Irresistible and over-the-top

As the 2nd season of 'Telenovela Ba'am' comes to an end, Nathan Burstein appreciates the finer points of Israel's favorite soap opera.

telenovela 88 298 (photo credit: )
telenovela 88 298
(photo credit: )
With its sober acting and high-minded political message, Steven Spielberg's Munich is not intended to make audiences laugh. But Israeli soap opera fans might have suppressed a giggle during one of the film's most pivotal scenes, in which Golda Meir assembles her top advisers to discuss possible responses to a major terrorist attack. There's nothing funny about the scene itself, but if an inappropriate chuckle did slip out here or there, soap opera fans should be forgiven. There's just something comical about seeing such a deathly serious performance by Israeli actor Sharon Alexander, who plays General Nadev in the movie and is so exquisitely over the top each night in Telenovela Ba'am, the 120-episode soap opera ending its second run on HOT 3 next week. While the first airing of the one-season series concluded last year, Telenovela attracted a whole new set of fans during its six-month second run. An addictive confection of outlandish storylines and extravagant overacting, the show shares just enough in common with reality to keep its viewers hooked. Alexander's character, for example, a television producer named Naftali Ungar, colorfully embodies the show's penchant for genre-bending outrageousness and disguised social commentary. As nominal head of the Ungar household, Naftali has long chafed at the dismissive attitude of his wife and kids, and at being pushed around by colleagues at the soap opera he produces. That all changed, however, when Naftali developed an alter-ego named Jack - who, like any good alter-ego, has turned out to be wildly diabolical. Under the influence of Jack, the Ungar family patriarch has restored order to his home and professional life. There have certainly been casualties along the way - above all Dr. Lipnik, Naftali's murdered psychiatrist - but there have been upsides as well, like soaring ratings for the soap opera-within-the-soap opera and the renewed erotic vigor of the sexually uninhibited Jack. (Nitza Ungar's pleasure in her husband's new bedroom repertoire is cut short, unfortunately, when she discovers Naftali's split personality and is subsequently held captive by his deranged alter-ego.) Elsewhere on the series, Shon Lev, a cast member on Naftali's soap opera, is caught at the center of a rather awkward love triangle involving Niv Eldar and his sister Shira (Uri Omanuti and Melanie Peres), both of whom hope to spend the future with the tough guy actor. Played as a relatively normal, conflicted person by Ran Shachar, Shon - short from Shimshon - wavers miserably for most of the series between his attraction to Niv and the fear he'll be disowned if he doesn't marry Niv's jealous younger sister. While drawn out for maximum suspense, the love triangle storyline is also the most political of the show's myriad storylines, lecturing viewers through Niv on homophobia and tolerance. Outside the love triangle, Shira's gotten involved in another storyline with a political subtext. Diego, a former co-patient of Shira's roommate at the local mental hospital - don't ask - recently broke out of confinement to search for Pilar, the sister he lost after arriving in Israel. Pilar has been located by the series' final episodes, with the Mexican brother and sister joining forces with Shira to get back the money stolen from Pilar by Benny Kaiserman (Guy Loyal), the manipulative PR agent behind Naftali Ungar's soap opera. Diego and Pilar may have arrived in Israel as Mexican tourists, but the creeping vulnerability and desperation of their situation may make them stand-ins for Israel's foreign workers, whose lack of Hebrew and complicated legal status make them frequent targets of exploitation. Played to comic effect elsewhere in Telenovela has been the transformation of Sarit (Rotem Avuhav), who's gone from frecha to polished fashionista over the course of the series. A uniquely Israeli My Fair Lady-style metamorphosis, Sarit's makeover is overseen by Niv, who teaches her how to dress and avoid the airheaded mannerisms often associated with lower class Mizrahi women. Based on exaggerated stereotypes that are both sexist and derogatory about Mizrahi culture, the storyline would be offensive if it didn't also caricature the group most likely to look down on Sarit. In one of the show's funnier bits of social commentary, the character fails to understand the list of qualities Niv cites as proof he's gay. "I get it, I get it," Sarit tells him impatiently. "You're from northern Tel Aviv." As Telenovela moves towards its conclusion, the dominant storyline is also the show's most conventional. For weeks, the terminally inarticulate Kfir (Ofer Schechter) has shifted uncertainly between TV star Danah (Yael Bar Zohar) and Rana'ana (Tali Sharon), a former flame who still has a hold on him. Clingy and a bit dim, Danah is pregnant, furious and issuing all kinds of threats against her former fiance - who, it suddenly and conveniently appears, may not be the father of her child after all. It's all a bit - well, entirely - overdramatic, but for months on end that's been the pleasure of each night's installment. Balancing the nonsense with occasional hints of social insight, Telenovela is trashy and ridiculous and impossible not to take seriously. It will be sorely missed.