The cast of Freeform's "Switched At Birth." Photo courtesy of Freeform.

‘Switched at Birth’ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right


“Switched at Birth” has broken the mold for a show that some might have dismissed as a teen drama.

The series, which premiered on ABC Family (now Freeform) in 2011, is about how two families handle the discovery that their two teenage daughters, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), were — as you might have guessed — switched at birth.

But part of what makes the series unique is that Daphne is deaf — and the show often explores deaf culture. “Switched at Birth” employs many deaf actors, and once filmed an entire episode in American Sign Language, with no sound save background noise. The show is trailblazing in other ways, such as how it handled a campus rape case in what one critic called a “realistically messy and fraught” manner.

Now, in its 100th episode, the show has turned its attention to interfaith marriage, as a Jewish mom and Christian father debate what religion to raise their child.

First, a little backstory: At the end of last season, Toby (Lucas Grabeel), the biological son of the Kennishes, and Lily (Rachel Shenton), a British teacher fluent in ASL, had a child, Carlton, born with Down Syndrome. They move to England to be closer to her family, but this season, they returned to Kansas City and had an impromptu wedding.

Since Lily is Jewish, they had a huppah and an interfaith ceremony.

Katherine (Lea Thompson) lets her son Toby know that she wants to schedule a baptism for Carlton. At first, Toby is indifferent, but because it’s important to his mother, he goes along with her plan, and thinks Lily will too, since she isn’t very religious. When Toby brings it up to Lily, she says, “I thought we agreed not to raise him as anything. We’ll just do the fun stuff like holidays.” Toby replies, “We had a blended wedding ceremony and that worked. So Carlton can be both religions, Jewish and Christian.” Lily points out that you can’t be both if you’re baptized.

This is already territory that is seldom explored on television, where interfaith marriage is frequently played for laughs (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Nanny”) or presents dilemmas no bigger than whether to celebrate Christmas or Hannukah (“The O.C.”)  — which often ends up with an agreement to observe both without even a discussion of what it means to practice two faiths. Seldom do shows address the hard questions that interfaith couples must grapple with, especially when kids are involved.

One scene especially shows how delicately the writers handle the conversations: Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.

Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says.

Even with multiple major story lines to juggle, the writers bring nuance and depth to scenes like these, as when Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.”

Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also. Hopefully the series will show them learning more about Judaism before it comes to a close.

The show’s creator Lizzy Weiss, who is Jewish, tweeted, “I am pleased we got to discuss how marriage and parenthood can change your relationship to religion, even culturally.” For that, we applaud her.

The cast of Nebsu. Photo courtesy of Yosi Vasa.

Groundbreaking TV comedy introduces Israelis to their Ethiopian neighbors


TEL AVIV (JTA) – Last week, Israelis for the first time saw a black lead character on a homegrown, primetime television show.

Nebsu,” a half-hour comedy, focuses on an Ethiopian man who is married to an Ashkenazi Jewish woman. Misunderstanding ensues.

“There is definitely a lot of cultural confusion in the show,” Yosi Vasa, the star and co-creator of the show, told JTA. “But the great thing about comedy is when the audience laughs, that means they get it. So that’s progress.”

Following a series of sometimes violent protests between Ethiopian Israelis and police in recent years, the creators of the new show think comedy is called for. They hope that by making light of the frictions between Ethiopian immigrants and the broader society, they can promote mutual understanding.

“People went out to [the highway] Ayalon South and demonstrated with anger. People wrote columns,” co-creator Shai Ben-Atar said in a promotional video, referring to 2015 demonstrations protesting police brutality against Ethiopians. “Our demonstration is a demonstration of love. We come to the audience with love. We come with characters full of love.”

In the March 9 premiere, Vasa’s character, Gili, steps out of his suburban house to run an errand. A police officer driving by stops and demand his ID, which he has left inside the house. Moments later the officer is aggressively frisking Gili against the trunk of his car.

Vasa, 41, said such incidents are part of his reality, which many Israelis find difficult to believe. But one evening last year, the show’s third co-creator, Liat Shavi, had a firsthand look. After saying goodnight to Vasa, who had stopped outside the office in Tel Aviv to smoke a cigarette, her cellphone rang.

