Posted by Danielle Berrin
I made it 31 minutes into the over-hyped “Shahs of Sunset” before switching it off, less out of offense than of boredom.
The new reality show from Ryan Seacrest productions is a stunningly unoriginal look at L.A.’s Iranian-American community, but because it is the first such glimpse at the much vaunted culture, it raised the right eyebrows, and received a sufficient amount of pre-premiere attention.
Writing in The Jewish Journal, Iranian-American novelist Gina Nahai lambasted the show, saying that it panders to the worst of reality TV tastes, shoveling up stereotypes by the boatload and avoiding any kind of thoughtful realism.
“To say that it’s ‘Bad’ would be a redundancy, given that it’s a so-called ‘reality show,’” Nahai wrote. “Everything — from the characters’ wardrobes, to their speech, to their relationships, and even their homes and cars and purported millions — is dreamed up by ‘story editors’ (read underpaid, non-unionized writers) and show producers [and is] meant to appeal to the audience’s basest instincts — racism, voyeurism, willingness to suspend intelligent thinking — and to remind its critics that viewers get what they deserve. n the case of ‘The Shahs’... the producers have gone out of their way to put together a cast of unattractive, unsophisticated, unproductive and — you’re going to have to believe me on this — most unrepresentative-of-the original characters possible.”
If it seemed that even one of the show’s six main characters might have a deeper thought than what they’re ordering for dinner tonight, Nahai’s diatribe might sting. But fortunately for “The Shahs” crew, sophisticated criticism is fated to drown in the deep end of the pool. Which coheres nicely with the show’s opening narration, in which one character declares, “My parents sacrificed everything for me to be free,” and another concludes, “So we ended up in Beverly Hills.”
In Sunday’s New York Times, Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian-American author and journalist, expressed her dismay with what she deemed the show’s most egregious misnomer: the use of the word “Persian”.
“Oh, it’s the label for Islamic-Republic-disliking Iranians!” Khakpour writes facetiously, about the excuse she used to give when asked about her Persian designation. “Or it’s what Iranians who used to be fancy prefer!”
When Khakpour became an adult, she said she abandoned “convenient euphemisms” and insisted upon describing herself as Iranian, especially in the post 9/11 years. But now, with unflattering headlines about Iranian nuclear proliferation clogging the news, depicting a cruel, authoritarian regime, Persian is sounding pretty good.
“On the show, which follows a group of well-heeled friends in Los Angeles, ‘Persian’ is thrown around as if ‘Iranian’ never existed,” Khakpour writes. “But who could blame them? If it’s a bad time for Iranians, just maybe it’s a great time for Persians.”
Thus Khakpour touches on the only interesting thing about the show: its staging of identity politics.
While foreign policy regarding Iran has prompted an atmosphere of “neurotic defense and justification” for those cut from Iranian—or is it Persian?—cloth, the show is complicating those labels by focusing on a group of immigrants who are, according to Khakpour, “particularly American specimens of Iranian descent.”
Which is all a convoluted way of saying, that it isn’t their Iranian-ness or Persian-ness that is offensive, it’s their American-ness, of course.
“[E]ureka! rest easy, Iranians!” Khakpour practically squeals. The show, “is only American culture, mainlined and snorted to overdose, specifically, the new-money culture of Westside Los Angeles, where too many ethnic minorities fashioned their lives in the image of their affluent white predecessors.”
Phew. It isn’t Persian culture, values, or affluence that are to blame, after all. It’s what happens when those “realities” meet Rodeo Drive.
So when GG, the show’s resident Persian princess swears off her own kind, saying, “Persian boys are momma’s boys. They expect you to cook, to clean, and to do all that, and I would never even do any of that for someone”—what she’s really articulating is an American value, not a Persian one. And when MJ’s racist mother tells her that Jewish girls don’t make good wives because once they get married, they “lose themselves” and become “fat and ugly,” that too is derivative of American thinking.
Real estate entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, who could be called a real-life Shah of Sunset, painted a slightly different picture of his culture when I asked him about it during a 2009 interview. What he described was a Persian pride in exclusivity and excess.
“A lot of people in our culture do things to impress the community,” he said. “There’s a lot in Persian culture that’s gorgeous, rich in tradition, but there’s a lot of negativity in the culture, which has taken the worst of both Persian and American culture. A lot of it is insincerity, superficiality, doing things because you have to not because you want to—like having a wedding for 2,000 people just because you want to invite everybody and show them how important you are.”
He added: “Any community that for hundreds of years wasn’t allowed to have any luxury [and then they relocate and become successful], the first thing you do—I think it’s human nature—is you want to show that. It’s kind of a little bit of that chip on your shoulder, like, ‘Hey listen! We made it.’”
Ironically, the only mildly amusing conversation that occurs in “The Shahs” premiere episode, comes during a dinner outing, when the whole crew discusses cultural stigmas regarding whom can marry whom: Can Persian Jews marry Persian Muslims? Do Persian guys date outside the tribe but only marry in?
“I can’t believe we’re having this stupid conversation this day and age about religion,” one of the guys later says to the camera. “There’s Persian Muslims, Persian Jews, Persian Christians, there’s Bahais—how much more of this bullshit do we have to talk about?”
Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin.
