Fiery drama, fond farewells and fatigued physicians

Rama Burshtein-Shai, one of Israel’s most interesting and successful movie directors and her first television series, Fire Dance, just started showing on Sunday nights.

 ‘FIRE DANCE’ (photo credit: Shlomo Gerber/Yes)
(photo credit: Shlomo Gerber/Yes)

Rama Burshtein-Shai is one of Israel’s most interesting and successful movie directors and her first television series, Fire Dance, from Yes Studios, just started showing on Sunday nights on Yes TV Drama at 9 p.m., as well as on Yes VOD and StingTV. Burshtein-Shai studied at the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television and later became ultra-Orthodox. Her two feature films, Fill the Void (which won the Ophir Award for Best Picture as well as awards from the Venice International Film Festival and many other festivals around the world) and The Wedding Plan both dealt with issues of love and marriage in the haredi world. Burshtein, with her sensitivity and her talent for getting exceptional performances from her actors, has become a kind of Jane Austen of the religious community.

The series is also set in this world and focuses on an ultra-Orthodox sect in Tiberias (a nice change from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak) whose leader is ill and who passes away early in the first episode. This affects the community in various ways and the series focuses on one troubled young woman, Feigi, who is played very effectively by newcomer Mia Iwryn. She has severe vision problems and lives with her unstable and abusive mother (Noa Koler).

In spite of her limited vision, she works in a special textile workshop set up by Natan (Yehuda Levi, who won the Best Actor Award at the Series Mania competition in France for this role),  the rabbi’s older son. Natan is married with a child and another one on the way, but Feigi has developed a great passion for him that she knows is wrong but which she cannot shake. At 18, she is technically an adult but she has been ground down by life with her mother and her crush on Natan is very much a crazy, adolescent longing, which drives her, in the opening minutes of the show, to a bizarre suicide attempt.

THE SERIES follows Feigi as she starts helping out at Natan’s home and learns that his wife is pregnant, which makes her love for him seem that much more forbidden. At the same time, Natan and his brother, Srulik (Ido Bartal), are jockeying for position in the wake of their father’s death.

As the older son, Natan would be the obvious candidate but he has a reputation of getting too close to the women in their community, which makes him unsuitable. He is described as the “women’s rabbi,” a term used with contempt but he is also known for being more liberal when it comes to issues affecting women, which inspires loyalty among the female members of the community. He counsels women, including Feigi, in conversations in which his wife is present but as her pregnancy progresses and she needs to rest, he continues to insist on speaking to women, a decision that his brother says is likely to cause a scandal.

The cast is very strong and Levi is especially good. We have to understand why Feigi loves him so deeply and Levi just has that magic, movie-star charisma that has been with him throughout his career, starting with Yossi & Jagger, the 2002 movie in which he convincingly played a soldier nicknamed Jagger because his fellow soldiers considered him a rock star.

Based on the first three episodes that were released to the press, the series is deeply dramatic, almost operatic, as well as highly cinematic, with beautiful cinematography and carefully composed tableaux. It is much more similar in tone to Burshtein’s first film, Fill the Void, than to her second, The Wedding Plan, which is a kind of romantic comedy.

It is slower paced than many series but for audiences who can remember the intensity of hopeless teenage crushes, their patience will be rewarded. The series goes back and forth between two time periods that span about two years and occasionally the shifts are jarring. But Burshtein-Shai builds suspense into the story and viewers will be eager for the next episode.

Another series from yes Studios, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a lavish period drama about a Jerusalem family spanning much of the early 20th century, will become available on Netflix around the world starting on May 20, in many countries including the US, England, France and Spain. In Israel, it is shown on Yes TV Drama and it will begin shooting its second season soon.

TWO VERY popular Netflix series are releasing their final episodes on April 29: Ozark and Grace and Frankie. Ozark released the first part of its fourth and last season in January and it continued in its dark and darker vein as it chronicled the misadventures of a middle-class family that becomes embroiled in laundering money for a drug cartel.

By the end of those episodes, I had the feeling that the series was only for die-hard fans and had become too violent and too improbable for casual viewers.

I have higher hopes for the end of Grace and Frankie, which released the first part of its seventh season last August.

The series premise is brilliant – two very different women bond with each other when it turns out that their husbands, who run a law firm together, are leaving them to marry each other – and it stars four of America’s best and, it turns out, funniest actors:  Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Other than Tomlin, they have rarely had such a chance to play comedy so intensively before and it turns out that they are very good at it. 

This is a series that challenges stereotypes about the elderly in very creative ways and has fun doing it. It has always bogged down a little when it comes to the main characters’ children, who are clearly meant to bring in younger viewers but are lackluster compared to the main quartet. It will be hard to say goodbye to these characters, particularly Fonda and Tomlin, who have a great rapport, so here’s hoping that the series gives them the send-off they deserve.

If you are interested in seeing a show about what a doctor’s life is really like, tune into This is Going to Hurt on Hot HBO on Thursdays at 9:15 p.m. and on Yes Binge and Yes VOD. It is not for the squeamish, but it is a very realistic and often disheartening look at Adam (Ben Wishaw), a junior doctor and it is based on Adam Kay’s book of the same name. 

The series takes place in 2006 and is set in England but it is a universal story of a deeply diseased medical system around the world that exploits younger doctors, which causes them great suffering and also contributes to compromising the quality of patient care.

Adam works in the OB/GYN ward of a busy hospital and labors nightmarishly long shifts, leading him to make poor decisions due to sleep deprivation. 

In a moment that many doctors will recognize, the series opens as Adam wakes up in his car, where he fell asleep in the parking lot of the hospital as soon as his shift ended and never made it home. His fatigue affects his personal life, which consists of occasional moments with his boyfriend and he often feels humiliated by the attending physician (Alex Jennings, who played the Duke of Windsor on The Crown) who is his supervisor. 

I have several close friends who are doctors and I watched them experience all of this when they did their internships and residencies and every moment of this series feels authentic. Even the catchphrases Adam repeats – such as “See one, do one, teach one,” when he is instructing an intern – are exactly as I heard them from my friends years ago. It is not an easy series to watch, but it offers insight into why everything that happens in hospitals seems to be more complicated and stressful than it needs to be.