March 11, 2013 | 5:24 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
FOX’s successful new comedy, The Mindy Project, which just got renewed for a second season, won’t air a new episode until next week, but its most recent installment contains a highly worthwhile encounter with Judaism. For those unfamiliar with the show, series creator Mindy Kaling portrays spunky young doctor Mindy Lahiri, who, among other peppy traits, has an immutable fondness for romantic comedies. Some previous episodes begin with her recounting the splendor of romance in the movies and how it doesn’t always play out in real life. Episode sixteen, “The One That Got Away,” starts somewhere different: Mindy’s childhood days at a Jewish summer camp.
Mindy begins by recalling that her parents would only send her to a sleepaway camp if it was in the “gentle hands of the Jews of the Berkshires.” Upon arrival, Mindy notices a definite difference in her appearance when compared with the rest of the campers, and, one day at lunch, she is interrogated about her religion. After explaining that Camp Takanac has been open to non-Jewish campers since a court case (Chan vs. Takanac) in 1989, Mindy is rescued by the curly-haired Sam, who tells his friend that she is Sephardic. When she questions him about the remark, he skips the explanation and assures her that the joke landed.
That subtle moment is the catalyst for the entire episode, and it’s interesting to see such a quick reference that many viewers won’t understand serve as the beginning of a great friendship. It’s especially notable when taken next to the subject of my previous post, Seth MacFarlane’s poorly-received Jewish joke at the Oscars, something which everyone watching definitely understood. Sam is Jewish because he is at Jewish summer camp, with only his typically Jewish appearance to help identify him further. Aside from a slight instance of intolerance from that other camper, Jews get a pretty good reputation in this episode, and it only helps that Sam has grown up into someone who happens to look a lot like Seth Rogen.
Rogen’s casting seems obvious, but it merits further examination. Rogen recently starred in the comedy The Guilt Trip opposite Barbra Streisand, as a budding entrepreneur who ill-advisedly asks his mother along on a business road trip. I spotted a challah on a Friday night dinner table, but otherwise Judaism is never mentioned, a puzzling move for a film with such prominent Jewish actors, both of whom have hardly kept their Jewish heritage secret. It’s particularly jarring considering an earlier Rogen role, one that he himself wrote, which was as Officer Michaels in Superbad. In one hilarious scene, dumb cop Michaels gets a description of a robbery suspect from a store clerk and concludes that he must be a Jewish African because he looks both like the African-American clerk and his character, who is, unsurprisingly, a Jew. Rogen milks his religion for all the comedy it’s worth.
As Sam, Rogen doesn’t reference his Judaism, leaving that to Kole Selznick Hoffman, who portrays the younger Sam at Camp Takanac. What Sam represents, however, is a missed opportunity for Mindy, who could have had this wonderful romance with her dream guy, funny, charming, and attractive. Sam’s enlistment in the military prohibits him from sticking around to pursue a relationship, and, after a short time of exploration and intimacy, he is gone, just another whirlwind adventure in Mindy’s story book. Objectively, there was no reason Sam needed to be Jewish, and it’s fun to see this positively-portrayed character pop up with a genuine and familiar back story.
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