Can an American reality TV series, in which US doctors are thrust into the sociologically complex, perplexing and life-and-death situations of a fast-paced Jerusalem hospital, become the next Survivor?
Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and creator and producer of classic sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond Phil Rosenthal sure think so.
The 49-year-old Rosenthal and his wife Monica Horan, who played the role of Amy Barone on the long-lived comedy series, arrived in Israel Wednesday to scope out Shaare Zedek Hospital, the site for the new series. They're also holding discussions with the Israeli team in charge of production for the show, which is slated to run on the Sundance Channel in the US in 2011.
"Steven Spielberg had asked me to think about a series set in Israel," Rosenthal told The Jerusalem Post while visiting the hospital. "I guess if he called me, he was thinking about a comedy. But I honestly couldn't think of anything that would attract an American audience with the subject being Israel."
A long-time supporter of Shaare Zedek, Rosenthal began to think about the hospital as a focus of a series and came up with the reality show concept.
"Even though it's not my field [reality TV], I like to think that a good idea is a good idea, whether it's a restaurant, TV show, drama or comedy. Plus business is not so good, so you have to diversify," he laughed.
"The idea is to take a small group of American doctors and bring them to this hot spot in the world. Shaare Zedek is one of the busiest hospitals in Jerusalem, and it's a kind of fascinating situation where you have Arab doctors working next to Jewish doctors, patients of all kinds as well, and you have to check your religion at the door.
"The ideology is that we're only here to help people. It's a microcosm for how it can be, how it should be."
Rosenthal added that the hook for American viewers is the exchange program, where American doctors would come to work alongside Israeli doctors and learn the ins and outs of both the pressure-filled emergency treatment that the Israelis have excelled in due to terror attacks, and the multifaceted social intricacies taking place amongst the Jewish, Christian and Arab populace at the hospital.
According to the series' local producer, Zafrir Kochanovsky of TTV Productions, it's that fish-out-of-water syndrome that will attract the viewers.
"This measure of culture shock, on both the professional and sociological level, will explore an additional side of Jerusalem, combining perspectives of veteran Israelis and Jerusalemites with the innocence of these outsiders," said Kochanovksy, a TV veteran whose hit series Merhak Negia (Touching Distance) was bought last year for adaptation by the American TV network HBO.
"We have no idea what we're going to find, but I imagine that stories will beget stories," said Rosenthal. "A patient will come with an interesting life and we'll follow them for a while. You never know, and it's fun, if I can say fun, to see how Americans are going to do here - not just in the business of the hospital, but socially - who are they going to live with and what's their daily life going to be like?"
Rosenthal said that he preferred the concept of a reality show over a fictionalized series or a documentary to tell the story about the social tapestry of Jerusalem, because there wouldn't be any danger of "doctoring" the message to fit a pre-conceived vision.
"To me it was important that it would be a reality show and not a documentary," he said. "So there is no hidden agenda, this is how it is, we are not presenting our views.
"If it's fictional, then you're editorializing. We aren't editorializing, and we're letting the situations speak for themselves."
Rosenthal and Kochanovsky are going to discuss logistics of the series this week, including casting. "We have to find doctors in both countries who are interesting that you would want to follow around," said Rosenthal, who added that the reality show might not be the only Israel-related series he's going to work on.
After coming up with a blank slate for a comedy idea about Israel, Rosenthal hinted that we might just get our very own Everybody Loves Raymond. "I'm already talking to Zafrir about other projects too, including a sitcom that I've now had an idea for, for Israeli television."