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Jewish Journal

Encountering Jews on TV this Awards Season

by Abe Fried-Tanzer

December 24, 2012 | 10:28 am

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, courtesy CBS Press Express

Since the next two months will undoubtedly be all about the Oscars, let’s take a moment to recognize the Jewish characters to be found among those nominee lists that reward television too. The two major awards bodies that also serve as Oscar predictors are the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which gives out the Golden Globes.

The Screen Actors Guild unveiled its choices for the best of 2012 on Wednesday, December 12th. This awards body is notable because it hands out precious few trophies, and is very deliberate about its categories. For film, four major acting categories and an ensemble award are doled out, with five nominees apiece. For TV, there is one male category and one female category for each genre – comedy, drama, and miniseries/TV movie – as well as two ensemble prizes, one for comedy and one for drama.

Among the casts SAG nominated, there are four shows with a handful of distinguished Jewish characters among them. Boardwalk Empire depicts a number of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and Mad Men had its new signature Jewish copywriter used by his employers to help make their client Manischewitz feel more comfortable. On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg’s Howard Wolowitz can’t escape his Jewishness – or his Jewish mother – while Glee’s portrayal of its Jewish high school students leaves much to be desired: Puck’s family incomprehensibly screens Schindler’s List every year on Simchat Torah, and Rachel always talks only about what she wants for Christmas despite her obvious, and much-discussed, Jewish roots.

The HFPA, which announced its picks on Thursday, December 13th, managed to honor more individual TV Jews. No ensemble awards exist, and actors are recognized not by gender but by lead or supporting status. Lead stars in drama series, comedy series, and miniseries/TV movies get their own categories, while all supporting actors or supporting actresses from any of those mediums get lumped into one race. What that means for this year is one particularly diverse representation of television Judaism, in the Best Supporting Actor field. Ed Harris’ John McCain and Eric Stonestreet’s Modern Family member are joined by standout players from three very different shows. Danny Huston plays Jewish mobster Ben “The Butcher” Diamond on Starz’s otherwise entirely missable Magic City, the emblem of brutality and power. Max Greenfield is the hilarious Schmidt on New Girl, a well-dressed ladies’ man with frequent stories about his Jewish upbringing and, most recently, his recollection of a directive from Rabbi Shmuley not to tell the other kids that Santa wasn’t real. And finally there’s Mandy Patinkin, who netted his first nomination after being snubbed last year, as Saul Berenson, the distinctly Jewish senior CIA agent who serves as mentor to loose cannon and series protagonist Carrie on Homeland. Saul most recently recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, for the second time in the show’s history, in the season finale after a deadly terrorist attack claimed many lives. Putting Diamond, Schmidt, and Saul in the same race makes for quite a competition, and it’s nice to see such strong, if not entirely pure, representations of Jews in contention for recognition this year.

The Golden Globes air on January 13th, and the SAG Awards are on January 27th. In the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the film nominees from both organizations as the Oscar nominations approach, on January 10th. But fear not, as new shows premiere in late winter and early spring, it’s more than likely that fresh Jewish characters will grace television screens once again.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Abe Fried-Tanzer is a recent import from the East Coast to Los Angeles, and he brings with him his enthusiasm for movies and television. When he’s not watching every...

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