haMisdar HaMisrad, the Israeli version of the BBC and NBC television series, The Office, came to New York City this week for the Other Israel Film Festival. Having just finished its first season on an Israeli cable station, YES, and prepping for its second season, the Israeli version stayed true to the first three episodes of the 2001 BBC series, and then made its own storyline path. Avi Meshulam is the Office Manager, a character made infamous by Ricky Gervais in the UK and Steve Carell in the US. The Office also has licensed shows in France, Russia, Germany, Chile, China, Brazil, and Canada.
The Israeli version of the show includes the office manager and a love interest between the receptionist and the good guy paper salesperson, but its exaggerated stereotypes include a Russian who speaks in cryptic half sentences, a gay Arab salesperson (the actor sometimes arrived late to the set due to checkpoint delays), an Ethiopian (the most normal of the office staff), a haredi Jewish woman who might be perpetually pregnant, a Romanian, and a gung-ho, super-patriotic assistant office manager (or actually, assistant TO the office manager) who says he served in an elite secret IDF unit. HaMisrad is set in the Scranton of Israel, the town of Yehud. Because it is on cable, the script can include material that is much more offensive and rude, yet funny.
Dvir Bendak’s Avi Meshulam character is played in the middle road between the Gervais and Carell office managers. He is not as mean and spiteful as Gervais’s David Brent, and he has the social neediness, vulberability, need to be funny and loved sick lovability of Carell’s Michael Scott. Avi carries the luggage of social rejection, and his perceived failure that comes from not being picked for a combat role in the Army.
Uzi Weil, the sole writer of the Israeli series, spoke about the show after Episodes One and Four were shown at the Other Israel film festival. He purposely did not watch any of the American shows after Episode Three of Season One, to be sure not to be influenced by the American story line. While the BBC version was a satire and the American version is a parody, the characters in the Israeli version must be magnified and exaggerated for the comedy to work. Episode 4 is “very Israeli” and includes references Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Avi’s father at China Farm during the Yom Kippur War, reserve duty, The Secret, and the bookkeeper’s suspicious fear over what Abed, the Arab salesperson, might be saying on the phone in Arabic. Weil thought one of the big differences between the American and Israeli versions was that in the American version, the characters and viewers are embarrassed by the things they say. This is rare in Israel, where people just blurt out what they think in general, and feel no embarrassment. The comedy therefore cannot be based on the humor that derives from political correctness, but is based on the events that occur after the rude, sexist or racist comment is made. I found that Weil, a writer for some episodes of Israel’s “In Treatment,” includes deeper back stories that help viewers understand why the characters might behave the way they do at work.
The Other Israel film festival continues with more films, panels, and talkbacks this week in New York City. I can’t wait to see what happens next.