Jewish actors, issues featured in new TV season
Members of the tribe are the stars and creators of some of the season’s most anticipated shows on broadcast and cable television and streaming services.
“WILL & GRACE”
When it left the air in 2006 after eight seasons, 16 Emmy awards and countless conversations about dating, drinking and sex, the sitcom “Will & Grace” sent its titular characters off with marriages and children. Eleven years later, with NBC’s revival, the lives of gay lawyer Will Truman, straight interior designer Grace Adler and their friends Jack and Karen have been rewritten.
The 16-episode reboot erases events of the series finale and brings the quartet into the present. Although Will and Grace haven’t been roommates for a decade, “circumstances bring them together again,” executive producer/creator David Kohan said.
In a TV season that’s also resurrecting shows such as “Dynasty,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Star Trek” to capitalize on the familiarity factor, the new “Will & Grace” has a built-in interest. “Why wouldn’t we want to do it?” Kohan said.
The idea to revive the show started when stars Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes got together to shoot a get-out-the-vote video in October.
“The campaign season between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton absolutely was the catalyst for us coming back,” Messing said. “If that election did not happen and it was a different kind of campaign season, we would not be here right now. Doing that skit made us realize that there is a kind of magical synergy between the four of us, and the writing was so smart and funny and relevant that it gave us all the confidence to say, ‘Let’s dive in together.’ ”
To Messing, the table read of the first script “felt like coming home. To come back together and to laugh out loud and to be surprised by one another and to have new stories to tell and to have the opportunity to do it, it’s a no
brainer,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful, crazy thing that’s
NBC renewed the show for another season the following day.
Considered groundbreaking when it premiered for having two gay main characters, “Will & Grace” will continue to explore LGBTQ issues. “When we started, it was revolutionary to have two gay characters, so what we were able to address at the time was LGB,” Messing said. “We stopped at B, and my hope is that now we can finish the alphabet.”
The original series also frequently referred to Grace’s Jewishness, and going forward, “her Jewish identity is absolutely intact,” said executive producer/creator Max Mutchnick, who is Jewish, along with Kohan and Messing. “It’s mentioned in the first episode.”
“Will & Grace” premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 28 on NBC.
“TEN DAYS IN THE VALLEY”
For seven seasons, Kyra Sedgwick solved crimes in the cop drama “The Closer.” Now, she’s playing a woman involved in a crime from a different perspective as TV producer Jane Sadler, the mother of a kidnapped child in “Ten Days in the Valley.”
“I was interested in doing a show where I’m not solving a mystery. I am a mystery,” Sedgwick said, noting that unfolding secrets include “the mystery of the character, what happens to her daughter, and the who, what, why of Jane and her relationships.”
The show also explores the pressures women face as they try to juggle career and family — “the archetypal guilt that women have that every moment spent not with your child is a reason to loathe yourself,” Sedgwick said.
As a producer of the series, Sedgwick was involved “soup to nuts, in everything from casting to crew,” and she said she hoped to direct future episodes if the show has a second season. She recently directed her husband, Kevin Bacon, and their daughter, Sosie, in “Story of a Girl,” which aired on Lifetime.
“I realized I’ve been preparing my whole life as an actor to be a director, and that’s what I should be doing,” Sedgwick said.
Raised in New York by a Jewish single mother whose family was from Germany, Sedgwick has a secular connection to Judaism. “Temperamentally and culturally, I always think of myself as a Jew. I think it’s cooler to be Jewish. I find that Jews are a little more in touch with their emotions than WASPs tend to be,” she said. “But we weren’t raised with any traditions.”
Sedgwick loves the concept of Yom Kippur, “the idea that there’s one day a year when you look back on all the crappy things that you’ve done all year. But every day is Yom Kippur for me,” she said. “What did I do right today? Did I hurt anybody? I go over my day, apologize, and do the same thing tomorrow.”