“Suddenly he’s calling me, and I don’t understand. He’s speaking unclearly, and he says, ‘Come here for a second,’” Shavit recalled in the promotional video. “So I look across the street and I see him standing there with a police officer.”

Ben-Atar adds: “He didn’t care about the fact that he was arrested. He just really wanted us to see that it actually happens, and that was really comedic.”

Roni Akale, the director-general of the Ethiopian National Project, said most Israelis don’t get where Ethiopians are coming from because they live largely separate lives.

Ethiopians, who make up just 1.5 percent of the population, tend to be clustered in poor areas of the country, with many living on the periphery. They have the highest poverty rate among Jews in Israel, and are stopped, arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates. Their children perform worse in school and finish fewer years than the general population.

“Nebsu” co-creators Yosi Vasa, left, and Shai Ben-Atar. (Reshet)

“Israeli society doesn’t know us because we are not in their environment. They don’t see how we live,” Akane said. “Maybe this show can highlight the good things that happen in the Ethiopian community.”

What Israelis have seen in recent years is Ethiopians protesting in the streets alleging widespread discrimination. The April 2015 demonstrations were a response to video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian Israeli soldier. Thousands of members of the community joined demonstrations across the country, sometimes clashing with police officers.

“Nebsu” brings Ethiopian culture into Israeli living rooms, and mashes it up against mainstream culture to comedic effect. Gili has had the kind of life that taught him how to pick locks and hot-wire cars while his blond wife, Tamar, played by Merav Feldman, comes from a privileged background.

Although Gili and Tamar are simpatico, their families and the rest of society are another story. Tamar cannot believe that Gili’s mother wants to slaughter a goat that her daughter has adopted as a pet. And Gili struggles to eat his mother-in-law’s bland Ashkenazi cooking.

Tamar is often outraged by the injustices Gili faces and wants to set them right, whereas he has learned to keep his head down. An exception in the first episode is when Gili explodes at the neighbors, accusing them of changing the locks on their doors because they fear him. Worn out after a racially charged day, Gili turns out to have misjudged the situation.

“There are a lot of times you find yourself in a very white environment, so you see things you would probably see differently if you were surrounded by Ethiopians,” Vasa said.

Vasa’s family came to Israel from a remote Ethiopian village as part of Operation Moses in 1985, one of several daring government operations to rescue Ethiopian Jews. The eight of them settled in coastal Netanya, and he bounced between government boarding schools for Ethiopians. As a theater and education student at the University of Haifa, he and a classmate created a series of videos that went viral in the Ethiopian community.

“All they had for media was some videotapes of TV from Ethiopia, which were sold at grocery stores,” Vasa said. “So we started selling our tapes at the same stores. The tapes started getting copied and passed around, so they didn’t show us the money, but it was a great thing to do for us and for our community.”

Reversing the usual Israeli order, Vasa joined the army after university, performing in the storied theater unit that entertains troops. After his three years of service, he developed a one-man comedy show with Ben-Atar called “It Sounds Better in Amharic,” which he still performs. He met his now-wife at an English-languge  version of the show in San Francisco. Like Tamar, she is a non-Ethiopian Israeli, but her ethnic background is half Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi Jewish.

Vasa sees the Ethiopians as just “another Israeli immigration story,” and thinks racism toward his community will fade, as it has toward Mizrahi Israelis. Attitudes toward Arabs, he said, is a separate issue.

“Arab Labor,” a comedy that ran for three seasons between 2007 and 2012, similarly broke down cultural barriers in Israel, in its case between Jews and Arabs. Nevertheless, its Arab-Israeli creator, Sayed Kashua, eventually left the country, despairing that “an absolute majority in the country does not recognize the rights of an Arab to live.”

Vasa started working on “Nebus” in 2012. After he shopped the show to production companies for several years. Reshet picked it up two years ago. Tamar Morom, who heads the Israeli production company’s scripted series department, said the pitch immediately struck everyone as a “good idea.”

She also said the timing was right.

“Probably it wouldn’t have worked five years ago,” Morom told JTA. “There were a lot of demonstrations and not very pleasant issues between Ethiopians and police in the last two years. So it’s not that it’s calm now. I think it’s just the right time to criticize our society.”

