The second season of “Homeland” came to a literally explosive end on Showtime in December, but the second season of “Prisoners of War,” Israel’s drama on which it’s based, has just begun here in the U.S., with Hulu rolling out new episodes every Tuesday. Indiewire caught up with series creator Gideon Raff, who also serves as an executive producer on “Homeland,” at Hulu’s press day last month to ask him a few questions about the two diverging series — including, with “Prisoners of War” the highest rated drama in the country, what Israelis think about the Emmy-winning Claire Danes and Damian Lewis-led American adaptation.
“People love it — they really do,” said Raff. “The Israelis, as Israelis do, are very upfront. I walk down the street and one person will be like ‘Oh my god, ‘Homeland’ is so much better than ‘Prisoners of War’!’ and another person would be like “‘Prisoners of War’ is much deeper than ‘Homeland.'” He’s not that worried about competition between the two: “I think they’re different enough to enjoy both shows. ‘Homeland’ you can enjoy a lot more as a straight thriller — at the end of each episode you’re closer to knowing if Brody’s a terrorist or not. The Israeli show is more of an emotional journey, a dramatic exploration of these characters.”
Raff and “Homeland” co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were conscious from the start that the two series would take different routes and approaches to particular national resonances. In Israel, Raff pointed out, “prisoners of war are a raw nerve, a very sensitive subject.”
That’s not really the case in the U.S., he continued, “but the idea of coming back from war and our not knowing if a guy’s been turned or not is very appealing to Americans — it’s a theme Americans have been dealing with from ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ to ‘Sommersby.’ So we took these elements from ‘Prisoners of War’ and shifted them to fit the American psyche.”
One of those shifts, which Raff said he didn’t originate, was to make the character played in “Homeland” by Claire Danes more prominent and to have her grappling with bipolar disorder. “I think for the first time on American television you have a lead character that you don’t know if you can believe or not. That’s really an interesting experience, and it fits the zeitgeist in terms of, okay, we went to two wars and we’re not sure we believe the government and in why we went to the war.”
While the second season of “Homeland” introduced twists and turns involving double agency and doomed romance, the second season “Prisoners of War” focuses on the POW left behind when the show’s two leads were returned and reintegrated into Israeli society, upping the suspense element by looking to the other side of the border, to Lebanon.
It’s a direction that’s clearly grounded in an Israeli setting, and that specificity is something that Raff sees as part of the reason Israel television is so interesting. It’s also attracting a lot of Hollywood interest at the moment, with HBO, CBS, NBC and other networks all having projects based on Israeli series in development over the last few years. Raff’s aware that he’s played a part in that.
“There were some formats that had been adapted before, but the success of ‘Prisoners of War’ and the success of ‘Homeland’ have really opened the gates. Now people are very curious about what’s coming out of Israel. Before it was, “Okay, ‘In Treatment’ is a very highly acclaimed show, but how many people watched it?’ Now you can’t write two words in Hebrew without somebody grabbing it and saying, ‘Can this be a format?’ It’s weird.”
Raff is pleased with the attention the television industry in his home country is getting, but he pointed out that there’s also a potential downside. “It’s dangerous, just in the sense that I think part of the success of the Israeli formats is because they’re very local and true to Israel. ‘Prisoners of War,’ even though it found a big audience, is really a very local show about a very local experience. The danger is that Israeli creators will now try to fit what the American audience would love.”