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Middle East Proving to Be Fertile Ground for TV

As spring rolls around, an uptick in religious-themed programming for Easter is expected. However, the past year in TV has seen an unprecedented number of shows set in modern-day Israel and the Middle East.

A handful of series have shirked historical and religious backdrops for a more modern look at the region — something that, until recently, had been the domain of film. One such series is USA’s Dig, which was created and executive produced by Tim Kring and Gideon Raff.

The murder mystery is partially set in present-day Jerusalem and premiered March 5. The pilot episode of the limited series was filmed in Israel, but conflict in the region halted production. When it became apparent a resolution would not come quickly, the series moved production to Croatia and New Mexico.

“We were prepping for the second and third episode block when the conflict broke out in Gaza,” Kring told B&C. “Because there were missiles flying, we stopped our prep and waited for the conflict to end. We ended up having to move our production sadly out of Israel.”

The setback, however, did not sour Kring on the experience of filming in Israel.

“They really rolled out the red carpet for us,” he said. “Keshet, the network that we were partnered up with, really put a lot of effort into giving us tremendous access to places that not only had never been filmed, but in many cases, tourists had not even been to the locations we had access to.”

Dig’s Raff had his hand in creating a number of other series involving the Middle East, including Showtime’s Homeland, which was based on his Israeli series Prisoners of War. Homeland — starring Claire Danes as a CIA agent — nabbed rave reviews and awards in its early run and will enter its fifth season.

SundanceTV joined the action in Israel with The Honorable Woman, which premiered in July of 2014. The eight-part miniseries starred Maggie Gyllenhaal — who took home a Golden Globe for her role — as a woman caught up in international conflict.

The expansion of shows in the region reaches beyond Israel with FX’s Tyrant. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern country, Tyrant features the son of a dictator who returns home after 20 years in America. Tyrant was renewed for a 13-episode second season.

NBC’s drama American Odyssey follows Tyrant’s conflict-heavy vibe. The show features an American solider in North Africa who discovers an American corporation is funding jihadists.

Despite the smorgasbord of shows set in contemporary times, religious and historical series have made a strong showing in March and April as well. National Geographic premiered TV movie Killing Jesus — based on Bill O’Reilly’s book — on March 29.

Roma Downey and Mark Burnett contributed two series in the past month with The Dovekeepers and A.D. The Bible ContinuesDovekeepers is a four-hour limited series based on Alice Hoffman’s historical novel of the same name that chronicles the siege of Masada, while A.D. picks up where History Channel miniseries The Bible left off following the crucifixion of Jesus.

With many of the programs being films, miniseries and limited series, it’s hard to project if TV screens will feature shows set in the Middle East beyond a religious context next year. Even series that have fared well — such as A.D., which fell short of The Bible’s numbers — haven’t quite approached the cultural relevancy of juggernauts like Game of Thrones.

However, Israel’s booming TV industry does give reason to believe the rush of shows set in the Middle East is more than an aberration.

“I think this very robust TV business in Israel is making very high quality shows. These formats are proving to be able to travel,” Kring said. “The Middle East, as we all know, is taking up a lot of space in our consciousness right now with things that are happening, both good and bad… I think it’s a part of the world whose time has come where people are realizing its importance”