Jewish stars burn bright on TV this winter


‘Superior Donuts’

judd-hirsch-2Actor Judd Hirsch — no stranger to workplace comedies, having memorably starred as cabbie Alex Reiger in the 1970s sitcom “Taxi” — returns to form in “Superior Donuts” as Polish Jew Arthur Przybyszewski, owner of an old-fashioned doughnut shop struggling to make it in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood.

Stubborn and resistant to change, Hirsch’s curmudgeonly character declares, “My parents didn’t send me out of Poland in the hull of a ship so we could sell Cronuts.” Based on Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, “Superior Donuts” doesn’t shy away from themes of religion, race, politics and generational divide. For Hirsch, the show provided an opportunity to return to the taped-before-an-audience format he has always favored.

“I love [multicamera] situation comedy because it always takes me back to the stage, being tested by an audience,” he said. “And you can hear their reaction. It’s always new.”

The son of Dutch, German and Russian Jewish immigrants, Hirsch has a bachelor’s degree in physics and didn’t become a professional actor until he was 36. Now 82, he considers himself fortunate. “I look at a lot of actors my age and they can’t remember a word” of a script, he said. He chalks up his vitality to a youthful outlook and staying active and busy.

“I’m in the gym almost every day,” he said, which counters the effects of having a constant supply of fresh doughnuts on the set. His favorites? “A cruller,” Hirsch said. “And I love jelly doughnuts.”

“Superior Donuts” was scheduled to premiere at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 2 on CBS.

‘24: Legacy’

dan-bucatinskyAfter eight seasons and a 2014 reboot, the ticking “24” clock was silenced. But the nail-biting espionage series is back on Fox with a mostly new cast and a story about homegrown terrorism. Dan Bucatinsky — known for his work on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Marry Me,” and his Emmy-winning role on “Scandal” — plays counterterrorism-unit computer analyst Andy Shalowitz, who is Jewish.

Eager to be part of “gasp-worthy television” that’s a hallmark of “24,” Bucatinsky said he was drawn to playing “a very human, comedic character within a serious show, with a snarky sensibility that I find appealing. Andy just wants to avoid weapons and stay out of trouble. He takes anti-anxiety medication every morning. But he’s challenged in a way you don’t expect from the pilot,” he said. “There are revelations that will continue to unpeel throughout the season. Heroism exists in ordinary people too.”

The son of immigrants from Argentina who met at a Zionist youth organization and trace their roots to Poland and Russia, Bucatinsky describes his family as “culturally Jewish, not religious.” A New York native, he attended Hebrew school, went to Israel with his family in 1971 when he was 6, and became bar mitzvah seven years later. “I don’t know how much significance my bar mitzvah had for me at 13,” he confided. “I wish it would happen in your 20s when you have understanding of the subject matter.”

Married to “lapsed Catholic” writer-director Don Roos, with whom he has two adopted children, Bucatinsky keeps Jewish tradition and ritual alive via Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah services. He wrote about the latter in 2012 in his book “Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?” a best-seller about his experiences in gay parenting.

“A bit of a ham” who appeared in his first Shakespeare play in first grade and continued to act through college at Vassar, Bucatinsky recalls making his professional debut in a terrible midnight show in Greenwich Village on Yom Kippur. His parents went to services, then drove into Manhattan to support their son.

From there, Bucatinsky wrote and performed sketch shows to score acting jobs, but he has found working before and behind the camera equally satisfying. “The desire deep in my soul to be an actor is still there, and getting to do these roles now is very satisfying,” he said. “After 20 years I’m having the acting career I dreamed of having in my 20s.”

Currently preparing a new season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Lisa Kudrow, with whom he collaborated on “Web Therapy” and “The Comeback,” Bucatinsky said he would like to direct more, make an independent film, revisit Argentina with his family and learn to play the piano. He said he has mastered the art of making gluten-free latkes, which he serves every year for Chanukah, and wants to write a cookbook featuring gourmet latke recipes.

But what makes him happiest, he said, is watching his children enjoy the beach at the family’s weekend getaway north of Los Angeles. “Those moments are rare and as close to bliss as I can get,” he said. “That and a really good plate of pad Thai.”

