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TIFF TV Review: ‘Bad Boy’ is a Layered and Worthwhile Look at Juvenile Delinquency

There are a number of popular American TV series based on original Israeli programming, including Euphoria, Homeland, Your Honor, and In Treatment. It’s often most interesting to see what subtle changes in perspective and detail are offered in the adaptations, reflecting facets of American society that aren’t the same as they are in Israel. The latest Israeli offering, Bad Boy, doesn’t feel particularly Israeli, but it has plenty to offer in its rich, engrossing portrait of a young man and the path he can’t help but avoid.

Dean (Guy Menaster) is a teenage troublemaker sent off to juvenile detention after his own mother Tamara (Neta Plotnick) turns him in. When he arrives and makes a friend, he finds what could be the next stage of his delinquent lifestyle transformed into a nightmare. His connection with another inmate, Zoro (Havtamo Freda), who no one else wants to engage with because of the nature of the crime that landed him in this facility, opens his eyes to new truths as he finds out all too quickly that witnessing something he shouldn’t have is among the most dangerous things he can do in his newfound situation.

Bad Boy, which comes from a team that includes Ron Leshem, creator of the Israeli version of Euphoria, and Hagar Ben-Asher, meets Dean at two points in his life. He also appears as an adult, portrayed by Daniel Chen, who works as a comedian. The fact that he’s been through everything and comes out ready to tell jokes is a statement just in itself, and there is a mildly comedic nature to the way that this story is told. Yet there isn’t anything inherently funny about the life-and-death stakes of Dean’s stint in detention, something he finds out almost immediately and which will irreversibly affect him.

This series, which screens its first two episodes as part of the TIFF television program, features dynamic characters who all contribute to an invigorating and genuinely involving storyline. After turning Dean in, Tamara later shows up to the prison with a bag for him, only to be coldly told that “this isn’t elementary school” and that he’ll just have to make do. Her maternal instincts kick in in a fierce way that makes it evident that she hadn’t fully processed the consequences of her actions, since she does care for her son, no matter how much trouble he is, and fears for his wellbeing when she isn’t the one looking after him.

Another immensely watchable contradiction comes in the form of Cheli (Liraz Chamami), the warden, who immediately greets a returning guest and expresses displeasure at seeing him again, even though they’ve clearly bonded and enjoy a relatively warm relationship. She takes a liking to Dean yet still subjects him to extremely poor conditions that put his safety in jeopardy, seemingly aware of what might happen to him yet conscious that she can push things just far enough to scare him straight without truly getting him into serious trouble.

Menaster, who has previously appeared in two Israeli tv series, is a true find. There is a twinkle in his eye that makes it clear that he has some sense of what’s really going on, but he follows each deceptively confident look with a subtle reaction that reveals that he’s putting on a front, one that can only get him so far. He also does a tremendous job of balancing fear with curiosity, crafting Dean into a character who is believably prone to extralegal antics but inherently has a good soul, as evidenced by his openness to getting to know Zoro. Freda is just as impressive in his role, one that holds back even more as he only very selectively lets down his guard.

From its first two episodes, Bad Boy demonstrates that prison, in whatever form, remains a deeply compelling setting for storytelling. Barred surroundings alone are not enough on their own to make must-see television, but complex, vivid characters and a structure that allows for them to grow despite their physical limitations makes it very worthwhile. The teases of a future only serve to further intrigue, ensuring that this show’s subsequent episodes should be just as involving.

Bad Boy is screening as part of the Primetime program at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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