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REVIEW: Prisoners of War (Hatufim, Season 1, 2010) April 28, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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Israel is young and small country, which, until recently wasn’t much of a player in international television business arena. Recently, Israel joined the ranks of United Kingdom and Nordic countries among major non-American contributors to the Golden Age of Television. The most successful and best known title of them all was BeTipul, drama about professional and private life of a psychotherapist, remade in USA as In Therapy, and later under different titles in many other countries. The other, similarly successful show is Prisoners of War (“Hatufim” in original Hebrew, meaning “captives”), which was remade in three different countries (Russia, India, USA), best known as Homeland in American version.

The show had relatively few remakes, because it deals with a subject which is thankfully rare among other countries – long, drawn-out low intensity conflict that provide opportunity for its basic premise. In case of Israel there are plenty of situations for the fate that have befallen its three protagonists. In 1991 Nimrod Klein (played by Yoram Toledano), Uri Zach (played by Ishai Golan) and Amiel Ben-Horin (played by Assi Cohen) were three Israel Defence Force reservists captured during the botched raid against militants in Lebanon. The show begins 17 years later, after long and painful negotiations resulting in prisoner exchange. However, only two of three prisoners return; the third had died long time ago. The plot shows how Nimrod and Uri try to adapt to their new life and reconnect with their friends and loved ones while dealing with unimaginable traumas that have suffered during captivity. They soon realise that their families have been captives too and dealt with such captivity in different ways – Nimrod’s wife Talia (played by Yael Abelcassis) remained dutiful and faithful, while Uri’s fiancée Nurit (played by Mili Avital) gave up the waiting and sought comfort in marriage to Uri’s brother Yaki (played by Mickey Leon); Amiel’s sister Yael (played by Adi Ezroni) simply refuses to believe that her brother is dead and clings to the visions of him inhabiting her house. While all that happens, IDF psychologist Haim Cohen (played by Gal Zaid) sees certain discrepancies and similar disturbing details in Nimrod’s and Uri’s testimonies and becomes convinced that two of them hide something and that they might even endanger national security.

The show was created by Gideon Raff, who would later create Homeland. He found inspiration in his own experience of living in two countries – Israel and USA – and  discovered that after each long absence Israel looked increasingly foreign to him. The inevitable comparisons between those two shows indicate strikingly different approach. Unlike its American counterpart, which is firmly set in the realm of espionage thriller genre, the Israeli original functions as “pure” drama. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the traumatic past and the complicated present in that part of the world. Unlike USA, where 9-11 and Iraq War slowly fade from memory, Israel is still burdened with bloody past and often reminded of a precariousness of its geopolitical, demographic and military situation. One of such reminders is a concept of obligatory universal military service, today quite alien to American (and most of the Western) audience; in Israel it is a fact of life and it actually plays part of the plot dealing with Nimrod’s grown children – his rebellious daughter Dana (played by Yael Eitan) is serving, while her younger brother Hatsav (played by Guy Selnik) is increasingly uncomfortable with a prospect of being drafted and risk of repeating father’s predicament. Prisoners of War is best when it deals with those unpleasant but understandable dilemmas.

Both shows, at least in their first season, use plot of over-zealous intelligence/security officials doubting the returned captives’ loyalty and drop hints and red herrings about former captives turned into moles. In Homeland that was the basis of the plot, and the show explored it as high-concept spy thriller would. In Prisoners of War it is a mere subplot, and works as almost apocryphal distraction from Uri’s and Nimrod’s quests to deal with their new and strange present and their unpleasant past.

The Israeli show couldn’t expect big budget of its American counterpart, but is ascetic simplicity – use of interiors and rather banal and unattractive locations – works in its favour. Its main asset is in fascinating characters and skillful actors (among whom Mili Avital is arguably the best known among non-Israeli audience) that easily help the show in crossing linguistic and cultural barriers. The only thing that deflates otherwise excellent impression of this show is annoyingly predictable cliffhanger at the very end, indicating Season 2 much closer to Hollywood than real life.

RATING: 8/10