“24: Legacy” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 on Fox. 

‘Billions’

maggie-siffShowtime’s “Billions,” about the high-stakes battle between hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who is determined to take him down, is also about the woman deeply involved with both men. As Wendy, Rhoades’ estranged wife and Axelrod’s performance coach and ally, Maggie Siff walks a precarious line.

“She’s a complex character,” Siff said. “Right from the beginning, there were all kinds of contradictions in her, and that hasn’t really let up. She has these two forces of gravity in her life that pull her in very different directions. I love how intuitive and insightful she is, and unafraid to call people out on what they’re hiding.”

At the end of the first season, Wendy “walked out on these guys, kind of blew everything up,” Siff said. “Now she’s trying to get her life back on track. She’s trying to find a place in the world on her own.”

Wendy and Chuck are now in marital therapy, and she will decide whether to sever or repair the relationship.

It’s a juicy role and the latest in a string of Siff’s memorable TV characters, including Tara Knowles on “Sons of Anarchy” and Jewish department store heiress Rachel Menken on “Mad Men,” which launched her career to a higher level. “I’d done mostly theater up to that point,” Siff said. “What everyone thought was an art project turned out to be this iconic thing.”

Growing up in New York, Siff always wanted to act. “My father was a stage actor when I was growing up, so I’d been around the theater,” she said. “I knew I would be some kind of performer, an actor or singer.”

Russian-Jewish on her father’s side, Siff was not bat mitzvah but celebrated Passover with her paternal relatives and feels “culturally Jewish because of how and where I grew up,” she said. Married with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, she splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, where “Billions” is shot.

Siff’s professional and personal goals include “exploring great three-dimensional characters” on stage and screen, working with female directors and writers on independent projects, playing Medea, as well as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” learning a new language, teaching the craft of acting, and visiting New Zealand, Spain, Ireland and Scotland. “We love to travel,” she said. “There are a lot of places on our list.”

“Billions” premieres at 10 p.m. Feb.19 on Showtime.

‘The Good Fight’

justin-bartha“The Good Wife” signed off in May after seven seasons on CBS, but its story continues in the CBS All Access spinoff series “The Good Fight.” The show focuses on Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, whose finances have been wiped out by a Bernie Madoff-like scam, forcing her to take a new job with the all-Black law firm of Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo).

Starting with the third episode, Justin Bartha — of “The Hangover” and “National Treasure” movies — plays Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Morello, a JFK Jr. golden-boy type who faces off against Quinn in the courtroom and romances her outside of it. “It’s not a traditional kind of relationship,” Bartha said. “We might continue to be rivals and there will be conflict. He has secrets. They all have secrets. It’s really topical and the smartest writing I’ve found in a long time.”

Bartha, who has roots in New York and traces his Jewish ancestry to Hungary and Poland, was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., where his family moved for his father’s job. He grew up in a Reform home, went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and four years ago visited Israel for the first time.

“I’m not a very religious person but I do identify and feel very strongly about the Jewish faith, and I love being Jewish,” he said. “I have a connection to Jewish history and feel an affinity toward being part of a minority group, especially now with anti-Semitism on the rise.”

Bartha first got into acting in high school, after he broke his wrist playing tennis. “I was looking for something to do, and there were a lot of cute girls in the drama department,” he said. “I had no idea how much I would love it.”

After studying writing, directing and production at film school and gaining hands-on experience doing various production-assistant jobs on movie sets, Bartha was cast in the reviled movie “Gigli” and worked with director Sidney Lumet on an unreleased HBO film before scoring with “The Hangover.”

Happy to be shooting “The Good Fight” in New York, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, Bartha said he hopes to return to the production side and “have more control over my career. I’m still trying to figure out what stories I want to tell,” he said. “But right now, I’m figuring out how to be the best parent I can possibly be. Everything else takes a back seat.”

“The Good Fight” premieres Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. on CBS All Access. 

‘Making History’

adam-pallyTime travel is a hot trend in TV series this season, but “Making History” plays transcending the fourth dimension for laughs, sending its hero, Dan, back to Colonial America in a magical duffel bag to relive history and find romance with Paul Revere’s daughter and the historical complications that brings. (He also explores more recent eras.)

