Hidden Gems: Discovering the Political Thriller 'Fauda' on Netflix

Compelling, controversial, intriguing — the Israeli series has a tangle of elements that keep you hooked.
Courtesy of Netflix
Lior Raz stars as the leader of an undercover Israeli special forces unit in the Netflix series 'Fauda.'

Laughter or, really, any kind of humor is the last type of emotional expression you'd connect to Fauda, the Israeli political thriller that has become quite the worldwide sensation for Netflix. And yet, there I was, discovering Fauda as part of my Hidden Gems series and finding myself smiling and, at various turns, shaking my head and chuckling. It has nothing at all to do with the content of the action-packed and controversial series.

Nope, it has to do with the fact that series co-creator and star Lior Raz looks a little bit like — and gives off a very similar vibe to — Michael Chiklis and his Vic Mackey character from The Shield. For me, it was weirdly distracting even though I really like Fauda, an addictive, binge-ready thriller that barely leaves time to get distracted.

At several intervals while watching hours of this series, I contemplated a deep-dive comparison of the two characters — Chiklis' Mackey and Raz's Doron Kavillio — and how their bald, barrel-chested, adrenaline-fueled performances are wrapped around law-and-order characters with profound moral gray areas. Also I just couldn’t stop thinking about how Chiklis would obviously be the star of the American version of Fauda, if there ever is one.

There won't be. The streamer is wisely taking a new direction and opting for unrelated subject matter when it teams with the show's creators, Avi Issacharoff and Raz, for a new series, Hit and Run. The internal metrics at Netflix show that international audiences are drawn to Fauda even though it's mainly in Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles that demand acute attention as they fly by in taut, action-packed scenes. Not tampering with it or crafting an American version is the smart play.

But for American viewers already drowning in content options, particularly from Netflix, there's little impetus to sample a foreign-language series, which is part of the reason it took me so long to make time for Fauda, despite knowing plenty of people who loved it. 

It was a perfect candidate, then, for this Hidden Gems series.

Issacharoff, a journalist, and Raz, who served in an undercover Israeli special forces unit stationed in the Palestinian West Bank, used Raz's experience as the basis for the story. Raz plays central character Doron, who has left the stressful confines of the secret team and now makes wine peacefully in Israel with his wife and two kids. Of course he's lured back when the military find out that a terrorist who they thought was killed (by Doron) is very much alive and will be coming out of hiding to attend his brother's wedding. That's the conceit that kicks off the series, and it's not long before chaos — the meaning of the Arabic word fauda — ensues. 

The first season was a huge success for the Israeli series and captured a worldwide audience. The second season dropped on Netflix at the end of May, not just furthering the story but also deepening some of its perspectives on provocative issues. (As is essential to these Hidden Gems features, there will be no spoilers.)

The series was lauded as the first Israeli series to examine both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that includes more realistic, nuanced portrayals of Palestinians. Similar attempts had been made in a few non-Israeli series, most notably The Honorable Woman, from BBC and Sundance TV. But the fact that Fauda is an Israeli series trying to broaden Palestinians' onscreen representation — in part by using Palestinian actors — is a major advance. This is not without qualifications, of course, given that the story is told from the Israeli perspective, with that country's special forces trying to track down terrorists. For their part, the creators have steadfastly stated that while their intention was to make all the show's depictions as true and deep as possible, Fauda was always designed to be an Israeli-focused show.

Season two branches out to include an ISIS storyline and to explore the resulting friction inside Hamas — a level of granular observation that was both praised for deepening the focus on Palestinian issues and criticized (with some pointing out that ISIS isn't really a player in the West Bank). But at least it shows that Fauda is intent on covering as much ground as possible, which is laudable. (Netflix has already greenlighted a third season.)

There's been thoughtful criticism of the series on both sides. Rachel Shabi, author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews From Arab Lands, wrote pointedly of the series' shortcomings for The Guardian, focusing in particular on season two. Shabi makes unflattering comparisons to Homeland (the Showtime stalwart that was originally an Israeli series), and that's certainly a worry for Fauda — that it might go off the rails creatively (more on that later). 

Yasmeen Serhan, writing in The Atlantic in June on watching the show as a Palestinian, mostly praises the series. Serhan writes: "Viewers who are hungry for a Palestinian perspective on the conflict would do well to urge Netflix to commission a Palestinian-created series, because Fauda will probably prove a disappointment. Although it does better than most shows and movies at depicting certain facets of the conflict, like most shows it can’t accurately represent every perspective — a limitation that even its creators concede — and for that reason it sometimes had me yelling at the screen. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting or binge-worthy TV. When the third season drops on Netflix next year, I’ll be watching."

Clearly the nexus of Israel and Palestine makes Fauda a hot-button series, but it also makes it unique as a viewing experience for anyone outside the region. Tons of movies and TV series have tried to capture the tension of the Middle East, but most are from an American or British starting point. And none are as successful as Fauda in capturing the situation's inherent tension. Watching Fauda gives the viewer an up-close sense of how dangerous daily activities are, while at the same time illustrating the economic divide. The show is hardly a tourist-industry calling card for Israel, and that's part of what makes it so dramatically successful, in much the same way that the grimy, scary Mumbai portrayed in the first Indian drama for Netflix, Sacred Games, is a character in all its many forms (as New York has been for decades in movies and television).

Despite my Chiklis-Shield distraction as I watched Fauda, the series is extremely compelling, with intriguing twists and believable character development. At the same time, there are cliches that undercut the story; the bad decisions and rogue actions of Doron are readily familiar to anyone in the States who has seen Homeland or pretty much any drama where the conflicted lead doesn't play by the rules. That creates action, of course, but not always the kind of action that seems believable or true to the story.

Beyond that, though, the shortcomings of Fauda (even such unintentionally funny elements as the fact that Doron opens the first season as a winemaker and the second as rancher — will he be making pottery as season three begins?) haven't stopped me from wanting to watch new episodes every night. As I make may way through the second season, it's telling that I want to watch Fauda more than many of the American series I'm following. If you haven't already, it's probably time to discover this series.