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The Year In Jewish Television

Some have called this the greatest year in television since 2010 and I think those people are right. Here is what I’ve notice from a year of watching far too much (but really not enough) television:

Jonathan Ames the character is Half-Jewish but the man definitely is not

This might be the last season of what was our favorite show of 2010, Bored to Death. It’s undoubtedly a bummer but, considering how specific a niche it hits, it’s not a surprise. Though, the second season will probably go down as the show’s best, this season felt the most fully realized, and the best reflection of Jonathan Ames himself. As a memoirist, Ames is famous for an absurdly Jewish variety of sexual and personal frankness with an undercurrent of sweetness. Bored to Death, though equally as Jewish and sweet, had never been as comfortable in its perversion, instead using it as a catalyst for action or a gag. Some of have referred to this season as the show’s darkest but in a way that makes it its most honest. Ray fetish for much, much, much older woman was not a one episode goof but a revelation into his character; George’s daughter married a much older man because of his absence as his father; (Spoiler Alert) Jonathan ends the season (the series) knowingly in a relationship with his sister because they’re perfect together. All these stories are treated with certain dashes of silliness (the show is a comedy after all) and seriousness. There is one jokes that jumped out from the season, from Jonathan, “I’m good at platonic. It’s my default sexual setting, after nervous.” Never has a line from the show felt like it could so easily fit within the prose of Ames (the real life one). If this is in fact the show’s last season, I think this is the right way to end it.

Glee still exists and every time I watch it, I think “Man, there are a lot Jews on this show and boy are they all THE WORST.”

I watched last week’s Glee, you know just to check in. Do people still like this show? Did people ever like this show? I’m as happy as the next guy that all these Jewish teens are getting work but do they all have to have such annoying faces. What I gleaned (or gleened) from the episode is that this school that never wins regionals has such a wealth of glee clubbing talent that they could make two teams of annoying jerks. Still, the main team of jerks beat the newly formed jerks (coached by the delightful Idina Menzel). One of the winning jerks went to convince the losing jerks to return to the fold and form a super club of jerks. The losers, however, were worried that Rachel, the show’s queen jerk, would want all the attention because she is the queen jerk. In a big surprise twist, the losing jerks DO join the winning jerks—all hail the super jerks! Next stop regionals!

The Rise of the Jewish Asshole

Friends ended in 2004 and took with it Ross, the last pure manifestation of the neurotic Jewish archetype on television. What followed was the curmudgeon Larry David, the ferocious Israeli Ari Gold, and Judd Apatow’s Jew slob. Now seven years later, there are many male Jews responsible for the lion’s share of their show’s comedy but they are far from insecure nervous wrecks—they’re asshole. Schmidt (The New Girl), Max (Happy Endings), Ruxin (The League), Jean-Ralphio (Parks & Recreation), and even in a way Maroon 5 lead-singer/The Voice judge Adam Levine are all openly Jewish and are all apparently douchebags. The slovenly Max proudly acknowledges that he will best survive a zombie apocalypse because he doesn’t care about any of his friends; Schmidt routinely works taking his shirt off into conversations and speaks in a way where a douchebag bar is necessary; Ruxin behaves like the human equivalent of a Disney villain; Adam fills the Simon Cowell role of his singing competition but replaces a English prickishness with a Jewish intellectual superiority and a uniquely Los Angelian smugness. When I interviewed Schwartz earlier in the year, he had this to say about his scene stealing character:  “Jean-Ralphio is a FUCKING DOUCHEBAG so in my head I’m like, ‘What is douchiest way to do this’“ and he absolutely nails it, they all do. Yet they are all loved characters and its likely cause they are exactly that, characters. In the case of all of them (except Levine who is liked because generally he’s harshness is correct), they are playing against the archetype. All have had at least a few moments of vulnerability that suggest under their tough, wavy brown-haired exterior exists a little man with bad posture, who’s worried that the discoloration on his lip is Cancer.

