That a tale of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family living in a closed Jerusalem community should attain a position in the affections of television viewers around the world says much about the enduring power of great storytelling.
Maybe, coming as it did, as a global pandemic (and global isolation) unfolded did something to accentuate the power of family and kinship, as it did the unravelling of the human psyche in all its finery and foibles.
Schtisel premiered on the Israeli television channel Yes in 2013. A second season followed, but it wasn’t until it was picked-up by Netflix that the obvious appeal expanded beyond the tiny country of 8000 sq miles and nine million people to gain an international following.
As a result of its success, the streaming giant stepped in to commission a third series long after fans thought they had said farewell to the extended Schtisel clan.
On the surface, the series offers limited appeal. It’s subtitled (still a turn-off for many); it’s about a community of which little of us truly know anything, and nothing of any earth-shattering significance happens across the 33 episodes to date.
Therein lies the appeal. Schtisel is about our good points and our inferior traits; about the paths we take and the roads we miss; about how we often get it right but are also adept – as humans – at getting it wrong.
But it’s a cast of lovable, headstrong, flawed and eccentric characters in which lies the appeal of this series.
Shulem Schtisel (Dov Glickman) is an archetypal orthodox Jewish patriarch without every succumbing to stereotype. Glickeman’s sly asides and almost imperceptible facial expressions say little but say everything as he grapples with his role as rabbi in the local cheder (school) and a world – and a family – he knows is changing but is idealistically challenged to do much about any of it.
His son, Akiva (the very fine young Israeli actor Michael Aloni) is a well-meaning but day-dreaming aspiring artist who always strives to do the right thing and often doesn’t. There’s a little bit of Akiva in all of us.
From the earlier series, Hanna Rieber as Shulem’s mother is comic and dramatic genius conniving from her retirement home to both protect her family and shamelessly manipulate them.
And then there is the quite extraordinary, diminutive Shira Haas (Golden Globe-nominated for Netflix’s superb Unorthodox) as Ruchami. If there is any justice left in the crazy world we inhabit, Ms Haas will be a major international acting name in years to come. Her ability to command the screen, even when a secondary character doing nothing, is the stuff of pure star quality.
My point about Schtisel when it comes to smashing barriers around public appeal is that its base material is timeless – and great writing, fine acting and universal themes never go out of fashion no matter how unfamiliar they may be to us.
A fourth season please Netflix!