Critic's Notebook: The Pleasures of Peak Jewish TV

Shows like 'The Plot Against America,' 'Unorthodox' and 'Hunters' have brought an exhilarating and enriching specificity to traditionally generic small-screen Jewish storytelling.
Unorthodox: Anika Molnar/Netflix. Maisel: Courtesy of Amazon Studios. Hunters: Christopher Saunders/Amazon Studios. Plot: Courtesy of HBO.

On the rare occasions they're featured on TV at all, Jewish weddings can be shorthanded down to two elements: The breaking of a glass and somebody shouting, "Mazel tov!" Maybe, if the storytellers are feeling adventurous, the bride and groom might be hoisted in a chair.

This spring, though, several shows raised the bar — a bar that hadn't really budged much since the Pfeffermans brought their brand of coastal-cultural Jewishness to Amazon on Jill Soloway's Transparent back in 2014.

On Amazon's Hunters, Holocaust survivors Murray (Saul Rubinek) and Mindy (Carol Kane) throw a wedding for their daughter. Sure, a glass is broken — under a chuppah, no less — and mazel tovs are declared, but actual Hebrew prayers are said! A full horah is danced! Al Pacino wears a kippah! It's a wedding that stretches across a full episode and connects the series' characters to both memories of oppression and the eternal hope of the Jewish people.

Hold my Manischewitz, said Netflix's Unorthodox. Esther (Shira Haas) and Yakov's (Amit Rahav) wedding, conducted within an insular Hasidic community in Brooklyn, takes all the details of the Hunters scene, adds layers of praying and dancing, and even takes us inside the yichud, a specific practice giving couples a brief window of isolation between the ceremony and party. Director Maria Schrader and showrunners Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski approach the ceremony and its rituals as something both joyful and exotic, aware that even many Jewish viewers won't recognize every detail.

This is a column about a particularly fruitful season in distinctively Jewish TV, a surprising anomaly for an industry with no shortage of Jewish talent — but it's really an argument for the artistic advantages of specificity.

The biggest mistake the pioneers of early television made was to confuse the "broad" in "broadcasting" with "general," and TV has been struggling ever since to recognize that you reach a wider audience through something that's authentic and precise than something that's fabricated and supposedly universal. As myopic as the medium has been when it comes to race and gender, religion has somehow also been left in the dark.

Casual religious observance on TV is still the near-exclusive domain of nondenominational Christianity (though shows that actively grapple with faith, like Sundance TV's Rectify, are still rare across the board). The Simpsons go to church every week. Young Sheldon goes to church every week. Last December saw multiple Christmas-themed limited series comedies and each featured midnight mass.

But I've never seen a TV family that lights sabbath candles on Friday night, so when the star of The Godfather, boasting an accent that suggests he once lived in every shtetl or ghetto in Eastern Europe, quotes from the Talmud, it's meaningful. It's also meaningful when Netflix's Never Have I Ever builds an episode around a Hindu Ganesh Puja celebration or when the hero of Hulu's Ramy feels guilty less about sleeping with a married woman than doing it on the first night of Ramadan.

A show with specificity may sometimes be bad, but it will never be bland.

Few shows embody that truth more clearly than Hunters. David Weil's pungent slice of Jewsploitation is as irritating as it is thrilling. You can see its genre inspirations at every turn, but the violent, cartoonish, audacious thriller isn't exactly like any show you've ever seen. A major part of that is Weil's desire to pepper scripts with Yiddish, to layer in minutiae like which family members are designated as mourners at a shiva. The show caught some flak for fictionalizing certain Holocaust atrocities, an unnecessary gilding of an already nightmarish lily, but I was struck at least as frequently by how often the badass Jewishness felt like it was being made for viewers who grew up having to parse the subtext in golden age comic books. 

In Unorthodox, Haas gives an astonishing performance, swinging wildly between flashbacks to Esty's meek repression and her burgeoning liberation in Berlin. Unorthodox is largely in English, which should help it bridge some of the gap that leaves Israeli dramas like Fauda and Shtisel perhaps feeling too "foreign" to attract wide viewership. But the show also expects that certain aspects of its plot (so specific that the eruv around an Orthodox dwelling is the first image we see) will be unfamiliar enough to send audiences scurrying to Google.

HBO's The Plot Against America, based on the the novel by Philip Roth, may offer the perfect blend of Wikipedia and the front page. Its alt-history about World War II-era fascist infiltration of American culture — something the new season of Penny Dreadful attempts, but with less success — is grounded in period details, but Roth's uncomfortable prediction of current events makes it instantly relatable.

There's a friction in all of these shows, stemming from Jewish insecurity at being viewed as "other," that matches a modern moment in which white nationalism and anti-Semitic attacks are again in headlines. Diversity of representation, it needs to be emphasized, prevents stereotyping and helps us understand those people we might otherwise denigrate as "other." It's not just about good art, people. It's about good humanism.

The Levins, the central family in The Plot Against America, are identifiably and religiously Jewish, but in a way that isn't as intimidating as the Hasidic sect in Unorthodox. Characters in Plot do attend synagogue — and not just for weddings — and adapters David Simon and Ed Burns are clever in how they show the family's devotion. In a different year, a show that, without dialogue, critiques sister Evelyn's (Winona Ryder) relative secularity with a fleeting shot of her not knowing when to bend during the Aleinu prayer would be the most Jewish thing on TV by a wide margin. 

Probably it's not a coincidence that the most popular, Emmy-friendly "Jewish show" is the one that's most secular. Everything about the clan at the center of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is identifiably Jewish if summers in the Catskills or the elaborate preparations for a Yom Kippur break-fast or the psychology of different waves of European immigrants are baked into your DNA.

But Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have made a story that's about assimilation in a way that anybody trying to fit in and achieve the American dream can understand. After three seasons, the character most likely to be overtly and demonstrably Jewish is Midge's (Rachel Brosnahan) sister-in-law Astrid (Justine Lupe), a convert whose desire to fit in spiritually in a family that's rarely spiritual, is recognizable on its own terms.

Seeing how much more nuanced other shows have become has made me less eager to embrace the broad strokes of Jewishness — and Tony Shalhoub is ever-so-broad — in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but it's hugely gratifying that these gradations suddenly exist. Here's hoping Ramy and Never Have I Ever usher in similar gradations of Muslim and Hindu representation.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.