This is hard for me to admit, but I haven’t seen every TV series ever made. I know, shame on me for not waking up a few hours early every day to stream old seasons of “Baywatch.”
But there are a few deserving shows I’ve missed over the years, good comedies and dramas I’ve let fall behind me in my endless advance onto the next week’s premieres. Every now and then, Globe readers help me find the shows that I genuinely do need to catch up on, the worthy ones that slipped through the cracks. I’ve still got “Babylon Berlin” on my list, at the urging of readers, and one of these days, “Fauda,” I will know you.
To those who urged me to watch the two seasons of “Shtisel,” I am deeply grateful. The Israeli drama has been available on Netflix since late 2018, and I failed to fit it into my schedule; Netflix releases so many foreign language series, they tend to fall under my radar. But readers kept endorsing the show to me, and that chorus doubled after I wrote a review in March praising the similarly themed Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox.” When Netflix announced it would bring the dormant “Shtisel” — whose second season was initially released in 2016 — back for a third season, I finally got to work.
If you don’t know, “Shtisel” is a family drama set in a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, neighborhood in Jerusalem. It picks up a year after the death of the Shtisel family matriarch, as her husband and adult children carry on uneasily. Shulem is a stubborn, tone-deaf yeshiva teacher in his 60s who’s beginning to think it might be nice to find another woman. His youngest son, Akiva, 24, still lives with him, but Shulem is eagerly trying to find him a wife, through the Haredi matchmaking customs. Akiva is routinely set up with proper young women, but he is a dreamer and an artist and he follows his heart. We also track Akiva’s sister Giti, a mother of five whose kosher-butcher husband has run off when the series starts, as well as his suppressed-musician brother.
Shulem worries about Akiva, who is consistently distracted from his studies by his love of painting. Each time Akiva rejects a potential bride, Shulem fears his son will become undesirable to the men looking to marry off their daughters. Akiva does fall in love, but never with an acceptable woman — to wit, he becomes smitten with a twice-widowed young mother who is considered used goods by Shulem. Akiva is charming, sweet, and, as played by the handsome Michael Aloni, easy to root for; Shulem, given a grumpy self-involvement and a bottomless appetite by actor Dov Glickman, is less so.
But the show is not building up to some kind of verdict against the rules of the Haredi world, with its isolation from the fast pace and technology of contemporary life. “Shtisel” is refreshingly nonjudgmental, and that may be its best quality. Rather than emphasizing the otherness of the Haredi people we meet, the show brings out their humanness, sometimes with comic touches (such as Shulem’s elderly mother discovering TV while in a retirement home). Beneath their surface of black brimmed hats, long beards, and wigs that, to some, seem exotic, the characters are entirely familiar. The show beautifully marries the extreme specificity of the ultra-Orthodox life with the universals of desire, fear, suffering, and love. Just like so many people I’ve known, the people in “Shtisel” are negotiating the distance between social expectations and their individuality.
I was spellbound throughout the two 12-episode seasons, in much the same way I am when I read Victorian novels. The two share a lot in common, as they both render people who are constrained by their culture. So much of “Shtisel” is about romance, about longing — not just by Akiva, but by his teenage niece (played by the amazing Shira Haas, who later starred in “Unorthodox”) and his father. And yet so little of the show involves sexuality or even touching. Like in the Victorian era, the tiniest signs of attraction are hugely meaningful. Everyone abides by the customs, or they risk rejection from society. In both worlds, you can’t simply fall in love and get married; you have to fall in love with someone acceptable to your community, because they are wealthy enough or because they are devout enough. You conform, or you become Lydia Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” running off with a man and creating scandal.
The acting, the filmmaking, the script, it’s all top-notch in “Shtisel” as it brings us deep inside the elaborate and insular world of a Jerusalem neighborhood. I’m delighted to be able to press the show onto others now, even if they almost inevitably say the title back at me, unsure of the pronunciation. “You can’t watch everything,” I say to them, “but you need to watch ‘Shtisel.’ ”