“Ten Days in the Valley” premieres at 10 p.m. Oct. 1 on ABC.
“THE GOOD DOCTOR”
In his three-decade acting career, Richard Schiff has played many doctors and a number of Jewish characters, including White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler in “The West Wing,” a rabbi in an episode of “In Plain Sight” and a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant in the play “Talley’s Folly.” Playing Dr. Aaron Glassman, mentor to a young physician with autism and savant syndrome in the ABC drama “The Good Doctor,” he checks both boxes.
“I’ve been attracted to a lot of roles because they delve into the experience of the character,” Schiff said. “Some just happen to be Jewish.”
What intrigued him more about Glassman was his desire “to leave the world a better place than how he found it.”
“I have a history with autism and a couple of people in my life that I have been able to help,” he said. “This is a story about a man who reached out to someone who was not only challenged but going through trauma. It’s a beautiful depiction about how a little bit of help can change a life.”
Descended from Jewish immigrants from Austria on his father’s side and Ukraine on his mother’s side, Schiff was fond of his maternal grandfather and remembered watching him lay tefillin and daven every morning — although the Orthodox Jew had a wild side. “He was a gangster with Murder Inc. and drove around in a Cadillac like ‘The Godfather,’ ” Schiff said.
Schiff described his own Jewish identity today as “not religious in any way, but I have a fascinating relationship with the culture.” He has been to Israel, and in 2012 he was a judge at a student drama festival in Sheffield, England, where he put together a Palestinian troupe with a Jewish one. “The Palestinians refused at first, but they ended up doing cultural exchanges and producing each other’s plays,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in.”
Schiff is also interested in doing more theater and continuing to play a wide variety of roles. “I like going from a comedy like ‘Ballers’ to a more traditional drama to a play,” he said. “I don’t think in genres. I think in story and what’s fun and what’s compelling.”
“The Good Doctor” premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 25 on ABC.
“THIS IS US”
With its time-shifting, emotional story that blends past and present in surprising ways, the family drama “This Is Us” struck a nerve with critics and the public and earned 16 Emmy nominations for its first season in 2016.
Creator Dan Fogelman acknowledged the raised bar for Season 2. “But we try to put it out of our mind,” he said. “There’s a lot of expectation. But I’m really confident. The first episode is really strong.”
In the season finale in March, parents Jack and Rebecca Pearson were on the brink of a breakup. The new season begins in the aftermath. Other plotlines will follow their daughter Kate’s romance and singing career, son Randall’s quest to adopt a baby, and son Kevin’s role in a Sylvester Stallone war movie. Stallone will guest-star as himself in at least one episode. “The writers wrote a really beautiful monologue for him about acting and life and loss and aging,” Fogelman said.
Viewers know that Jack will die, but not when or how. Fogelman promised that details will be revealed “at some point this season.” Actor Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack, and Ron Cephas Jones (the deceased William) remain in the show. “Just because somebody dies doesn’t mean they’re not in the painting anymore,” Fogelman said. “You’re always watching how the past informs the present.”
Fogelman’s own past informs his storytelling. He turned a road adventure with his mother into the Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen comedy “The Guilt Trip,” and can see his own family in the “This Is Us” characters.
“Kate is very much my little sister in a lot of different ways,” he said. “I see a lot of my mom in Rebecca in ways I didn’t expect.”
A self-described “Philip Roth junkie,” and cultural Jew whose observance is limited to High Holy Days services and a Passover seder, Fogelman identifies “very strongly as Jewish.” He didn’t make the Pearson family Jewish, but “not for any real reason.”
“I had an image of this Pennsylvania family, the people I grew up with near Pittsburgh. There were not a lot of Jews around,” he said. “But you can see my Jewish family in these WASPy characters.”
“This Is Us” premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 26 on NBC.
“Success means getting to do jobs you like. I don’t have to deliver catering anymore,” said Daveed Diggs, who was a struggling actor and rapper when a meeting with Lin-Manuel Miranda four years ago changed his life dramatically.
