Noa Koler (left) as store manager Shira and Keren Mor as cashier Kochava in "Checkout." (Photo/Shani Sadicario)
Noa Koler (left) as store manager Shira and Keren Mor as cashier Kochava in "Checkout." (Photo/Shani Sadicario)

Israeli sitcom ‘Checkout’ is slice-of-life inside a supermarket

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I went to the corner grocery store with a friend to buy milk. The cashier tried to upsell us on “special sale” items: grapes, socks and chocolate chip cookies. “Just the milk,” we said. “You don’t want grapes, socks or chocolate chip cookies? Who would want just milk?” “Only milk, todah,” we said. The cashier shook her head and complied, but muttered, “Something’s wrong with them… just milk…”

That is only one unique checkout experience I’ve had in Israeli supermarkets and makolot (markets), so when I heard about an Israeli show called “Checkout,” I was in before I knew anything else. The series ran on Israeli TV from 2018 to 2021.

In addition to plenty of humor that is authentic to these kinds of unfiltered Israeli reactions, the series tackles office life, social inequities, terrorism, racism, homophobia and other seemingly unfunny issues, with vibes at the Venn frequency of “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The combination is perfection — neurosis and anxiety, relative privilege and internalized racism, obstinacy, challenge and love — and quintessentially Israeli. (Season 1 is available on the streaming service ChaiFlicks, $5.99/month or $60/year. I watched six episodes of Season 1 before writing this review; Season 2 arrives March 17.)

In “Checkout” (“Kupa Rashit” in Israel and “Cash Register” on IMDb), the characters are easily recognizable, yet far from stock depictions: the annoying older man with a fanny pack who has an issue every time he’s at the supermarket, the brash and selfish checkout cashier, the gently condescending manager who’s convinced she’s doing a great job despite the chaotic soup of personalities clashing with each other daily. All engage in the “reality” comedy style at the core of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” with documentary-style footage and confessional one-on-ones. Because this is Israel, though, additional characters are layered with specificity.

The presence of radically different employees — the Russian and the religious Israeli who work together at the meat counter; the can-do Arab Israeli who loves being assistant manager; the unjustifiably confident older security guard — allows for conflicts that stem from serious notions but descend into misunderstandings and clashes. What happens when the supermarket gets a new trainee? How does the staff react to the news of a terrorist attack two bus stops from them? How should they behave when a judge from “Top Chef” shops in their store? Is it racist to suspect that the new Sudanese employee stole their phones? “Checkout” addresses all of these questions and more, with each character in the ensemble injecting reactions that are uniquely theirs.

Episode 3, titled “The Morning of a Terror Attack” — yes, this is Israeli comedy — begins with news of a stabbing nearby. Everyone is uneasy and depressed. Anatoly, who works at the meat counter, says if it had happened in Russia, “Putin would have boom-boomed all the Arabs” — a comment that resonates differently watching this 2018 episode in 2022. But when the Arab Israeli assistant manager Ramzi enters, everyone self-corrects, greeting him over-enthusiastically and saying good morning in Arabic. “What a warm welcome! Must be my new aftershave,” he says with delight.

The twin tracks of situation comedy and xenophobia run throughout the episode. Shuni, a regular customer, yells at the security guard for not checking her for weapons; he says he knows her and also she’s too old to be a terrorist. Shuni remains uncomfortable in the store, especially with Ramzi working the meat counter. “I’m not a racist,” she says, “but on a day like today, it’s not comforting to see [whispering] an Arab waving knives at me.” Raising her voice to its regular volume, she adds conspiratorially, “I’m not saying. I’m just saying.” The same episode tackles internalized racism and homophobia in a similar tone.

While it’s tempting to assign MVP status to many of these over-the-top characters, the show is anchored by the more subtle performance of lead actor Noa Koler, who plays manager Shira for the series’ 60 episodes. Her dramatic performances in “Our Boys” as a social worker and “Possessions” as a detective (both available on HBO Max) and in the family sitcom “Tzafuf” (not yet available in the U.S.) prove she can do both with equal aplomb. Her Shira idolizes Steve Jobs and sees herself as a leader cut from the same black turtleneck cloth. She takes care of the staff with the tone of a teacher trying to teach rowdy kindergarteners how to compromise, and speaks to the camera crew with an air of control that she knows she doesn’t actually have.

One standout character is the amazingly named Amnon Titinsky, a resident weirdo customer who regularly clashes with cashier Kochava. She gives him a hard time because it entertains her, but he is incredibly demanding and they make a powerful duo. In one episode, Titinsky approaches the checkout eating from a bag of chips. Kochava wants to charge him for it; he says he brought it from home. This leads to a Talmudic-level discussion about the store’s norms and whom he should have informed when he entered the store with the bag.

In another, Titinsky tries to convince Kochava that he shouldn’t be charged for a container of olives that he wants to taste at home; he could taste those olives in the store for free, so why should he have to pay to taste them at home?

In both episodes, chaos and shouting ensue, all while other customers — showing saint-level patience, the only note that doesn’t ring true — wait for the drama to be resolved.

Israeli humor sometimes hurts; as it cuts, it creates a pain as familiar as the aisles of a supermarket. Viewing “Checkout,” you’ll marvel at how the characters are simultaneously lovable and unlovable, and you’ll wonder if maybe Amnon is right: Maybe he should have been allowed to taste those olives at home.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a TV columnist for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy.