Keeping it light with new homegrown comedy series

TV time in Israeli culture

 ‘THE OLDEST TRICK in the Book.’ (photo credit: KAN 11)
‘THE OLDEST TRICK in the Book.’
(photo credit: KAN 11)

Kan 11 has built quite a reputation in recent years for turning out series that are as successful in Israel as they are abroad, among them Zero Hour, Valley of Tears, Dismissed and Tehran. So expectations are high these days when the government broadcaster releases a new show.

While its latest series, The Oldest Trick in the Book (the Hebrew title is Aviram Katz) is not quite as distinctive as any of these other series, it is an enjoyable, comic-mystery series with a literary background. The series, which is premiering on Kan 11 on January 22 at 9:15 p.m. and will continue running on Sundays and Tuesdays, and then will be posted on their website.

The series, which features a cast that is a who’s who of Israeli acting talent, is based on a book by Asher Kravitz. It focuses on Aviram (Yehezkel Lazarov), a suspense novelist living in Jerusalem who hasn’t published a book in several years, although his early works were enough to earn him a modest degree of literary celebrity. He lives alone and tries to recapture the magic of his first books but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it anymore. He often snacks or sleeps when he is supposed to be working and he is close to being broke.

The plot gets going when his neighbor, a doctor named Victor Guetta (Sasson Gabay), tells Aviram he has written several stories he would like him to read. Aviram normally hates these kinds of requests but reluctantly agrees. It turns out that Guetta, a genial dog owner, is a hidden literary genius and that the stories are beyond brilliant.

Just as he reads them, an editor calls him as if on cue, telling him she would love to publish a story from him in serial form and offering him a great deal of money for them. His solution, of course, is to change Guetta’s stories just enough so he can pass them off as his own. But what might seem like the perfect literary crime turns out to be more complicated than Katz anticipated, especially after he is implicated in a crime himself, and convinces the detectives investigating it that they need his help to solve the case.

TV to keep an eye out for

TO TELL more what be to reveal the often comic twists of the series. In addition to Lazarov (The Fifth Heaven, The World is Funny) and Gabay (who starred in The Band’s Visit both on screen and in its Broadway adaptation), The Oldest Trick in the Book includes performances by Yaniv Biton (Tel Aviv on Fire), Joy Rieger (Image of Victory, The Other Story), Gila Almagor (the reigning grand dame of Israeli cinema), Ala Dakka (Fauda) and Shai Avivi (Here We Are, One Week and a Day). The series was created by Eitan Tzur (Asylum City) and Dana Modan (Significant Other), who also acts on the show.

While it’s not earth-shaking, watching this desperate writer try to pull off this scam is a nice escape from the turmoil in the headlines lately.

If you are looking for intelligent, light entertainment these days, you might want to try Abbott Elementary, the multiple award-winning series that is available on Disney+. It is a comedy set in an underfunded elementary school in a mostly minority neighborhood in Philadelphia and the main characters are the teachers, and is done in a mockumentary format as if someone were making a documentary about the school.

It has the vibe of such genial office dramas as Parks and Recreation and was created by and stars Quinta Brunson. She plays Janine, an idealistic, highly motivated and sometimes inadvertently inept elementary school teacher, who gets no guidance from the principal, Ava (Janelle James), a self-absorbed social media addict.

As it details the obstacles they face in trying to teach their pupils the basics, the series strays into social commentary but somehow, almost miraculously, avoids becoming preachy. The gem in this series is Sheryl Lee Ralph as veteran teacher Barbara Howard, the maternal but demanding teacher we all dreamed of having and wish our kids could have. As various education consultants come in bringing new methods of teaching reading that involve programs, tablets and lots of jargon, she sticks to the methods that have served her well for 30 years and every time she is on screen, you root for her and hope she will stick around.

Netflix has recently added a number of Israeli movies, including some modern classics, most of which can be viewed with English subtitles. Among these very enjoyable movies – which should put the perception that Israeli movies are no more than left-wing rants once and for all – are Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, a 2007 dramedy about an Egyptian police band that gets stuck in a Negev town and must spend the night there. It stars Sasson Gabay and Ronit Elkabetz, in of her most wonderful performances, and inspired the Tony award-winning Broadway musical.

Other titles worth watching are the two feature films by Rama Burshtein, the Sam Spiegel Film School-trained ultra-Orthodox director, The Wedding Plan, an engaging comedy starring Noa Koler, and Fill the Void, a drama about loss and love with Hadas Yaron.