Borrowing television formats isn't new; some of our most successful franchises—"American Idol," "Survivor," "The Office," to name three—started in Europe. But with two shows hitting TV this year and another two in development, it's Israel that is fast becoming Hollywood's cheat sheet. "B'Tipul," a drama about a therapist and his demanding clientele, was adapted into HBO's critically acclaimed series "In Treatment." Premiering this fall on CBS is "The Ex List," which was adapted from the Israeli series "Mythological X." "List" is a romantic comedy about a woman who learns from a psychic that she has already dated—and broken up with—her soulmate, and if she can't narrow him down from her lengthy roster of suitors, she'll spend life as a spinster. It's no wonder Israel is such a close friend of the United States. To judge from their television shows, the Israelis are just as neurotic as we are.
But they're succeeding in Hollywood because they're also smart and inventive when it comes to writing television. In the United States, hundreds of pilots are pitched to TV networks each year; those are slowly pared down until a couple of dozen are produced, of which only a few make it on air. In Israel, limited budgets force networks to be more selective, choosing only the few best scripts and committing to them. Shows aren't informally pitched as they are here; a fully written pilot has to be presented for a show to be considered. So only the shows with the best concepts and writing make the cut. When "Mythological X" was brought to Israeli agent Arik Kneller by his client, writer Sigal Avin, he had a feeling it was right for America. "It's about falling in love, something everyone is interested in, so it's extremely relatable," says Kneller. But as relatable as they may be, Israeli shows still have to be tweaked to appeal to Americans. "Israel's stuff, understandably, has a lot of darkness to it," says Jonathan Levin, executive producer of "The Ex List." "It's wonderfully entertaining and funny, but theirs is a society with a lot of stress, and that does manifest itself in their entertainment, even in the comedies."
But the effort is worth it for another reason: Israeli shows are cheap. "Sigal Avin wrote and directed 11 episodes with a budget that we in America would consider less than shoestring," says Levin. "That's not the most important thing, but obviously if you can do a great show inexpensively, that's a great thing." The same goes for "B'Tipul," which was born out of a desire to create a compelling show using minimal resources. The episodes, which focus on a 30-minute therapy session, require only a set, a script and two or three actors. "In Treatment" premiered new episodes five days a week over nine weeks. "We're used to doing 12 or 13 episodes per season," says HBO executive Michael Lombardo. "The cost-effectiveness of the show is what enabled us to take on this huge commitment of 45 episodes."
The relatively low cost will allow U.S. networks to try out Israeli formats and give them space to find an audience. "In Treatment" premiered to sluggish numbers that would spell trouble for a pricier show. But it built steam by the end of the season, and performed well enough relative to its cost that HBO will launch a second season this fall.
Also forthcoming are adaptations of "Merhak Negia" ("A Touch Away"), a story of forbidden love between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a Russian immigrant, and "Loaded," an "Entourage"-like comedy about a quartet of dotcom millionaires. And as long as Israeli television shows combine high quality with low price tags, it doesn't take a psychic to predict that more television executives will be making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.