Review: Prisoners of War (Hatufim) 1×1

Prisoners of War/Hatufim

In the UK: Thursdays, 9.30pm, Sky Arts 1
In Israel: Aired 2009

Homeland has been a big hit for both Showtime in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, going great guns in the ratings. In it, POW Damian Lewis returns to the US after eight years in captivity in Iraq. CIA analyst Claire Danes, however, suspects he’s been converted by terrorists and has been released to do something horrific on US soil. Is he or isn’t he? Well, the last episode of the first season has already aired, but I won’t spoil it for you – go watch it, if you haven’t already, since it was the best new drama of the Fall 2011-12 season.

However, as I mentioned at the time, Homeland is not a wholly original show, having been adapted by some of 24‘s creators from an Israeli show, Prisoners of War aka Hatufim. Now Sky Arts 1, which is not only fast becoming a rival to BBC4 as my favourite UK channel but also a haven for quality Israeli TV (just as BBC4 now gets all the good Scandinavian shows), has decided to broadcast the original show on Thursdays in a 10 week run.

Intriguingly, Prisoners of War is both quite a different show to Homeland as well as very similar. After the trailer (which is all in Hebrew, unfortunately, but you can view an English-language promo here) and the jump, I’ll give you a rundown on the differences and look at it as a show in its own right.

When three IDF reservists are captured during active service behind enemy lines in Lebanon their fate initially is unknown. They become symbols to the society from which they came and in their families, they are perceived as something between a misty memory and an ever-lasting glimmer of hope – until the day, seventeen years later, when they return.

Only two come back alive. The third returns in a coffin.

In Prisoners of War (Hatufim – or ‘abductees’ in Hebrew), the story of their time in captivity unfolds as they attempt to reintegrate into society: they try to cope with the pressures of being reintroduced to their families and friends, as well as handling the national hero status being thrust upon them via the public limelight.

Starring Yaël Abecassis, Mili Avital, Yoram Tolledano, Assi Cohen and Ishai Golan, the gripping plot unravels through three time plains; before capture, life in captivity and proceedings in the present day, which all intertwine to reveal dark secrets about life in captivity.

Personal drama, struggles and challenges help paint a picture of what exactly happened in the seventeen long years the men were incarcerated.

Written and directed by Gideon Raff, Keshet Broadcasting’s ten-part drama series was voted Israel’s number one drama in 2010, and is the original version on which the American drama series Homeland is based.

Is it any good?
It’s really hard to watch Prisoners of War without putting aside your preconceptions of how the show should turn out. But at the very least, I’ll say that it’s a gripping, emotional show, dealing with loss, separation, incarceration and how people can put their lives together after a long gap.

You’ll notice how I didn’t include “and features a great big terror plot” in that description.

Because so far, at least, beyond a single line of dialogue and a scene with a discarded newspaper, there are absolutely no signs that any of these new men are anything but good Israeli citizens who have suffered terrible ordeals. There’s no Carrie with her terrible suspicions and mental illness, doggedly pursuing them. There’s no Mossad, no nothing – as of yet, anyway, although I’m sure the debriefs and suspicions will be happening soon.

Instead, its focus is on the three men and their families. You’ll notice I said three men, rather than one, because Damian Lewis’s character and his family is largely a composite of two of the families here: one whose wife has been carrying on an affair with – and in fact married – his brother during his absence (echoes of Lewis’s marine pal, there) and the other has a screwed up daughter and a son he’s never met before. The third is completely new, however, since he’s dead – he died while in captivity, apparently (more echoes of Homeland to come?), and his girlfriend hallucinates him instead, she misses him so much yet has lived so long with the idea of his return.

There are, of course, other differences with Homeland. The 17-year gap rather than the eight of Homeland puts an entirely different perspective on things, turning once-young men into middle-aged men who have lost the best years of their lives. Prisoners of War is also less sanitised than Homeland, the grown-up daughter doing more than just smoking pot but also having meaningless sex with significantly older men she meets on the Internet and acting out at parties. The prisoner whose wife has remarried already knows about her affair from a newspaper article shown to him by the Lebanese, the marriage having scandalised the nation, and there’s the suggestion he’s been turned as a result (although an earlier scene has a slight hint it’s the other prisoner).

But is it a completely different beast from Homeland? In a saturated market, a US TV show effectively has to put its cards on the table in the pilot episode to tell its audience what they can expect, whereas Israeli shows can rely on greater audience involvement because of fewer channels. As a result, the terror plot is likely still there, just hiding beneath the surface for now. The show is essentially the same, but its focus is different: it’s rawer, more intimate, more about relationships than Homeland, which although it looked at those issues, always made them subservient to the terror plot.

Is it as good as Homeland? No. The acting isn’t as good, the production values aren’t as good and the third woman appears superfluous at the moment. But otherwise it’s a very good show that handles the issues involved well. I’ll be sticking with it over the coming weeks.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.