In politics it may have been the Year of the Woman, but in television it's been more like the Year of the Jewish Guy. They're everywhere.
Of course Jewish male characters have appeared on television and in films before, but usually as socially inept, nerdy clods, brainy misfits who fail abjectly with the opposite sex. (Think of Stephen Furst as Elliot Axelrod on St. Elsewhere, or almost any character Woody Allen ever played.) Typically Jewish guys have been employed as foils, dramatic devices used to make the All-American Boy hero look even more heroic by comparison.
But that's changed. Suddenly prime time seems to teem with shows like Northern Exposure, Seinfeld, Love and War, Mad About You, Middle Ages, and Flying Blind--shows featuring Jewish protagonists who are not by any measure schlemiels. Neurotic, compulsive, and cynical, certainly. Controlling, obsessive, negative, and paranoid, possibly. But through it all attractive, appealing, and maybe even sexy.
OK, attractive and appealing, anyway.
The impetus behind this explosion of Jewishness should be fairly obvious. It is often said that film is a director's medium, stage is an actor's, and television is the province of producers. Just as most art is at its root about the life of the artist, the Jewish explosion on television is about the people who make television shows.
As Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own illustrated, the film industry has been dominated from its inception by Jewish men. The television industry, as an outgrowth, followed suit. As Gabler also suggested, most of the great movie moguls--Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, David Selznick, the Warner brothers--were for much of their lives consumed with self-loathing. For that reason old movies--and television shows--went to almost absurd lengths to sanitize ethnicity.
But today, thanks to sweeping moral and attitudinal shifts in our society, cultural differences are not simply acceptable but mandatory. Today a mainstream background is a badge of dishonor, something to be derided and swept under the rug. White bread is equated with poison, and people like the Nelsons, the Andersons, and the Cleavers are politically incorrect. With ethnic characteristics transformed from shameful embarrassments into assets that are celebrated and gleefully exploited, the self-loathing of the old moguls has been converted into a positive sense of moral superiority. Today's producers are finally asserting their right to make TV shows about the group of people they know best and find the most fascinating: themselves.
Although you could point to earlier antecedents, thirtysomething is probably the best place to mark the turning point. To many viewers the thirtysomething crowd became emblematic of the maturing baby-boom generation, and as its nominal male leader, Michael Steadman epitomized whatever heroic qualities its members attributed to themselves.
Like Michael, thirtysomething creators Marshall Hershkovitz and Edward Zwick were profoundly affected by their childhood upbringing and their experience at elite east coast universities. They also seemed preoccupied with the business of becoming adults: marrying out of the faith; compromising their ideals to support home and hearth; trying to learn from troubled relationships with parents to avoid the same mistakes while raising their own kids; watching friends marry, separate, get sick, and sometimes die; facing the struggle to remain sane in an increasingly crazy world.
For a producer, a television series can provide a therapeutic outlet for such problems, a forum for exploring his ideas and concerns in public. By the end of thirtysomething's final season, you got the feeling that the dilemmas the cast encountered were lifted wholesale from the producers' lives. In the last few segments, three of the major characters, including Michael, weighed the notion of leaving the familiar, snow-belted northeast--the Land of Their Fathers--for the blinding white sunlight and potentially limitless possibilities of life in Southern California. It's a conflict with which Zwick, a graduate of New Trier, and the Philadelphia-reared Hershkovitz clearly struggled, but seem to have worked out onscreen.
But that's not all they were working out. For their hero, Zwick and Hershkovitz--neither of whom are what one would call an Adonis--cast Ken Olin, an actor whose dreamy appearance and ability to convey self-assuredness, vulnerability, and doe-eyed sincerity turned Michael Steadman, everyuppie, into a bona fide heartthrob (at least among a certain slice of the American demographic). And who can blame them? Given the choice of casting a Ken Olin or a Stephen Furst as your alter ego, who would you pick?
Once Michael paved the way, the troops marched in. Richard Lewis as Marty Gold on Anything but Love and Rob Morrow as Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure were both used to great comic effect as malcontents and kvetches. Despite their whining curmudgeonliness--or maybe to some degree because of it--they were attractive to women. At long last the Hollywood producer could portray himself as the Guy Who Gets the Girl.
And this being Hollywood--the Fantasy Factory--the girl he gets is no ordinary woman. She's a Shiksa Goddess.
To a Jewish guy, the Shiksa Goddess is the forbidden fruit, the ever-unattainable object of taboo and libidinous desire: a long-limbed sex kitten who is smart, independent, and self-possessed but who wants you, you, and only you. She's Jamie Lee Curtis on Anything but Love, and Helen Hunt, Paul Reiser's wife on Mad About You, and the various crushes of Jerry Seinfeld (who comes complete with a dark ex-girlfriend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to drive the point home). Susan Dey on Love and War has an extra spark: an imagined encounter with her, as the nubile Laurie Partridge, served as a real-life double secret fantasy for many men who were adolescents in the early 70s and are now approaching middle age. Now she's a grown-up sex symbol who lusts madly after a Jewish guy. A Jewish guy who's shorter than she is.
The Shiksa Goddess of television reached some sort of apotheosis this year with Tea Leoni, a stage actress in her series debut on the Fox sitcom Flying Blind. In it, Corey Parker plays Neil Barash, a well-scrubbed, dimpled young thing in his first job out of college in the big city, sort of a latter-day distaff That Girl. He meets a blond femme fatale named Alicia, a young fashion designer played by the radiantly gorgeous Leoni as a combination of Diane Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and several incarnations of Madonna. The premise of the show is that Alicia has every man in New York falling at her feet but finds herself irresistibly smitten by the bewildered but uncomplaining Neil. Much of the humor revolves around encounters with Alicia's ex-lovers and the intensity of her sex drive. As the object of her desire, Neil remains fresh-faced, innocent, willing, and endearingly neurotic.
Sexual fantasies are not the only kind entertained by Hollywood types. Another fiction they seem anxious to maintain about themselves is that they are possessed of razor-sharp wit and bull's-eye delivery, the cleverest people in America, totally at ease and able to keep 'em laughing at any dinner party. Do you think it's just a coincidence that stand-up comics Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling both produce their own sitcoms and more or less portray themselves on them?
If this trend is carried to its logical conclusion, we'll soon be seeing a slew of shows about Jewish NBA stars. Can't you imagine it? Scenes from the life of David Silberman, a Harvard grad nearing the end of his career playing power forward for a major franchise on the eastern seaboard. We'd follow the hilarious adventures of David, his radiologist wife (played by Julia Roberts, or somebody like her), and their three boys as they cope with issues like David's secret passion to go to Hollywood and become a producer and stand-up comedian.
The Knick With Shtick. Remember you read it here first.