Spies, Television

TV: Mossad 101 (Season 1)

July 2, 2018

Much as I love spy shows, I almost bounced out of the Israeli spy drama Mossad 101. Its scattered, tonally awkward first two episodes set an iffy stage that screamed “high-concept elevator pitch.” I’m glad I soldiered on, though, because it evolves into something quite engrossing.

So what’s the high concept? It’s basically a dramatized reality show about aspiring intelligence agents. A group of hopeful recruits of the Mossad, Israel’s national security service, are set loose in Tel Aviv on covers as Iranian spies. Their mission: make it to Mossad HQ without getting captured by the police, who believe they are actual enemy agents. At the end of the exercise, those who fail are kicked out of the course, Survivor-style.

The course is run by three Mossad veterans. Yona Harari (Yehuda Levi) is the prototypical badass field agent, exiled to running the training course after an operational disaster in Bulgaria. He’s aided by his mentor, old hand Simon (Yehoram Gaon), and supervised by his steely ex-wife Avigail Lerman (Liron Vaisman). All three bring plenty of baggage to the office, not least of which is the fraught, failed relationship between Yona and Avigail, which Yona is desperate to resurrect.

The real fun comes, however, in the striving, spirited interactions of the cadets. It’s a colorful, well conceived rogue’s gallery:

  • Avsha Angler (Itay Tiran), a sly body-language expert with a dark secret
  • Katarina Annolyo (Sorraya Torrens), a beautiful Brazilian runaway
  • Irit Barashi (Liraz Chamami), a resourceful gossip
  • Max Elbaz (Alex Cheqon), a radical French Lothario
  • Kobi Frachdel (Yaniv Biton), a shifty gambler
  • Hanoch Got (Dan Shapira), a veteran combat pilot
  • Giora Hafner (Aki Avni), a wealthy businessman
  • Doris Levi (Hana Laslo), the grieving wife of a field agent who died in action
  • Sveta Sharansky (Genia Snop), a Russian immigrant
  • Uri and Ziv Spector (Omer Barnea and Rom Barnea), two gung ho, American-raised douche-bros
  • Avital Vexler (Gal Toran), an immersive actor

The recruits are full of secret motives and hidden agendas. Hanoch, for example, is a plant, inserted by the Mossad’s Deputy Director Micha (Shai Avivi) to investigate Yona. Kobi is motivated by massive debt to organized criminals. And Doris has secretly joined the course to learn the truth about her husband’s tragic death. Yona, whose every move shouts “crooked,” designs exercises that peel away the recruits’ secrets, as well as their naivety and preconceptions about the work. And occasionally, when one of the recruits crosses his lines, he dismisses them.

At first, it’s an incongruous blend of somber spy seriousness and silly, reality-show group dynamics: an awkward, Hebrew hybrid of Quantico and Unreal. Fortunately, its Survivor-esque formula doesn’t persist, and starts to feel more like an accomplished, ethics-focused spy drama in the vein of MI-5. The tone never quite recovers from a monotonous Bondian soundtrack, but the weekly exercises — while implausibly entangling the recruits in increasingly real, high-stakes dilemmas — start to weave together into an impressively convoluted spy-fiction tangle that integrates the disparate personalities and agendas into an addictive, propulsive serial.

It’s also a rare spy show in which the characters really sell it. Spy TV doesn’t always excel at character, but Mossad 101 gives all of its people depth, agency, and levels — and continuously throws them together in interesting operational combinations. Every figure on the stage contributes to the tapestry, and damn if the reality-show mechanics don’t have you pulling for certain agents to survive the cut and others to fail as the narrative progresses. By the end of the year, I was fully invested in the surviving candidates, and anxious to see them launch their dangerous careers. An uneven series on some levels, but overall a winning one that keeps you guessing, and brings a little something different to the table.

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