“There’s a lot of me in him,” Adam Pally, best known as Max Blum on “Happy Endings” and Peter Prentice on “The Mindy Project,” said about his latest character. “He’s a simple guy who’s living in the shadow of his genius dad and looking for a way to live and find love.”

The son of actors, Pally said he was the class-clown type growing up in New York, New Jersey and Chicago, entertaining schoolmates at Solomon Schechter Hebrew Day School and watching “Saturday Night Live” to perfect his Mike Myers impersonation.

A graduate of The New School in New York and a member of L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe since 2003, Pally now seeks opportunities in front of and behind the camera. “I read every script open and honestly and see if it would be something challenging and fun, whether that means acting or directing or producing,” he said.

Two films in which Pally appeared were showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, the comedy “The Little Hours” and the drama “Band Aid,” and he is developing several projects with his production company.

Although the character Dan in “Making History” is not Jewish, most of Pally’s characters have been Jews, and he considers himself “very Jewish, culturally,” he said. “I was bar mitzvah, my wife is Jewish and we raise our kids Jewish. I have my Hebrew name, Asher, tattooed on my chest. You don’t get more Jewish than that.”

“Making History” premieres at 8:30 p.m. March 5 on Fox.

‘Imaginary Mary’

rachel-dratchSome children invent imaginary friends, and most grow out of them as adults. But for Alice (Jenna Elfman), the chatty companion she created as a kid is still in the picture, dispensing advice — for better or worse — on how Alice should live her life and navigate her relationships in the CGI/live-action comedy hybrid “Imaginary Mary.”

Neither animal nor human, but furry and cute, Mary is like a female version of the mouthy teddy bear in “Ted,” just a lot less raunchy.

“She’s a creature, something a 6-year-old might draw,” Rachel Dratch said of the hyperactive character whose voice she records once the live scenes are completed. “It’s an interesting challenge to create a real character with just your voice. But you have a lot of freedom to create something really wacky. Also, you don’t have to get hair or makeup or worry about how you look that day. There’s a freedom to it. You’re literally out of your body, so there’s something freeing about acting like that.”

Dratch, a Dartmouth College graduate from Lexington, Mass., honed her sketch comedy chops with Second City in Chicago before a seven-year stint on “Saturday Night Live,” where she created iconic characters such as Debbie Downer and The Lovers, with Will Ferrell. “It was a dream job,” she said. “I’m still really good friends with everyone.” These days, she keeps a hand in the sketch world with “Late Night Snack,” which airs on TruTV.

Growing up, Dratch was “a nerdy kid,” raised in a Reform Jewish home by parents of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. “I was bat mitzvah, went to Hebrew school, went to Israel once. Now I’m a High Holiday Jew,” she said, noting that she usually spends holidays with her parents and takes her 6-year-old son to children’s services. She has attempted to make potato latkes and her mom’s matzo ball soup, but confessed: “I didn’t really inherit her skills.”

Dratch said her wish list includes writing, doing more theater — especially a Broadway comedy — or “whatever comes along.” She’d like to take her son to Israel and she already sees signs of him inheriting the “performer gene.”

“He does have comedic traits,” Dratch said. “He has a very expressive face. I wouldn’t want him to be a kid actor; but when he’s older, if that’s what makes him happy, I would let him follow his dream, just like my parents did for me.”

“Imaginary Mary” premieres March 29 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

Also premiering

Justin Kirk (“Weeds”) is a billionaire who privatizes a Chicago police precinct to restore law and order and avenge the death of a friend in “APB” (Fox, Feb.6); Israeli actress Inbar Lavi is a con artist who faces the wrath of those she married and swindled in “Imposters” (Bravo, Feb. 7); Zosia Mamet returns for the sixth and final season of “Girls” (HBO, Feb. 12); Elliott Gould plays Isaiah Roth, who heads a firm of criminal defense attorneys in “Doubt” (CBS, Feb. 15);  Judd Apatow is the creator of “Crashing,” which follows comedian Pete Holmes’ adventures in standup comedy and couch surfing (HBO, Feb. 19)); and Josh Bowman plays a time-traveling Jack the Ripper in the TV adaptation of the 1979 movie “Time After Time” (ABC, March 5).

