky, CEO of July August Productions, intend to communicate an Israeli atmosphere through the characters. "It's a show about people," says Ratzkovsky. "There will be a variety of characters you can only find in Israel."
Although Meshulam will mimic the Brent character to an extent, Weill intends to make him "more sleazy, but more loveable."
"We can't do the boss as Ricky Gervais does it because there is only one [Gervais]. It's got to be different and it's got to be something an Israeli actor can do," Weill explains. "If we make him loveable, we can go very far with how sleazy and horrible he can be, because the Israeli viewer wouldn't accept someone who was just a bad person, an insufferable misogynist; they wouldn't want to watch him."
But the show doesn't simply revolve around Meshulam, Weill and Ratzkovsky emphasize: It's an ensemble piece. Although the duo are looking to cast a well-known actor to play the boss, all the other actors will be unknowns. The pair will attend and oversee auditions beginning next month, and the cast is to be finalized by June.
Many of the characters will be familiar to viewers who watched the British and American shows, but several new roles have already been created, and more are being brainstormed for the Israeli series. Audiences can look forward to watching, and no doubt adoring, an Arab warehouse manager, a haredi saleswoman and a bitter Russian accountant, who will all appear in the first season.
Petah Tikva was chosen as the setting for the series for its unexceptional nature. "It's the right place because it's very Israeli on one hand, but it's not very famous, on the other," says Ratzkovsky.
"It's the most medium of all Israeli towns," explains Weill. "The whole of Israel is embodied in Petah Tikva. It's so 'every town' that a meteor could strike it and blow it out of existence and nobody would even notice."
Weill and Ratzkovsky hope to replicate the success of the British and American shows in particular. The cocreator of the original show, Gervais, spoke in true, wry, Gervais style, of his excitement and anticipation for the Israeli show to the Guardian: "I am thrilled and amazed that Israel is making The Office with local writers, directors and actors. I mean, who ever heard of Jewish entertainers?"