Grim ‘Unknowns,’ Seinfeld spotlight and dueling Britney documentaries

A new KAN crime drama, two documentaries about Britney Spears and Seinfeld are some of the new TV highlights.

 The gritty crime drama 'Unknowns.' (photo credit: KAN 11)
The gritty crime drama 'Unknowns.'
(photo credit: KAN 11)

KAN, the Israeli government broadcasting company, has had some huge hit series recently, including Valley of Tears, Tehran and Manayak, but its latest offering, Unknowns (in Hebrew, Alumim) is a gritty crime drama that is so grim it is difficult to watch. It is airing on Monday and Thursday nights on KAN 11 at 9:15 p.m. Following the broadcast, the episodes are available on the KAN website.

Based on the first three episodes that were released to the press, it is a sad and violent story of a high school for juvenile delinquents in Beit Shemesh where the students become suspects in a criminal investigation. A young woman is found wandering dazed and beaten in the woods and the police assume she was raped, although she is in shock and will not tell investigators what happened to her. The police detective (Yaniv Bitton) leading the investigation starts out suspecting a student of Ethiopian descent at the school who is a talented singer and has just been accepted to an army entertainment troupe. He will be the first of the school’s students, most of whom rarely show up, to serve in the army. But this singer seems like an angel compared to most of the school’s students. Menachem (Ofek Pesach, who gives a chilling performance) is particularly malevolent and he leads a small gang of students who sell drugs in and around the school. Osher (Amir Tessler), has a girlfriend who lives on a nearby kibbutz and hopes to join the army soon but struggles to cope with a drug addict mother and her Arab boyfriend. One teacher (Shani Cohen), who happens to be the detective’s wife, truly believes in her students and she is the only one they listen to. Added to the mix is Yaniv (Yehuda Levi), who has been convicted of running a binary options scam and has been sentenced to do his community service at the school.

Clearly, the show is meant to address the issue of marginalized youth in Israel, as well as the trauma that rape victims suffer and a couple of other issues that would involve revealing spoilers. The addition of Levi as a white-collar criminal underscores the fact that educated people who commit far more serious crimes tend to receive much more lenient punishments than these young offenders. The sentiments expressed are all laudable but that does not make for an entertaining drama. The story is told from multiple points of view and while I could feel sorry for many of the characters, I was not really that interested in them. 

THE CHARACTER most likely to awaken our sympathy is the teacher, who finds that the case her husband is working on evokes buried memories of trauma. Shani Cohen is a wonderful actress and when she performs in comedy, as she has on Wonderful Country (Eretz Nehederet) and other shows, she is lively and funny. As the wife of a police officer in Line in the Sand – this is her second recent outing as a cop’s wife – she was fine but very low key and in Unknowns, as she plays a pregnant, religious woman, she speaks tonelessly and barely moves her face, like a wax figure. Yaniv Bitton, who is also best known for comedy, such as Tel Aviv on Fire, is effective as a frustrated detective. All the young actors are superb.

Since the series follows the news, which covered the horrific murder of 17-year-old Lital Yael Melnick on the night the first episode aired, this dark tale was especially hard to watch, despite all the talent involved.

Seinfeld is back on Netflix and, of course, the show is great fun, in spite of the fact that a series with a laugh track now seems a bit dated. Looking back on it and thinking about what the cast has done since it ended, it does not seem surprising that Julia Louis-Dreyfus has had such great success in two subsequent series, The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veep. She was so quirky and appealing as Elaine and her kvetching has aged better than the guys. The great thing about having the series on Netflix now is that you can simply pick out your favorite episodes and watch them again. The whole Seinfeld concept and vibe is extremely Jewish, but among the more explicitly Jewish highlights of the series are all the shows featuring Jerry’s parents, Morty (Barney Martin) and Helen (Liz Sheridan), at their retirement community in Florida. My favorite of these is “The Pen” (episode three of the third season, which was written by Larry David), where Jerry compliments one of their friends on a pen and accepts it as a gift, which causes all hell to break loose. The two-part episode, “The Raincoats” (season five, episodes 18 and 19), features the storyline where Jerry and his girlfriend make out during a screening of Schindler’s List and get caught, of course.

The new Penn & Teller series has just become available on Cellcom TV. It was not released as a press preview, but they are consistently funny and brilliant magicians, comedians and commentators, so it should be good.

'Controlling Britney Spears' (credit: HOT 8)'Controlling Britney Spears' (credit: HOT 8)

I NEVER really wanted to see even one documentary about Britney Spears – reading articles about her sad situation was enough for me – but now there are two films about her on television this week. Controlling Britney Spears is showing on Yes VOD and Sting TV and on Hot 8 on October 8 at 10:20 p.m. and October 9 at 11:10 p.m. A second documentary, Britney vs. Spears is currently streaming on Netflix.

Britney Spears has been in the news recently because about a week ago, after a 13-year struggle, her father, Jamie Spears, was dismissed as the head of her conservatorship, an arrangement that allowed him complete control over her money, career and personal life. Controlling Britney Spears, produced by The New York Times, is a hard-hitting look at this bizarre, unjust situation. It seems shocking that a woman who was together enough to release albums and go on world tours was not allowed to choose her own lawyer, and equally shocking that someone who had a direct financial interest in pushing his daughter to record and perform would be given complete control of her money and career. Britney vs. Spears addresses the case as well but it is more of a full-fledged biopic. Both will leave you with the conviction – if you needed convincing – that being an international pop star as a teen or young person and supporting your entire family is not a recipe for mental health.

The high-water mark of pop-star tragedy documentaries is Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, about Whitney Houston, which is available in Israel at the Apple iTunes store. I can’t quite figure out how he pulled it off, but even though of course we all know about Houston’s fall from superstardom through the drug addiction that caused her death, this film is as riveting as a detective story as it reveals what and how her life became a tragedy.