Emmanuelle Chriqui leads Jewish stars, characters coming to TV in December


Even if you’re behind on your Chanukah preparations, you’ll want to take time to watch — or record — these December TV offerings with Jewish themes or personalities.

 

“Shut Eye”

 “I’ve had such an amazing ride,” actress Emmanuelle Chriqui said, reflecting on a career that has run the gamut between contemporary comedies (“Entourage,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”), period dramas (“The Borgias,” “Killing Jesus”) and a gritty crime show (“Murder in the First”). 

 “My goal as an actor is to go outside the box as often as possible,” she said. “For 15 years, I’ve been saying it’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I still feel that way.”

That’s not surprising, considering her latest role in the Hulu drama “Shut Eye.” Chriqui plays Gina, a hypnotist from Las Vegas with mesmerizing abilities in a show about fake psychics and con artists in Los Angeles. “It’s nothing like I’ve played before,” she said.

 “She’s very unpredictable and shady. She’s mysterious, she’s sexy, she’s dangerous and she has a lot of secrets,” Chriqui said of her character. “She’s a survivor and she’ll stop at nothing to do what she has to do. She’s a hustler, but she’s needed to be. Her needs are based on how she grew up. Life’s circumstance makes us the way we are.”

Chriqui researched the Romany con artist subculture and also got some tips from a legitimate hypnotherapist for insights. “The kind of hypnotist I play isn’t the same, but there were some basic things I was able to incorporate,” she said. 

On the lighter side, Chriqui will be seen in the comedy “Super Troopers 2” next year. “I play this French seductress, a political attaché. I got to use my French, which was really fun,” the Montreal native said, adding that next she would like to do a cable drama series and independent films. 

Chriqui, 38, grew in a Sephardic Jewish home, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. The specific food, celebrations and rituals — such as Bibhilu, chanting and lifting the seder plate over each celebrant’s head at Passover — are “so inherent in who I am and how I was raised,” she said. She recently emceed the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, which honored her in 2010.

These days, Chriqui looks forward to lighting Friday night candles and getting together with her “Shabbat crew,” which often includes her boyfriend of four years, actor Adrian Bellani. “He’s not Jewish but he sees what Judaism means to me,” she said. She has been to Israel several times and said she wants to go back.

“Shut Eye” begins streaming Dec. 7 on Hulu. 

 

 Rupert Evans stars in “TheMan in the High Castle.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime Video 

“The Man in the High Castle”

A provocative drama that posits a frightening alternate version of history in which the Allies lost World War II and the Nazis and Japanese rule an occupied America, “The Man in the High Castle” became Amazon Prime’s most popular original series last year and earned four Emmy nominations. Season Two will reveal the previously unseen man of the title and expand on events of the first season, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel. The fate of Jews will continue to be explored as the story goes inside Germany for the first time. 

 “We get glimpses, through our characters’ experiences, that find our way into our story,” executive producer David Zucker said. “It’s something that sometimes you’ll get a sense of and other times it’ll be more explicit than others. Through a reference in a line of dialogue, you’ll understand what’s going on and how we got to the place we are now.”

In the first season, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), who was hiding his half-Jewish ancestry, was arrested by Japanese authorities who executed his sister and her children for his refusal to cooperate. That motivates his actions going forward as he becomes radicalized and joins the resistance.

Being Jewish is “certainly something that’s inescapable for him now. It becomes very much essential to the emotional fabric of the character,” Zucker said.

Evans elaborated, saying, “He starts to question what his identity is, being Jewish and having family that was Jewish. We use flashbacks this season to show seders and that kind of thing.”

The actor, currently playing a Jewish character in the movie “American Pastoral,” characterized Season Two as “bigger in scope, more adventurous in many ways.”  

 “I can’t give away too much,” he said, “but there are some really exciting storylines and set pieces.”

 “The Man in the High Castle” begins streaming Dec. 16 on Amazon Prime. 

