Nathan Abrams reflects on current Jewish television, wondering if we are now enjoying a golden age of Jews on the box.
‘When Did TV Get So Jewish?’ proclaimed Vanity Fair recently.
On almost every channel, we find Jews on television, both factual and fictional. We have also seen more and more Jews both as central and incidental characters and spreading out beyond non-sitcom genres, covering a wide variety of genres and character types. Jews and Jewishness aren’t simply the point of the show anymore.
We can watch reruns of older sitcoms such as Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The O.C., Big Bang Theory, alongside newer shows such as the reboot of The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Friends has been showing on Netflix leading to much critique from millennials who found the humour dated and offensive.
Every month there seems to be a new show. The Kominsky Method, Dave, Mrs America, Russian Doll, Broad City, Glow, Schitt’s Creek, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Better Things are just a few. This list is probably already out of date by the time you read it.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Transparent are perhaps the most Jewiest shows ever to air on television anywhere at any time in history. Others claim that mantle for Weeds and full list of its Jewiest references can be found here.
Beyond sitcoms, this includes Jewish gangsters (and the occasional Hasid) in The Sopranos; Jewish convicts (and a rabbi) in Oz and Orange is the New Black respectively, another rabbi in The Handmaid’s Tale, shyster lawyers, Jewish cops and district attorneys in The Wire, and even Jewish motorcyclists, boxers and Elvis impersonators in Sons of Anarchy. One of my favourites is Los Angeles super-agent Ari Gold in Entourage, a blend of a real-life Jewish-Israeli and a Hollywood mover and shaker.
The counterfactual adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle also features Jews. Likewise, Damon Lindelhof’s Watchmen includes a scene of antisemitism as well as a central character in German-Jewish watchmaker’s son, Jon Osterman who, following a nuclear accident, becomes the godlike (and blue) Dr. Manhattan (troubling masquerading as an African American). Watch closely and you can see me in it, too. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America has also recently aired.
There’s the sprinkling of Jewish names in Breaking Bad (Jane Margolis and Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, as well as the mezuzah on Ted Beneke’s house). Saul Goodman, who also has his own show, Better Call Saul, only pretends to be Jewish because of the superior reputation that Jewish lawyers have. (This reminds me of that episode of Curb where Larry fires Berg when he learns he isn’t Jewish.) The show, Family Business in which a Jewish family in Paris swaps kosher meat for marijuana has been described as ‘a French-Jewish version of “Breaking Bad”.
There is also the presence of Jewish actors in dramas where they aren’t necessarily playing Jews, but which gives us the possibility of reading them as Jewish. Consider Julia Garner in Ozark and Dirty John and Bob Balaban in The Politician.
Coupled with this, maybe there’s also an axis or shift from those who identify as Jewish to those whose characters are identified as Jewish whether they are played by Jews or not. And further these characters’ Jewishness is not the main point of the show, but incidental, superfluous even.
Take The Politician, in which Oliver Platt plays Payton Hobart, a Jew raised by WASPs (a sort of inversion of The O.C. in which a gentile is raised by a half-Jewish family). And, apart from when his adoptive mother (played by the part-Jewish Gwyneth Paltrow) refers to his Jewish hair, Payton’s given names and whole demeanour successfully hide any obvious reference to his ethnicity.
In season 2, his adoptive father played by Bob Balaban becomes an Orthodox Jew albeit offscreen. Payton’s rival in season 2, the formidable politico Hadassah Goldman (Bette Midler), recalls the Jews of The West Wing (and the lack of them in House of Cards).
Now the picture has become even more varied by the influx of television shows from beyond the United States. For so long, if you wanted to see Jews as Jews on television, you had to watch American television. Now, other countries are adding their shows to the mix and in the age of streaming services we are no longer confined to just watching the output from one nation.
Israel is a major source of new ‘Jewish’ television. This includes the Hebrew-language originals and their American remakes, such as Prisoners of War and Homeland – the latter featuring the oh-so Jewish CIA operator Saul Berenson played by legendary actor Mandy Potemkin. But there have been many others: In Treatment, Hostages, Mossad 101, The Spy, The Red Sea Diving Resort, and, of course, Fauda.
We also have Israelis playing Israelis on non-Israeli television. Inbal Lavi in Imposters or Oshri Cohen in Homeland and McMafia. We can add the half-Israeli Sacha Baron Cohen to this, playing Captain Erran Morad, ex-Mossad, on his show Who is America? We can even add non-Jews playing Jewish Israelis such as David Strathairn who played Semiyon Kleiman, an Israeli businessman and politician of ill-repute, in McMafia. Or just about everyone in the BBC’s adaptation of the The Little Drummer Girl.
Netflix, Amazon and the UK’s Walter Presents on Channel 4 currently provide a fantastic gateway to watching Israeli shows: The Beauty and the Baker and Milk and Honey [Johnny and the Knights of the Galilee].
Particularly interesting are the shows Mekimi, Unorthodox, Shtisel, Shababnakim, and Srugim because unlike nearly all the shows mentioned thus far, they not only deal with religion, but also with Orthodox Judaism at that. While not sharing the prominence of Transparent, they are well-known and discussed amongst the aficionados.
Unsurprisingly, though, they are all Israeli, as Anglo-American culture fears to touch religious Judaism just yet it seems. Take Friday Night Dinner where the title, sole mezuzah and challah connotes the Goodman family’s Jewishness, but little else does.
Judaism, though, is becoming more widespread as a variety of shows reference Jewish ritual extensively. Black-ish, for instance, debuts with a ‘Bro-Mitzvah’ and A Series of Unfortunate Events, also featuring a black non-Jewish character lamenting his lack of a bar mitzvah. Still, though, the Judaism is never the point of the entire series as in some Israeli shows.
Adding to the mix are British shows – recall that Sacha Baron Cohen is a British import – including Peaky Blinders and McMafia both of which feature Jewish gangsters and crime families. There have been Jewish cops on WPC56, The Stranger and Giri/Haji. Jews have appeared in Downtown Abbey, The League of Gentlemen, building upon older shows featuring Warren Mitchell, Peter Sellers, Miriam Karlin and so on. Jewish Enquirer can be described in part as a British Curb. There was also the period spy drama, Summer of Rockets.
In other Anglophone television, Rachel Harris has written about the Australian drama A Place To Call Home.
What has happened to produce this explosion? First, we must thank the proliferation of streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO and Hulu, all of which have provided space and creative freedom for these series to grow. We must also thank Israel. At the same time, the domestic channels have had to raise their game.
There is also a sociological dimension. In past, during the more assimilatory ages, a lack of self-confidence was evident as Jewish television moguls were afraid of alienating their audiences with too much Jewishness. Or when they did agree to show it, they did so by suggesting Jews were just like Americans with slightly different customs, but which resembled American practices anyway. Passover was Easter, Chanukah was Christmas and Purim was Mardi Gras.
That older impulse, especially on the part of American Jewish producers, who in times past were wary of being ‘too Jewish’ seems to have been consigned to the televisual dustbin. Besides, we can watch television from all over the world much more easily now.
In an era witnessing the explosion of quality television and long-form drama series, making the regular network channels raise their game, have we entered a golden age of Jewish television or, more accurately perhaps, Jews on television?