TV’s ‘On the Spectrum’ is a clever, heartstring-tugging comedy
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TV’s ‘On the Spectrum’ is a clever, heartstring-tugging comedy

Co-creator Dana Idisis made sure the actors didn't just 'play the diagnosis' in a new YES series about young adults with developmental disabilities

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

It wasn’t always obvious to Dana Idisis that she would write a television series about people with autism, despite having a younger brother on the spectrum.

“My brother is my life, so there wasn’t one particular moment that I thought of this,” said Idisis. “I circled around the idea for a long time.”

When she did end up writing about the lives of people with developmental disorders, it became “On the Spectrum,” Idisis’s debut television series with fellow creator Yuval Shafferman for satellite channel YES, about three roommates on the autism spectrum, living independently in an apartment in Ramat Gan, the Tel Aviv satellite town where Idisis happened to grow up.

The show is their clever, comical and emotional introduction to life with a developmental disorder.

“On the Spectrum,” which premiered in May on Yes, weaves the stories and dreams of the three main characters: Ron (Niv Majar), a brilliant programmer with Asperger’s who is scared to leave the house; Amit (Ben Yosipovich), who displays compulsive, obsessive behavior with his constant snacking and interest in a lovely local waitress, and Zohar (Naomi Levov), who desperately seeks a romantic relationship.

There’s also their patient, ever-present social worker, Yael (Tal Yakimov); Asher, Zohar’s sometimes overbearing older brother played by Ori Gat; and Erez, Amit’s friend played by Avi Dangur.

In the first episode, Ron applies for a job, while Amit meets Leeor (Reef Neeman), his love interest, and Zohar works at Aroma and then tries to kiss her speech therapist. All three are comical but realistic characters, obsessive about their desires and hilariously apt in specifying what’s annoying about the people around them.

It’s the small details that resonate, such as Ron’s obsession with his new Rhombus 2000 robot vacuum, or Zohar trying on hot pink lingerie and walking around the store in a bra and underwear, much to the delight of onlookers and the consternation of her brother.

There is an emotional tug as well in contemplating what these characters have even more trouble with than the general population, whether it’s sex, the object of their obsession or an ability to conquer their fears.

But making a tearful drama about life with a developmental disorder or the struggles of the families was never Idisis’s intention.

“I could have written this years ago; maybe because of my own awareness, I never had any qualms about the subject,” said Idisis. “But it was still a challenge to go to YES and say let’s do this kind of series.”

It helps that people are talking about disabilities more frequently, bringing the issue to the fore and making it part of the general conversation, said Idisis.

“It’s not awareness, because there’s still no equality or full awareness, but there’s more of it,” she said.

Idisis’s first feature work was her 2013 documentary, “Turning Thirteen,” about the year of preparation for her brother Guy’s bar mitzvah celebration in the local synagogue. Guy Idisis has autism, and the film turned out to be a look at the family’s challenges in putting it together.

A budding playwright at the time, which is her father’s field as well, she had initially thought about filming a short part of her family’s intensive preparation for the event, and found herself drawn to the camera work and the ability to document this moment in their lives.

“I couldn’t stop filming,” she said.

Idisis has been a writer since she was young, producing screenplays and scripts as a teenager and throughout her army service. After the army, she took a well-known local writing workshop, focusing her efforts on writing plays.

She produced several plays, none of them about life on the spectrum.

A chance meeting with director and writer Shafferman revealed that he had also been thinking about a project revolving around people on the spectrum. Still, any idea Idisis had on the subject revolved around her role as a sibling, and that didn’t seem very interesting as a concept, she said.

The pair came up with an idea involving group homes for adults with disabilities, a familiar setup in Israel and a kind of “‘Friends’ with a twist,’” said Idisis, referring to the popular 1990s show about six friends living in New York City.

That idea made sense to her, because it wasn’t about her brother specifically or her role as his sibling — although she does draw on some of her own experiences — but rather about this group of people, and their sets of challenges that were both individual and communal.

Guy Idisis (left) and Dana Idisis from ‘Turning Thirteen,’ her 2013 documentary about her brother (‘Turning Thirteen’)

When they came up with the concept of the group apartment, she knew she would have an Amit character, as that obssessive-compulsive behavior was familiar to her. She also felt comfortable with Zohar, someone who wants independence and acceptance but has a brother who wants to protect her and is scared because he is responsible for her, without any parents alive to take care of them.

Social fear, the third issue, is the poignant difficulty of Ron who has Asperger’s, and could work as a programmer, yet doesn’t want to leave the safety of his apartment.

As part of their research, Idisis and Yuval visited dozens of young adults on the spectrum living in group apartments, speaking to their counselors and therapists as well as parents who help them navigate their lives. They aimed to show how they speak and see things, which is often more insightful but less socially acceptable than most people are used to.

“It was always important to adhere to the angle of conversation,” said Idisis, “not to tell the stories of the caretakers, but the people themselves.”

Her own parents were also partners in the development of the show, always willing to offer another angle, reading all the drafts, helping wherever they could.

She was impressed and relieved by the work the actors brought to the show, for their innate sensitivities in finding the right path for portraying these complicated characters.

“That was my big suspicion,” said Idisis. “You dream about this, and write it, and then come the actors and it could just fail. It’s so sensitive; it’s not a diagnosis, it’s a person. I said to them, ‘Don’t play their diagnosis, play yourself in that feeling.’ It’s very meaningful because they didn’t try to be something that they think someone on the spectrum would act.”

The first 10-episode season will finish up during the summer. Idisis and Shafferman are already working on the second season.

Idisis is also working on a feature film with writer Nir Bergman, also about people on the spectrum, but from the angle of a son and father on a trip. It’s based on a script that Idisis wrote years before her own documentary, but only recently took out of the drawer.

“I do have other things I want to write about,” said Idisis, “but right now, this makes sense.”

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