The issue of surrogate mothers has been dramatized many times, from the 1970 movie The Baby Maker to the Baby M case that inspired a big TV movie and a few movies currently available on whatever streaming service or satellite network you have.
Now there is a new Israeli series about the topic, A Body That Works, from Keshet, that is to run on Channel 12 on Monday nights (starting February 13, with episodes available after they run on the Keshet website).
It is well done, if somewhat soapy (based on the first three episodes released to the press), as it tells the story of a Tel Aviv couple with fertility issues who hire a surrogate to carry their child, and shows how this process affects everyone involved. It also aims to be a portrait of contemporary Israel, tackling issues of class and ethnicity.
For Israeli audiences, part of the draw will be that it stars a who’s who of top Israeli actors.
An all-star cast of Israeli actors
The upper-class couple, Elli, a book editor, and Ido, a lawyer, are played by Rotem Sela (who starred in the series Lihyot Ita, aka The Beauty and the Baker, but you will also recognize her from her Bank Discount commercials and because she hosts Ninja Israel) and Yehuda Levi (who was in the series Very Important Person and The Arbitrator, and became a celebrity and a heartthrob after starring in the movie Yossi & Jagger 20 years ago).
Lior Raz, the creator and star of Fauda, is cast against type as an arrogant star director trying to write his first book for Elli’s publishing house, who is humbled and upset by Elli’s criticism.
But while these are all big names here, the standout performance is by Gal Malka as Chen, a struggling single mom who can’t support her son as a telemarketer and chooses to become the couple’s surrogate. She is by turns assertive and vulnerable and is particularly good in scenes where she has to deal with the social welfare system when her long-absent ex wants custody of their child.
The conflicts that come up are unlikely to surprise anyone. When Elli and Chen find a crib in the street, the chic Elli, who dresses mostly in beige, imagines fixing it up with gray bedding for the baby, while Chen says she would prefer large, multicolored flowers. Chen chafes as Elli reminds her to take vitamins and eat healthy food. The surrogacy process puts predictable stress on Elli and Ido’s marriage, and if you have read the preceding paragraphs you can guess what extramarital flirtations will tempt them.
A Body That Works is best when it comes to an examination of the social and economic underpinnings of the surrogacy. Chen is clearly Mizrahi, and when the series starts, she and her son are living with her mean father (Moris Cohen), while Elli is Ashkenazi and Ido is from an ethnically mixed family.
But in Israel, even the privileged are not really so privileged in a system that squeezes the middle class mercilessly, and in order to come up with the money to pay Chen, the idealistic Ido is forced to close his independent law practice and join a large firm of predatory corporate lawyers.
Elli, Ido and Chen face criticism from acquaintances and family who feel there is something unnatural and wrong about their decisions.
The Hebrew title of the series is Guf Shlishi, which translates in English to Third Person. This seems to me both a catchier and more apt representation of what this series is about, but the creators may have wanted to avoid any association with the Paul Haggis movie released a decade ago, even though it had a very different plot.
A Body that Works, which was created by Shira Hadad, Dror Mishani (both of whom collaborated on the series Wisdom of the Crowd) and Shay Capon (Dumb), who also directed the series, may well turn out to be the next Israeli series that gets remade abroad, because it has a straightforward premise that people all around the world will be able to relate to.
Those who enjoy dramas of this sort will be drawn in by the attractive cast and the slick production, but others will find it too predictable.