In the summer of 2013, Miranda asked Diggs to take part in a workshop production of his hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” playing the dual role of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. Diggs’ performance in the show’s Broadway run brought him a Tony Award and opportunities including recurring roles in the series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Get Down,” “Black-ish” and the HBO mockumentary “Tour de Pharmacy.”
Diggs’ latest project is the ABC comedy “The Mayor,” about a young rapper who runs for office as a publicity stunt but actually wins. He serves as an executive producer and is writing a lot of the music for the show. Other than a tiny cameo, he isn’t in it.
“There’s so much work to do on this show, and I’m so excited to do it that I don’t really feel the need to be in front of the camera so much,” he said. “Since ‘Hamilton,’ I’ve been in the rare position where people wanted me. I had a lot of options, and the ones I said yes to are things that I believe in and make my brain turn over.”
It’s fitting that Diggs became a star in the multiethnic musical, because he is biracial, the son of a white Jewish mother and a black Christian father. “My mom used to do Shabbat every week when my brother and I were young. She was pretty good about making sure we got a sampling of all the holidays so we could choose later whether we wanted to continue. We had Christmas, too.”
He quit Hebrew school, did not become a bar mitzvah, and was too young to remember a trip to Israel with his parents to visit his grandparents. But as an adult, Diggs identifies as Jewish. “There are two things I identify with most about the Jewish religion,” he said. “One is that it removes the idea of retribution: You are good because it’s the right thing to do; and it is a religion that values the idea of argument.”
Diggs will continue to appear in “Black-ish”; he’ll join Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) in the movie “Wonder,” out Nov. 17; and he’ll work with his rap group, Clipping. Next year, the self-described “sci-fi nerd” will play one of the have-nots in the TV-series version of “Snowpiercer,” the science fiction thriller about class warfare on a train.
“I love a lot of things,” Diggs said. “And I’m very, very fortunate to get to participate in all of them.”
“The Mayor” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 3 on ABC.
Jerry Seinfeld returns to the Comic Strip in New York to revisit his best jokes for a Netflix stand-up special called “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” which begins streaming Sept. 19. The same day, Conan O’Brien takes his late-night show to Israel for a prime time special on TBS.
The Israeli comedy series “The Beauty and The Baker,” about a beautiful, rich model who falls for a guy who lives with his parents, begins streaming on Amazon on Sept. 15. Also on Amazon, the Pfeffermans head to Israel in the fourth season of “Transparent,” beginning Sept. 22.
The life and career of director Steven Spielberg are the focus of the documentary “Spielberg,” premiering Oct. 7 on HBO.
Israeli actress Yael Grobglas, who plays Petra on “Jane the Virgin,” returning Oct. 13, will recur on another CW show this season — “Supergirl,” beginning Oct. 9 — on which she’ll play the psychic villain Psi.
Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Judd Hirsch star in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” a Netflix movie about a Jewish clan, premiering Oct. 13.
Jason Alexander packs his family in a bus for a cross-country adventure in the Audience Network comedy “Hit the Road,” debuting Oct. 17.
“Indecent,” the Broadway play about the staging of Sholem Asch’s controversial “God of Vengeance,” comes to PBS’ “Great Performances” on Nov. 17.
Jon Stewart signed on for two HBO comedy specials, one stand-up and the other a mix of performances, sketches and short films, dates to be announced. Stewart will host the “Night of Too Many Stars” autism benefit, Nov. 18 on HBO.
Also, this season of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Lewis Gates Jr. on PBS has revelations about the Jewish ancestry of Larry David, Amy Schumer, Carly Simon, Paul Rudd and Scarlett Johansson, who learns about the relatives she lost in the Holocaust. Sportscaster Bryant Gumbel discovers he has Jewish ancestry on his father’s side, and political commentator Ana Navarro’s genetic profile contains Ashkenazi DNA.