The Gif-able Jewish Sex Symbol

Two years ago Details posted an article, “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl,” which seemed complimentary but mostly boiled down to “Hey Jews, congrats, your Catholic friend wants to fuck Mila Kunis.” To Details, the “Fran Drescher rep [reputation] has given way to a more smoldering image.” What it failed to realize is there were plenty of people who grew up having a crush on The Nanny’s Nanny. This year’s Jewesses are unmistakable so and derive both a sexiness and power from it. On Community, the hotness of Alison Brie’s Annie’s Jewishness has been alluded to since its first season, but it was this year where her character started to wholeheartedly own it. To this point Community creator, Dan Harmon, was quoted earlier this year as saying, “I … do try many times a season to put Alison [Brie] in a situation, wardrobe-wise, that I know is going to end up as an animated GIF file,” and he has succeeded. Yet, Community avoids reducing her to nothing more than Two & a Half Men styled objectification by winking at it and finding comedy in its absurdity. This culminated in last week’s Christmas episode and her performance of “Teach Me How Understand Christmas” which owed a lot to one Jewish sex symbol of the past, Betty Boop. Similarly, the “billion percent Jewish” Kat Dennings brings an overt sexuality to her supposedly Christian, Max, on Two Broke Girls. The show is a good a show wrapped in the clothes of a bad show but one of its bright spots is Dennings (the other is the second broke girl) who brings a flawed toughness to Max, a centerpiece of which is her crassness. About three times an episode there is a double entendre based joke and though they are oft groan-worthy, they do contribute to the confidence inherent in her character. On Shameless, Emmy Rossum also is not supposed to be playing a Jew, but have you looked at Emmy Rossum’s face. She is the show’s star and frankly, gets naked a bunch. However, though Showtime has a reputation for intentionally gratuitous nudity, Emmy seems very assured in its necessity for the part, explaining on Chelsea Handler: “Sex is meant to feel good, and she wants to feel good. Her life is so shitty in so many ways. Some people use alcohol, some people use gambling, and some people use sex.” I’m aware it’s a bit reductive to assert that these Jewish women’s sexuality is their noteworthy trait; however, it’s also a bit reductive to assert that their characters’ sexiness must be exploitative, especially considering how much ownership each brings to it. More than anything, all three characters are good characters, rich characters and if it means they need to bring a certain Semitic hotness to them, so be it. Also, Fran Drescher came out with a new show this year for TV Land called Happily Divorced—she’s wonderful in it.

The Return of the King

After two years off, Curb Your Enthusiasm came back this summer. This season can be remembered as the one where Larry lives in New York or the one where he is completely single; however, I think of it as the one where he’s the happiest, which might be because of the divorce and/or New York. There was still plenty of grumping around but it was difficulty to ignore a certain smirk that he brought to his performance. In the hilarious episode where he and Rosie compete over the same girl, it was hard not to imagine that instantly as the camera cut they all started cracking up. Often, this can be a problem for sitcoms* but considering how long we’ve known this character (including the years he was George Costanza) as a miserable, unlucky crank, it’s quite nice to see him having a blast.

There’s a dramatic Jewish Lead that you can really hang your Yarmulke on

Football-crazed Dillon, Texas—zombile-apocolyptic rural Georgia—crystal meth ridden Albuquerque are not places that scream “Jews Welcome!” Accordingly, during this golden age of a television there has been a decidedly lack of Jewish leads.** Boardwalk Empire has a bunch hanging around yet despite some being badass they aren’t nearly as well rounded as the principle leads. Also, though others at Jewcy might disagree, it’s hard for me to think of Boardwalk Empire as anything but a very attractive snoozefest—earning it the nickname from our friend Julie Klausner, “Boredwalk Empire.” No, this year’s best new Jewish character is from this year’s best new show, Homeland. Mandy Patinkin, who we (or at least I) last saw 12 years ago playing Huxley in the seminal The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, plays Saul Berenson, CIA Middle-East Division Chief/mentor to the shows lead, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Saul is quite possibly the most nuanced and specific Jewish character ever (yep, ever) to be put on American television. Episode seven (aka the one Showtime will submit for his eventual Emmy nomination) features him on a long drive with a terrorist he’s trying to crack. The drive takes them to a broken down farmhouse in rural Indiana, which we learn was his families manufactured synagogue. He tells the terrorist of feeling like an outsider due to growing up one of the few Jews in town, and the animosity he felt towards his faith as a result. What is so engaging about the character, and Patinkin’s performance, is that beyond the necessary heft behind this moment there’s a twinge of mystery. Homeland is fundamentally a political thriller and with Saul they’ve created a character so nuanced and complicated that it’s hard to exactly know what he’ll do.

Next year should be a fun one: Mad Men is coming back, Dustin Hoffman is going to hang out with some horses, and we’ll all have a blast. Until next year, I leave you with my Top 10 Shows of 2011:

1. Friday Night Lights
2. Parks & Recreation
3. Homeland
4. Louie
5. How I Met Your Mother
6. Breaking Bad
7. Community
8. Happy Endings
9. Curb Your Enthusiasm
10. 30 Rock

*One of the many things Whitney struggles with is how satisfied Whitney the actors looks when the studio audience laughs at the show’s “jokes.”

** Breaking Bad does have Saul Goodman but the non-Jew Bob Odenkirk plays him in a way where it almost feels like the whole Jewish thing is a way to hide his real identity.

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