Review: ‘Fauda’ Returns on Netflix, Guns Blazing

Posted May 23, 2018 3:49 p.m. EDT

The international television hit “Fauda,” a drama loosely focused on an Israeli undercover counterterrorist team, has been accused of whitewashing the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and romanticizing the Israeli security forces. Watching the show’s two seasons — the second arrives in the United States on Netflix on Thursday — it’s hard to argue with those charges. It’s also hard to imagine that a commercial TV series made by Israelis for an Israeli audience would be much different.

The more pertinent observation about “Fauda” is that its creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, saw how certain circumstances in their world could be synthesized into entertaining, even gripping melodrama — the intimate web of shared history and culture; the normality of high emotion, hatred and nihilism; rigid notions of family and honor; the photogenic density of the weathered Palestinian cities in the West Bank, perfect for car and foot chases.

That may sound a little cynical, but it’s how a series becomes something more than an above-average action thriller.

Season 2 of “Fauda” retains much of what made the first season absorbing. The action and the interplay among the team members have a down-and-dirty credibility, and the plot twists, while convoluted, are plausibly so. Most of the actors are capable, and the show deftly mixes emotional extremity with speedy, nonchalant storytelling. (And the settings are fascinating, at least for those of us who don’t live in the region.)

If the new season’s 12 episodes feel less exciting overall, more routine, that’s partly a result of familiarity. We’ve seen the stakeouts and shootouts before, and Raz, Issacharoff, the writer Amir Mann and the director Rotem Shamir haven’t come up with any noticeably new tricks. The sameness sets in right away: A terrorist known as al-Makdisi (Firas Nassar) who had been in Syria appears in the West Bank, echoing the reappearance of a terrorist thought dead at the beginning of Season 1. In each case, the sudden arrival spurs a season-long hunting expedition.

Another problem is one of the changes that was made. “Fauda” has mostly focused on the procedural and the personal, noting religious and political issues but keeping them in the background. Season 1 was driven by the visceral desire of the Israeli operative Doron (Raz) to atone for his failure to take out his target the first time around.

For Season 2 the creators decided to engage more closely with current events, making al-Makdisi an ISIS follower who wants to give the Islamic State a foothold in the occupied territories, and Israel, at the expense of Hamas. This gives him a second motivation, along with revenge against Doron, who killed his father.

It wasn’t a good move — in later episodes the season starts to feel slack, lacking the focus and narrative momentum that carried straight through Season 1. The revenge story and the political conspiracy story don’t jell, and al-Makdisi’s larger plot feels generic and tacked on.

By that time, though, with characters on violent collision courses (and several significant figures already dead in reasonably surprising ways), you’ll be on board. The show’s trick of making personal enmities and blindnesses stand in for the seemingly insoluble antagonisms of the larger conflict still works. The imperviousness of Doron and al-Makdisi to reason or compromise provides the emotional core, while the lies, machinations and sellouts of others provide the narrative engine. And for sentimental satisfaction there’s the unquestioning loyalty of Doron’s team, a piece of universal TV language that reads the same in “Fauda” as it does in “NCIS.”

The most unusual, and truly problematic, creation in “Fauda” is Doron himself, based on Raz’s experience as an Israeli operative. His defining trait, and the one Raz plays best, is his sour, surly implacability. (Raz doesn’t make his occasional moments of introspection or guilt quite as convincing.) Doron subscribes wholeheartedly to the inevitability of battle and the necessity of blood-for-blood vengeance, and coming from the show’s hero (however antiheroic he may be), that has the effect of defining Arabs as the enemy, no matter how much trouble is taken to “humanize” them. (He also lies to and ruthlessly manipulates his Palestinian lover — a messy, depressing part of the story that is potentially interesting but mostly just sits there.)

Part of the attraction of “Fauda” is that it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Doron and his colleagues — the ease with which they beat and torture, or start shooting into crowds when they’re threatened. At the same time, the show’s sympathies are clearly with Doron — any more nuanced resolution of its feelings about him will have to wait until Season 3, already ordered. That, along with the different weights given to the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli characters, can affect your response to the series.

At the end of the day, though, if you’re going to put the onus on someone to tell the Palestinian side of this story, it shouldn’t be Rav and Issacharoff. Netflix has the money. Is it talking to any filmmakers in Gaza or the West Bank?