Let’s take a look at “Shtisel 3” by applying E.M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, considering the vagueness with which the concept was first coined by the author: an attempt for a universal approach to the art of storytelling.
It is commonly accepted that Forster proposes seven key elements for a good novel. Let’s assume that one can apply these elements to the cinematographic art, now in this new genre called “the series”. We’ll look at “Shtisel 3” considering the following items: story, plot, pattern and rhythm, fantasy and prophecy, and character. This is not a discussion on the accuracy of Forster’s categories but, as “aspects”, its use as a tool for the evaluation and understanding of the resources for such a successful and accomplished work of fiction. Success is no guarantee for quality, but “Shtisel 3” achieves both. Let’s take a look as to why.
“Shtisel 3” doesn’t mainly rest neither on story or plot. Both of them are clearly outlined, but they don’t constitute the appeal of the show. Any narrative is based on a good story or an ingenious plot. Story and plot in “Shtisel” are secondary to everything else; they constitute the element of time and causality upon which any narrative is built. The third season is more so: we are hooked by the fate and motivation of the characters, but we’re captivated by the characters themselves.
On the other side of this equation of success are the elements of pattern and rhythm, fantasy and prophecy. The script builds its rhythm on the habits of the fictional world it portrays: the Torah studying, the blessings, “kissing” of the mezuzah, the eating habits, food. Rhythm is amiable, expected, smooth. Patterns emerge mostly from locations: the world inside and the world outside. The outer world is but a glimpse of some street view of Jerusalem, while locations grow in detail and time exposure as they relate to the characters: the deeper the issue, the more specific is the detail. This precarious balance between the outer and inside world (from the standpoint of the haredi community created here) stands for the inner conflict of the characters.
Fantasy is also a key element in “Shtisel 3”: the unconscious, through the use of dreams, allows for developments that would have no rationale in the real world. We saw this resource used as back as in 1972 in Norman Jewison’s “The Fiddler on the Roof”: a dream changes the fate of Tevie’s oldest daughter. Along the three seasons in “Shtisel”, the use of dreams and fantasy are recurrent. On the other hand, prophecy as Forster understands it falls a bit short: there doesn’t seem to be a larger scheme behind the story or the characters, no ultimate value. Or, one could argue that it is precisely the fragility and sensitivity of human condition that runs under the surface. As if the fiddler was playing somewhere in the very distant background.
The key to the appeal of “Shtisel 3” lies precisely in Forster’s major contribution to the theory of the novel: character. If story and plot are almost self-evident, if rhythm, pattern, fantasy and prophesy are a little vague, his theory on characters, as simple as it may seem, hits the spot in this case. Because, almost without exception, all the characters in “Shtisel 3” are what Forster calls “round”, as opposed to “flat”. While these have only one or two traits that define them, round characters are fully developed. Had one the time and space, we could check each character determining into which category they belong; I dare suggest that all of them fit both definitions.
The appeal emerges from the one or two main traits in each, the one that brands the character: Shulem is notoriously artful, Akiva is notoriously sensitive, Nuchem is notoriously self-centered, Gitte is mostly a survivor, and Ruchami is an ascetic. But all of them, while deepening their set of v beliefs, evolve, mature, and without surrendering the core values that hold the family and the community together, adapt and move on. Be it Gitty reluctantly accepting her eventual sepharadi in-laws, be it Lipe Weiss having a religious epiphany (the teshuva asked of him), they all come around and grow larger and deeper than what they actually are. The nature of the story doesn’t allow for flat characters; if not round by definition, they become so by the dynamics of the fictional world. This wouldn’t be possible without the competence and sensibility of the actors, who are simply superb; all of them.
“Shitsel” is about a family belonging to a haredi world. While not one of them wants to rebel and leave (some even come back) like in “Unorthodox”, we’re dealing with a family who is always moving on the edges of that world, not in its midst. Ruchami and Hanina are a priori the most “fanatic”, while Akiva is notoriously the one who doesn’t find its place. It’s not that he doesn’t fit, he’s one of the losers who sit at the bar and drink. Except he’s handsome and he’s an artist. None of his love options is a regular one: an older widow, a cousin, and a bipolar woman are not your regular match in the haredi world.
The appeal of the series lies in how these characters deal and solve their situations and conflicts. Their risks and opportunities. Their values and deep belonging. Their religious adherence while allowing for the most human emotions to emerge. It is the haredi world that allows for the rhythm and cadence of the story. The social codes, the forms, the use of language, it all contributes to bring forward the deepest passions and longings without having to be explicit or offensive. Within a context of deep love, family and peoplehood values, in the end it’s all about the generations sitting together at the table, to remember, to live, and long for a better future. You can’t get more Jewish than that, can you?