Gail Simmons is a judge on “Top Chef.” Photo by Tommy Garcia/Bravo

“Top Chef”

Since 2006, food maven and writer Gail Simmons has served as a judge on Bravo’s kitchen competition series “Top Chef,” sampling everything from rattlesnake to ostrich to insects and everything in between. She puts her expert palate to use once again in Season 14 of the series, which emanates from Charleston, S.C., and has a twist: eight nonwinners from past seasons return to compete alongside eight first-timers in challenges that reflect the city and Southern cuisine.

 “They cook for some of the most talented Southern chefs in the country, which really intimidates them,” Simmons said. James Beard Award-winning Israeli chef and cookbook author Michael Solomonov is among the season’s guest judges. 

Simmons attributes “Top Chef’s” longevity and popularity to its peripatetic format and the professional level of its competitors, many of whom have gone on to open restaurants and win awards.

 “Most food-competition shows are set in a studio. We travel around the country, highlighting the cuisines and culture of the places we’re in,” she said. “These are chefs at the top of their game. It’s fascinating to see people who are so skilled, doing what they do best.”

Simmons has learned to pace herself on judging days, taking a few bites from each plate. “When it’s really good, it’s hard to stop eating, but I will,” she said. “There are days where I’m exhausted by eating. But after five hours, I’ll still want to go out for dinner.”

Although she doesn’t care for veal or black beans, there’s no food she won’t try on “Top Chef.” “I can’t judge other people based on my personal biases,” she said. 

After filming “Top Chef,” which takes six weeks to shoot on location, or traveling elsewhere, Simmons brings culinary inspiration home to her New York kitchen. After Charleston, she longed for Southern food, she said. “Now it’s fall, so I’m into making soups, roasting squash and buying greens, sweet potatoes and apples at the market,” she said.

Traditional Jewish dishes and favorites from the local deli also are on the menu for Simmons. The granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland and Russia, she grew up in what she described as a “pretty traditional Jewish home” in Toronto. 

 “I grew up eating matzo ball soup and knishes, brisket, and latkes, kasha and kreplach,” she said. “I still make all of it for my daughter.”

Simmons learned to cook from her mother, a food writer and cooking teacher. “It was a legacy that she had passed on to me. I followed my own path in the industry, but all of my inspiration for doing so is absolutely to her credit,” she said.

Her father, a chemical engineer and businessman who made his own wine, taught her other skills. “Every fall, we made applesauce together and put it in our cellar and ate it all year round. We made special applesauce in September that we’d bring out at Chanukah to eat with latkes,” she said. “We would make sour dill kosher pickles every fall, when Kirby cucumbers come into season.”

For Simmons, “Judaism is about community and tradition and family and preserving the culture of my ancestors. It’s about observing and understanding our purpose on this earth, and being a contributing member of our community and our world.” She and her daughter, who attends preschool at a synagogue, recently donated their full tzedakah box to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “For me, that’s what Judaism is about,” she said.

Currently working on a cookbook that is scheduled to be published in late 2017, Simmons co-founded a production company that produced “Star Plates” for Food Network, with an eye toward creating programs to showcase talented new chefs, especially women. Hosting is always a possibility, “but I’m not doing it to make shows for myself,” she said. “I want to find the next generation and give them a platform.”

 “Top Chef” premieres Dec. 1 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

 Also: Harvey Fierstein reprises his Tony-winning drag role as Edna Turnblad in NBC’s latest musical, “Hairspray Live!” (Dec. 7). Liza Weil, now appearing in the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder,” will reprise her role as Paris Geller in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Netflix (begins streaming Nov. 25). Lola Kirke returns as symphony oboist Hailey Rutledge in Season Three of Amazon Prime’s “Mozart in the Jungle” (begins streaming Dec. 9). 

Julie Klausner talks ‘Difficult People,’ her ‘very Jewish’ comedy series


“Difficult” only begins to describe Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, the snarky, pop culture-obsessed, 30-something New Yorkers at the center of the Hulu comedy series “Difficult People.” They’re best friends and aspiring comedians whose get-ahead schemes fail spectacularly — and hilariously. 

And like the actors who play them, they’re both Jewish, which is an integral element of the show.

“I think the whole show is very Jewish. Being Jewish is a very important part of who I am, at least culturally,” said Julie Klausner, who created the sitcom and stars in it opposite Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street,” “Parks and Recreation”) as her gay best friend.  

