Judge Joel Pearce finds this Israel-Palestine sitcom inventive, but where are the wacky neighbors?
An unlikely sitcom.
A lot of media has been made covering the struggles between the Jews and Palestinians in Israel. Documentaries, biopics, dramas…and now Arab Labor, a sitcom that takes one of the most conflicted corners of the world and turns it into a goldmine of comedy. It shouldn't work, but it does.
Facts of the Case
Amjad (Norman Issa), a Palestinian living in Israel, works at a Jewish Magazine. He does his best to fit into mainstream Jewish culture without betraying his Arab roots, a challenge that his wife Bushra (Clara Khoury) approaches with longsuffering patience. Amjad's goals are made more challenging by parents that fit a number of stereotypes, as well as Meir (Mariano Idelman), his Jewish best friend.
There is a moment in the third episode of Arab Labor where Amjad and Bushra are turned away from an Israeli-run kindergarten for their daughter. Amjad doesn't realize that he's being rejected until afterwards—the source of humor for the scene. In the car, though, there is an astonishing moment when he says "You know, sometimes I forget where we live." His wife responds: "It's alright. You have a big heart, so you think everyone is like you."
This is really the essence of Arab Labor. It is a comedy about the people from Israel that we don't hear from very often: the ones that just want to live in peace, work ordinary jobs, raise ordinary families, and create a country where Jews and Palestinians can live together. I suspect this series has caused some tension in its home country, but I also believe it can help relieve tensions more than ten documentaries on the same subject.
This moment also shows the fine balance Arab Labor walks between comedy and drama. The series is willing to poke fun at a very wide range of topics, from armed checkpoints to Arab kidnappers to racism to the ridiculousness of religious ceremonies. Handled insensitively, the series would have offended almost everyone in the target audience, and the jokes would be too uncomfortable. Because of the nonpartisan humanity of the cast and script, though, it all manages to work.
Outside of the edgy location, Arab Labor really does play like a standard sitcom. Amjad is likable yet neurotic. Bushra clearly loves him, and puts up with his antics with the same level of patience as most sitcom wives. Amjad's father is reminiscent of Alan Arkin in the way he steals his scenes. Meir offers a perfect counterpoint to Amjad's stability and caution. The jokes are set up cleanly, knocked down with skill, and both plot threads in each episode come together nicely. In other words, those who love the format will feel immediately comfortable diving into Arab Labor, while those who dislike sitcoms will probably be a bit disappointed. Most people who are willing to give it a chance, though, are going to like what they see.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My glowing praise comes with a slight hesitation. Anyone who feels strongly for either side of the Israel/Palestine struggle will probably be deeply offended by the portrayal of one side or the other. The show stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Israel, where I'm sure Amjad doesn't fit with the Israeli media's official stance on the Palestinian people. If you are worried about being offended by it, Arab Labor is probably not for you.
I'm also not as enthusiastic about the DVDs themselves. The series is presented in letterboxed widescreen, and the subtitles have been placed low enough that it can't be zoomed on a widescreen display. Considering how common high definition televisions are, this is unacceptable in 2009. The video quality itself isn't that bad considering the low budget of the show, but might be disappointing for viewers who are used to glossy American television productions. The subtitles themselves are excellent, even including a few cultural notes that are quite helpful. In terms of special features, we get an interview with series creator Sayed Kashula and a production featurette.
After a while, sitcoms all start to look and feel the same. While Arab Labor doesn't do much to change up the formula, it places that formula in a completely different world, and the results feel fresh, exciting, daring, and very funny. It comes highly recommended, especially for fans of comedy. This kind of brave production could make a big difference in the Middle East, and is worth watching even if it doesn't.
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