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John Doyle: Israel’s latest TV sensation Fauda is a great thriller

Shows originating in Israel have had some impact in recent years. The drama B'Tipul was recreated as the HBO drama In Treatment and, famously, Hatufim was rebooted to become Homeland, and we've been witnessing Claire Danes as Carrie go on and off her meds while chasing terrorists and spies ever since.

The latest sensation from Israeli TV just arrived in its original form on Netflix. It's a doozy of a political action thriller, a grabber from the get-go, and wildly compelling.

Fauda (now streaming on Netflix) is it and it is anchored squarely in the authentic complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The series is a gritty but not sensationalistic depiction of a team of Israeli undercover operatives trying to capture Abu Ahmed, a notorious (and fictional) Hamas terrorist. (The word fauda is Arabic for "chaos" and the series is in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.)

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In Israel the series has been acclaimed for its realism and attacked for what is perceived as sympathy for its Hamas characters.

In the opening episodes we are in slow-burning, conventional thriller territory. The undercover squad kidnaps a man from a mosque and he's interrogated. The team want to know who is behind a recent series of attacks. When the man reluctantly gives the name Abu Ahmed, there is scorn. That guy is already dead, it is believed. He was shot dead and there was a funeral.

Of course, he's alive and the officer who killed him, Doron (Lior Raz, who is terrific), now retired and making wine, is in disbelief. Very warily, he goes back to work to kill his old target, this time forever.

Thus we've got an orthodox thriller theme – the guy who has to go back to work, to killing, one last time. His wife is appalled; his old colleagues are respectful but afraid that he's over the hill. The undercover team has its familiar characters, including the brash young buccaneering officer who is impatient with the careful planning of operations. He doesn't want to be the lookout, he wants to lead the group and shoot first.

What ensues is well-crafted thriller action. There is a tip-off that Abu Ahmed (Hisham Suliman, who has the most demanding role in the series and is brilliant) will attend a family wedding. The undercover team plans to infiltrate it and kill him. He is, after all, believed to be responsible for the deaths of 116 Israelis. There is a nicely textured, tense build-up to the wedding scene and the attempted take down. Plenty of time is spent on the bride and groom and the family, giving the viewer an appreciation of, and compassion for, people who are caught in a situation not of their own making. A sweet young couple simply want to be married.

The wedding scene unfurls in an ever-ascending sense of high tension. The undercover team is well-prepared but even they have problems in the tiny, narrow alleyways and backstreets. There is nothing spectacular about the action – it is tense, tightly focused on this one job of finding and killing this one character.

In Israel, the series has been called more than a television series, but also "a political event" and it's easy to see why. The undercover unit members are trained in the culture and customs of Palestinians and are immersed in Palestinian life because they must pass as locals. They are so immersed at times that the obvious theme becomes the closeness between one side and the other. If it is easy to assume the identity of those perceived as the enemy, is it not also easy to sympathize?

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Leaving aside what larger themes can be extrapolated from Fauda, it is excellent entertainment. There is a hushed, intelligent quality to it and an acrid sense of pessimism. For all the nobility of the cause that both sides feel they are invested in, there are times when everything seems covered in sleaze. Lies are easily told, male rage triumphs over pragmatism and, in the end, there is always someone dead in a dreary room while, somewhere else, somebody is weeping quietly.

Airing Tuesday

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (Slice, 9 p.m.) returns and features a housewife named Dorit, whose houseguest is Boy George. That's an FYI, just in case you want to ponder the fleeting quality of fame and, too, the futility of even wondering why this series is in its seventh season.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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