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Jewish Journal

Fall Season’s New Jewish Wasteland

by Liel Leibovitz

October 14, 2004 | 8:00 pm

As the television season dawned on millions of Americans this fall, the three major networks offered viewers a concoction of roughly the same elements they have come to expect over the last few years.

There are the blue-collar, balding buffoons with zany families and feisty wives ("The King of Queens," "Still Standing"), the gritty crime dramas that unfold like mini-morality plays ("CSI" and "Law and Order," with their multiple offspring) and, of course, the ubiquitous reality shows, pitting contestants against one another and in defiance of dignity ("Wife Swap," "The Apprentice," "Fear Factor").

What there are not mostly is Jews.

A careful look at the new season reveals that of more than 50 shows in the networks' fall lineups, only a handful of characters are openly and identifiably Jewish. Coming on the heels of several years of increased visibility -- think "Seinfeld," "Friends," Charlotte's conversion on "Sex and the City," Dr. Joel Fleischman of "Northern Exposure" -- the dearth of Jewish protagonists is peculiar.

"We have lost a lot of terrific characters in the last season, and they haven't been replaced," said David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun's television critic and the author of "The Jews of Prime Time," a meticulous examination of Jewish representation on American television since its inception.

"Last year, talking to Hollywood producers and seeing the kinds of Jewish themes and topics discussed on shows like 'Law and Order,' for example, I thought, 'Isn't it great, we're finally starting to have this discussion about Jewish identity on prime-time TV,'" Zurawik said. "But now, looking at this year, I have to say, 'Where's the progress?' I don't think it's there."

While several calls to producers and network executives went unanswered, the lineups themselves provide the best evidence of the vanishing Jewish character from prime time.

Scanning the listings in search of a protagonist's Semitic-sounding surname is an exercise in frustration. Now that "Sex and the City" and "Seinfeld" are off the air; that the proto-Jewish characters on "Friends" are no more; that the gruff curmudgeon detective Lenny Brisco (Jerry Orbach) has left "Law and Order" (although he is scheduled to join one of the franchise's spin-offs this season), the screen is nearly bereft of Jews.

Coming at a time when representations of Jewish life are shot through pop culture, this trend is particularly counterintuitive.

While Madonna dabbles in kabbalah, Neil Sedaka records in Yiddish and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated," an inventive novel depicting the journey of a young American Jew to his ancestral shtetl, becomes a literary phenomenon, television -- long considered the most accurate seismograph of the American zeitgeist -- is traveling in the opposite direction.

The reversal is also surprising given the convoluted history of Jewish representation on American television. As Zurawik argues in his book, after a brief period in which such openly Jewish characters as Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) of "The Goldbergs" entertained audiences, no Jewish protagonist graced the tube between 1954 and 1972.

Zurawik claims this is due mainly to the psyches of television's founding fathers, David Sarnoff of NBC, William Paley of CBS and Leonard Goldenson of ABC.

The three, all of whom were either immigrants or sons of immigrants, followed the example of their predecessors from Hollywood -- Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn and David Selznick -- and recast themselves as all-American entrepreneurs devoid of ethnicity, race or religion.

Correspondingly, Sarnoff, Paley and Goldenson sought to occupy the screen with uncomplicated, WASPy wholesomeness, a vision that allowed no room for Jewish protagonists.

As the three stepped down, and control of network television moved to the indifferent hands of large corporations, Jewish characters began seeping into prime time, from Seinfeld to Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) of "Thirtysomething" and Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) of "Mad About You."

With the unspoken ban on Jewish protagonists seemingly lifted, and with an array of Jewish characters gaining visibility, Zurawik said he had hoped the trend would grow. Last year, as "Sex and the City" offered quintessential Protestant princess Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) converting to Judaism in order to marry her divorce attorney, the crass yet sweet Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler), the transformation appeared to be complete.

After all, here was the most talked-about show, a paragon of urban sophistication, presenting in a reversal of prior stereotypes a beautiful non-Jewish woman undergoing a serious and meaningful Orthodox conversion and embracing her new identity as a Jew. The future, then, looked bright.

Which is precisely why the new season is such a disappointment, Zurawik said -- a sensation hardly alleviated by the few Jewish characters who are represented on screen this season.