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March 2, 2012 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
More than two decades after Neal Gabler published his magnum opus, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” audiences haven’t tired of hearing about Hollywood’s Jewish history. On Feb. 28, the author returned to the topic at Temple Israel of Hollywood, alongside a panel of artists who’ve lived it: comedian Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; actor-writer Carl Reiner of “The 2,000 Year Old Man” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; actor Leonard Nimoy, also known as Mr. Spock on “Star Trek”; and sitcom creators Marta Kauffman (“Friends”) and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”).
During a speech that more or less reiterated the book, Gabler attempted to define the “Jewish sensibility” — what makes a Hollywood Jew, or any other Jew, for that matter, Jewish. “What gets into our heads that makes us think about the world differently than many other folks?” Gabler wondered.
His answer, in part, came from defining what the Jewish sensibility is not, dismissing a trove of classic cliches. The notion of the Jew as other, outsider, or alien? Too generic — the struggle to retain ethnicity in a homogenizing, larger culture is a challenge for all ethnic groups, not just Jews. “The Groucho Marx approach,” (“You don’t let me in? Screw you!”) didn’t work for Gabler, either. Nor did tragedy: “If poverty and violence were the basis for a sensibility, then where are all the Albanian sitcoms?” he asked wryly.
Gabler’s answer for what distinguishes the essence of Jewishness — wait for it — is that Jews don’t believe in Jesus. “The primary difference between Jews and Christians is not rye versus white bread, mayo versus mustard, Jay Leno versus Lenny Bruce or Cheever versus Roth,” Gabler magisterially declared. “The real difference in consciousness is that for Christians, the messiah has already come, and chances are, if you’re a Jew and you’re in this audience, you’re still waiting.”
Because Christians believe in happy endings, they can’t possibly write good sitcoms, Gabler argued. Whereas Jews — tragedy-prone, misery-laden and suffering-obsessed — can parlay the uncertainty of redemption into marvelous entertainment. “Since there’s no redemption, can never be any redemption, and we’re all screwed, we live in an existential condition of screwdom all the time.” This will still be true, he added, “24 millennia from now.”
Gabler’s theory requires some suspension of disbelief, as it was actually Jews, not Christians, who introduced messianism to the world. The concept appears in much Jewish literature, including the books of the Prophets, not to mention Maimonides’ famous declaration “Ani Ma’amin,” which in its extended Hebrew version proclaims his unwavering, even “perfect” belief in the coming.
But never mind, because whatever it is, the other panelists deftly demonstrated that they have it.
Starting with Reiner, who turned to Gabler after his 40-something-minute speech and quipped, “You used up every word that exists! You’re a pisk [“big mouth” in Yiddish], as my mother would say.”
If the evening proved anything, it was that the old stereotypes about Jews being skilled comedians, good writers and dominant in Hollywood still ring true. A rapid succession of Jewish jokes, one-liners and anecdotes kept the nearly 500-person crowd in stitches for almost two hours.
Gabler: “Marta and Phil, you had non-Jews on your writing staffs, right?”
Marta Kauffman: “One or two.”
Gabler: “Was there a difference?”
Kauffman: “On our staff, we called them ‘The Harvards.’ ”
Phil Rosenthal: “On our staff, we had them fix the computers.”
On the subject of what led him to comedy, Jeff Garlin told tales of cleverly slinking out of fights by being funny. “I didn’t even graduate college,” he said, marveling at his own success. “Being a Jew in Hollywood, they had a job waiting for me.”
The sitcom creators compared notes on characters who were not technically Jewish but still possessed Jewish quiddities. Rosenthal described Ray Romano on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as almost Jewish, because he’s Italian — according to Rosenthal, Jews and Italians are basically the same: “All problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone,” he said.
Garlin brought up Jerry Seinfeld’s non-Jewish foil, George Costanza, whom Garlin considered Jewish, as he was played by Jason Alexander (Jew) and based on “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David (Jew).
“I love the reversal,” Gabler said excitedly, noting that things have changed since the era described in his book when Jews stringently avoided their identity. “Once upon a time, nobody could be Jewish. Now everybody is Jewish; sometimes disguised, but unmistakably Jewish.”
Not so fast, Garlin warned. He recounted a time he pitched a show in which Gina Gershon (“Jewish”) would play a rabbi, but it was rejected by the network.
“You actually said the word rabbi?” Rosenthal interjected, incredulous. “No wonder it got rejected.”
“And you know who’s rejecting it?” he added.
Almost in unison, the panel said, “Jews!”
Nimoy regaled the crowd with stories about the Jewish inspirations for his character Spock on “Star Trek.” The hand signal used as a greeting in “Vulcan culture” came from watching Orthodox Jews daven on Yom Kippur. Because as a skinny Jewish kid, Nimoy said he wasn’t much in a fight, he came up with the idea of defeating his “Trek” enemies by pinching the back of their necks.
Despite Gabler’s attempts to get the panelists to answer big, sophisticated questions (“Is there a tragic sensibility that is the equivalent to the Jewish comic sensibility?”), what emerged was a Joycean stream of anecdotal ethnicity. Judging by this panel discussion, much of how Judaism informs Hollywood’s creative choices is subconscious. Pinning down a Jewish sensibility is as elusive as defining “What is a Jew?”
But Gabler’s point about Jewish cynicism was well taken. Reiner even had a joke to go with it:
“Two gentiles meet on the street. One says, ‘How are you?’ The other says, ‘Fine.’”