As violence continues to unfold in Israel and Gaza, prompted by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and what appears to be a revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, we can add another minor cost to the conflict. Two U.S. television shows, FX’s “Tyrant” and USA’s “Dig,” both of which were shooting in Israel, have suspended filming and are considering whether to move elsewhere.
This is a small inconvenience, and it feels almost trivial to discuss it. But the impact of the present conflict on the entertainment industry highlights the logistical and creative challenges of U.S. television’s relationship with Israel.
Israel has played an increasingly important role in TV here, both as a backdrop and as a source of ideas for the industry, thanks in part to the influence of Jerusalem-born writer and producer Gideon Raff.
“Homeland,” the award-winning Showtime series about a CIA analyst and her terrorist lover, which was inspired by an Israeli drama, shot sequences in Tel Aviv before moving production to South Africa for its fourth season. Raff, who worked on both shows, has evangelized for the value of filming in Israel and set the pace himself. “Dig,” his new mini-series at the USA network shot its pilot in Jerusalem. “Tyrant,” FX’s series about a dictatorship in a fictional Middle Eastern country, which Raff also helped create, shut down production in Tel Aviv in recent days.
But shooting in Israel and telling stories set in that country pose creative challenges that go beyond logistics.
Film and television shows regularly recreate the locations where events are taking place, rather than shooting on location, to effects both good and ill. “Homeland,” for example, once staged a bombing in an interpretation of Farragut Square that looks nothing like the actual park in Washington. But using Israeli cities as stand-ins for other Middle Eastern countries is particularly touchy at a moment when mass culture often fails to represent the diversity of that region on many levels.
And even fantastical stories about Middle Eastern countries cannot evade politics.
“Dig” bills itself as a sort of mashup of foreign policy dramas and the Da Vinci Code. Jason Isaacs stars in the mini-series as an FBI agent who is assigned to the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem who finds himself drawn into a conspiracy thousands of years old when he begins to investigate the murder of an American citizen.
The showrunners were deliberately coy about that conspiracy, but the network provided critics with a few pages of the script and rolled a preview that offers some clues. At least some of the plot involves the birth of a red heifer, an animal that has ritual significance in Judaism and that some believe is a herald of the messiah’s return, which in turn will bring about the time to rebuild a prophesied Third Temple in Jerusalem.
The possible site of such a temple raises serious issues about the fate of two Muslim holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stand on the Temple Mount, once the site of the second Temple, and theoretically a site of the third.
“Dig” could move forward as if the modern history of the Temple Mount and attempts to preserve peace there despite the competing claims to the site do not exist. Or, like in Michael Chabon novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” the show could propose some sort of resolution to the stalemate. Chabon imagined a bombing of the Temple Mount by a coalition of a paramilitary Jewish organization and Christian Zionists in the American government.
Raff and his co-creator on “Dig,” Tim Kring, are staying mum about the direction the series will take for the moment, declining to answer questions about whether the show has Orthodox Jews as its villains in the name of preserving an element of surprise. Instead, Kring suggested, “there are enough villains in this to go around,” in the series, a maxim that could apply to the making of both pop culture and policy in the region.
“Our hearts go out to everyone in Israel and in Gaza over what’s happening right now and hopefully it will be resolved very soon,” Raff said at the end of the session.
Sadly, the prospect of swiftly ending either the current violence or the underlying issues that have so scarred the region seems remote. And as Hollywood’s relationship with Israel continues to grow, creators like Raff and his partners will have to figure out creative, logistical and ethical challenges of their own.