The most visible of the new lot is Tony Kleinman, portrayed by "Seinfeld" alum Jason Alexander (ne Greenspan). Based on the writings of Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, Kleinman is clearly a Jew, yet one that is far from being a complex and layered adult.

"He's like a child, a self-indulgent adolescent," said Zurawik, who has seen several of the show's episodes. "But because he is the new Jewish character of this season, many publications attach all these attributes to him being Jewish. I'm disappointed that the only clearly Jewish character of the new season is such an obnoxious and unpleasant guy who makes George Costanza [Alexander's character on 'Seinfeld'] look lovable in comparison."

Another newcomer is Alan Shore (James Spader), star of ABC's "Boston Legal." Shore, a high-profile attorney, is in part an amalgam of Semitic stereotypes. With his oversexed histrionics, he looks as if he would have fit snugly in any Philip Roth novel.

Similarly, Grace Adler (Debra Messing), the star of NBC's long-running "Will and Grace," is no foe of stereotypes herself. In a new episode aired last week, Grace, who does not have a drinking problem, joins Alcoholics Anonymous. When probed why she attends the group despite not suffering from alcoholism, she replied that AA offers free therapy and free food, a combination that Jews find hard to resist.

While unquestionably well-written and entertaining, the retort, as well as the character herself, hardly breaks new ground in presenting a well-rounded, multifaceted character who is also Jewish.

And then there's "The OC." The show, which debuted last year on Fox to critical acclaim and strong ratings, features Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a Bronx-born lawyer who is married to a non-Jewish woman and tries to reconcile his social consciousness with the trappings of life in one of California's wealthiest suburbs. While Cohen is not the show's lead actor -- the honor is reserved for its young, hormonal stars -- he nonetheless infuses the series with a peculiar sensibility.

Last season, for example, topics such as religion and mixed marriage were debated openly, and the show even featured a Passover seder, a rarity in television history. The seder episode prompted Chicago Tribute TV critic Allison Benedikt to write a review headlined "Finally, TV Jews Who Act Jewish." To boot, the show was created by Jewish 28-year-old Josh Schwartz.

Still, said Zurawik, the Cohens may be Jewish, but they're far from evading the old stereotypes. Sandy Cohen, he claimed, is nothing if not the same old story of the Jew falling for the allure of the non-Jewish woman.

"He is a lawyer finding his entrée, moving up the social ladder by marrying a non-Jewish woman," Zurawik said. "It is a very traditional pattern, and not a terrific thing."

Still, with the show slated to return next month for its much-anticipated second season, Zurawik utilized a business trip to Los Angeles in an attempt to interview Schwartz. He made it clear to the show's publicist that he intended to address the issue of the show's approach to its Jewish characters. Yet all his attempts at an interview, he said, went unanswered.

"I thought they'd be eager to talk," Zurawik said of the show's producers, "that the doors were broken down. But I was confusing the audience with Hollywood producers. I don't think the producers in Hollywood are that happy to have that discussion. When I talk to Jewish producers, they will most often only discuss Jewish characters off the record. The whole subject is still enough of a taboo."

While Benedikt does not dispute the bottom line -- few Jews on television this season -- she offers a different explanation.

"It can probably be linked to the downfall of the sitcom," Benedikt said, adding that recent programming trends stressed the abandonment of the sitcom format -- one heavily influenced by Jewish sensibilities and performers -- in favor of reality programming, one-hour dramas and police shows.

This, Benedikt said, does not bode well for Jewish characters.

"There just aren't a lot of Jewish policemen," she said.

As a hopeful afterthought Benedikt offers one more name: Jon Stewart. The host of Comedy Central's "Daily Show" was born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz.

His show -- available only to cable subscribers but gaining wide attention by critics and pundits as a major source of political news for young, educated audiences tired of the atrophied approach of traditional network news -- mixes high-brow, Ivy League tartness with self-effacing, traditional Jewish humor.

Stewart also does not shy away from peppering his speech with Yiddishisms. In an interview last year with Christina Aguilera, for example, Stewart asked the singer about "Dirrty," her explicit pop anthem, inquiring whether the title reflects sexual promiscuity or "dirt, like schmutz."

Stewart notwithstanding, as the new television season begins, viewers will revel in the exploits of McCoy and Fontana or delight in the foibles of Heffernan or Barnett; the Seinfelds and Steadmans and Goldenblatts are, alas, no more.

The Jewish Week is available at www.thejewishweek.com.

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