Saturday, May 25, 2019

Jewish Representation on Television: A Random Review

I've been thinking about Jewish representation on television series over the past few days. The trigger was actually an antisemite who was complaining that there are too many Jewish characters on television -- we apparently have taken over his TV. That struck me, because my naive view was that Jewishness actually doesn't get a lot of attention on TV series (even Seinfeld, if I recall correctly, rather famously did not actually say its characters were Jewish).

But I decided to actually think about it more, and look into how Jews are portrayed on the shows I watch. This is therefore not remotely scientific -- though I do watch a fair bit of TV -- and some obvious choices (Broad City!) thus aren't included. I'm most interested in shows that are not primarily about Jews, but nonetheless have Jewish characters whose Jewishness is fleshed out in a substantive way.

I include shows that have no Jewish characters. This is not necessarily a critique -- not every show has to include Jews -- but it is worth including to get a sense if there is any pattern to what sorts of shows have Jews and what don't. That said, I'm not necessarily a superfan of all these shows, so it's possible that I could miss something (though it hardly counts if deep in Season 6 a show briefly mentions so-and-so is Jewish, only to never bring it up again before or since).

* * *

30 Rock: On a show about New York City comedy writers, only Josh -- Josh! -- might be Jewish. This entire show is a case of "just say Jewish, this is taking forever!" C-

Big Bang Theory: Of the major characters, only Howard (and his mother) are Jewish. Neither are exactly positive representations -- Howard, in particular, manages to be the most perverted, awkward and creepy of a cadre of young male scientists whose whole shtick is that they're kind of perverted, awkward, and creepy around women. Interestingly, Bernadette is portrayed as super-goyish even though Melissa Rauch is actually Jewish (Mayim Bialik is more famously Jewish, but to my knowledge Amy Farrah-Fowler is not depicted as a tribe member). D-

Billions: At first I thought this show had no Jewish characters, a decision I chalked up to maybe wanting to step lightly around the whole "ruthless billionaires manipulating the financial system" thing. But then I remembered: Spyros is Jewish! Spyros! By far the worst character on the show along pretty much any metric you might consider, including that he's portrayed as a serial sexual predator. Literally every character is at least written in shades of grey, and we get Spyros. Ugh. D

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake Peralta is Jewish. It pretty much only comes up when he has flashbacks to his Bar Mitzvah (curse you Jenny Gildenhorn!), but at least it is acknowledged as a part of his character with substance. That said, it almost never is visible in his adult life -- most strikingly, there's no portrayal of it being discussed with Amy in terms of how their family will or won't be Jewish. B-

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Angel): Willow is Jewish, but it gets almost no attention -- I think by the end of the series she's outright celebrating Christmas. C

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: No Jewish characters.

Community: Annie is Jewish, but it is almost entirely downplayed. Indeed, it basically never comes up outside the first season. Missed opportunity. C+

Crashing: This is a tough one to judge, since so many of the characters are playing themselves. I know Sarah Silverman is Jewish. I think Artie Lange is? I don't know if Ali Reissen is supposed to be Jewish, but the actress who plays her definitely is. I do know Pete Holmes is not Jewish. I can't give a rating here.

Dollhouse: No Jewish characters.

Elementary: No Jewish characters.

Firefly: No real Jewish characters, though they do briefly show a postmaster wearing a yarmulke. It's actually a really neat moment of casual Jewish inclusion that I really appreciate.

Fresh off the Boat: I don't think any of the regulars (including Eddie's friends) are Jewish, but Evan's arch-rival Phillip Goldstein is definitely Jewish -- and definitely portrayed as a massive asshole. C

Game of Thrones: No Jewish characters (outrageous!).

The Good Place: No Jewish characters (actual sad face here -- though I can see how incorporating actual religious faith into this show might be hard).

I Feel Bad: Probably not worth including -- it was canceled after one season, and I'm not sure it even fully aired the one -- except to give one last plug to my headcanon where it is Sarayu Blue's side of the family that is Jewish. Brian George -- who plays her father -- is Jewish! He should get to play a Jewish character some time. Alas, the show goes down the more predictable route of making Paul Adelstein's side of the family the Jewish one. It does a good job with that. I guess. Still salty. B

Insecure: I don't think any characters are Jewish. Frieda might be Jewish, which would be okay. Joanne also might be Jewish, which would be a less attractive proposition.

iZombie: No Jewish characters.

Mad Men: Rachel Mencken is great. She also stands pretty much alone. B+

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: This is the only show that is explicitly Jewish in focus, and as I said that's not my main concern here. In any event, not everyone likes the portrayal of Jewishness, but I actually find it quite warm on the whole. A.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: No Jewish characters.

Mozart in the Jungle: No Jewish characters (really?).

New Girl: Full disclosure: I did not watch this show all the way to the end. Anyway, Schmidt is one of the more famous Jewish portrayals of contemporary television. I'm not his greatest fan -- in particularly, that he's a proud Republican is, shall we say, statistically anomalous -- but once I started comparing him to the competition above he turns out pretty decent. Still, he, too -- especially in the early seasons -- doesn't exactly stand out on the "treats women with respect" metric. B

Parks and Rec: The main Jewish characters are the Saperstein twins -- John-Ralphio and Mona Lisa. They are each, in their own way, "the worst person in the world." And with John-Ralphio, we get yet another creepy Jewish harasser. D

The Orville: There are no Jews in space.

The West Wing: This show actually comes out great. Toby and Josh are Jewish, visibly so, yet in very distinctive ways. It comes up, though it isn't obsessed over, in ways that feel authentic to their character. And the pilot includes one of my favorite "Jewish" scenes in all of television. A+

* * *

In sum, I'd say that -- outside of shows where Judaism is a central focus (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), there are a dearth of characters whose Jewishness is portrayed (a) positively and (b) as a substantive (not all-encompassing) presence in their lives. It seems that sci-fi and fantasy shows are the least likely to have Jewish characters, which is understandably, though it includes series set on Earth or otherwise "near-real world" conditions. This might reflect anxiety around how to portray Jews in juxtaposition with the occult and/or dystopian authoritarianism without reenacting antisemitic tropes.

On the positive side, The West Wing, in my view, stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd; other solid performers include Brooklyn Nine NineNew Girl, and (for what it's worth) I Feel Bad. But these are exceptional, for the most part, the Jewishness of characters either isn't established much beyond its mere mention. And the main exception is when Jewish male characters are portrayed as perverts, creeps, or sexual harassers -- indeed, this might be the most common way of "marking" a character as Jewish, which is worrisome.

1 comment:

Batocchio said...

The Goldbergs presumably also falls into the "too obvious" category, but it's very well-written.