Klausner didn’t specifically set out to do a Jewish show. “But I wanted to write something that was very honest and true to life. I think one of the reasons people respond to the show is that it’s so specific,” she said. “I don’t turn away from exploring that, even if there are people watching who aren’t Jews and have no idea what a shiva call is.”

Jewish holidays, family dynamics and references pepper the plots, many of which are inspired by Klausner’s experiences as a writer, performer and single New Yorker. There was a Yom Kippur episode in the first season, and in the second — which begins streaming July 12 — Julie talks her way into a group of high-powered Jewish showbiz women, but it doesn’t exactly work out. 

How close is the TV Julie to the real one? 

“I think she’s dumber than me. I think she’s less self-aware. And she has better hair than me because there are people who are paid to make sure it’s in place,” Klausner said. 

She wrote reality show recaps like her character does, and her love of Broadway is apparent. In one new episode, Julie takes revenge on a scammer who sold her fake theater tickets on Craigslist, “which really happened to me,” she said.

Klausner and Eichner met when he contacted her to write for his “Billy on the Street” series and they bonded over common circumstances, interests and envy of others. “I’m 37 and I spent my 20s and 30s watching my friends go onto really great things,” Klausner said, and that jealousy motivates a lot of the characters’ bad behavior. Often obnoxious and sometimes offensive, the duo are redeemed by their vulnerability and foibles.

“One of the charming qualities of these characters is their gleeful lack of self-awareness and their surprise whenever someone calls them out on acting completely inappropriate,” Klausner said.

Klausner said series executive producer Amy Poehler, whom she met in 2000 when she became part of the collaborative comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, was crucial to developing the comedic tone. When Klausner wrote the spec pilot script that became “Difficult People” based on her experiences and bits from her “How Was Your Week?” podcast, she sent it to Poehler, who came up with the title, fleshed out supporting characters and helped her turn the idea into a series. 

“She was very instrumental in shaping it,” Klausner said. “She insisted that the characters remain vulnerable. It’s important for the emotional investment of the audience and to make the characters more interesting and fun to watch.”

This season, Julie and Billy have victories as well as setbacks. “They’re slowly getting more opportunities. They’re inchworming ahead in the Hollywood food chain,” Klausner said. 

Their love lives are still a big part of the show, as are big-name guest stars in often unexpected roles. In addition to Poehler, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Joel McHale, Sandra Bernhard and Amy Sedaris appear this season, along with Nyle DiMarco, cast before his “Dancing With the Stars” win.

“I have a reverse casting couch where I promise not to sleep with them. It usually works like a charm,” Klausner joked about scoring celebrity guests. The reality, though, is “they love the show and come to us and we fit them in or write a part for them,” she said. Meryl Streep, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest top her future guest wish list.

Klausner, who still does her podcast in addition to writing and starring in “Difficult People,” always wanted to write and perform, “but it was easier for me to get work as a writer. I don’t audition very well,” she said. “My skill set is very specific. For whatever reasons, I never got jobs as an actor. I knew that if I wanted to act, I needed to write something for myself.”

She began writing in her adolescence “as a means of dealing with my social surroundings and feeling like I wasn’t popular and would never have a boyfriend, or that I was fat and I didn’t fit in,” she said. Joining the Upright Citizens Brigade enabled her to experiment and find her comic voice. 

A native New Yorker, Klausner is from a Conservative Jewish family, attended a Jewish school and had a bat mitzvah. “I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity. It’s a big chunk of who I am,” she said. Today, she goes to services during the High Holy Days and has Passover seders with her family. But she feels her Jewish influence most significantly in the strength it gives her.

“I’m blessed with some pretty tough DNA,” Klausner said. “We are blessed with intelligence and resilience. I think the clannishness of Jews has served me well as someone who is seeking her own tribe in my creative community and being OK with not appealing to everyone.”

Now adapting her 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band,” into a screenplay and co-writing a pilot for actress Shannon DeVido, Klausner considers “Difficult People” her greatest accomplishment to date. 

“I don’t take this chance lightly. I take this opportunity seriously and put everything I have into it,” she said. “I’m very proud of it.”

Egyptian peace plan looks to engage ‘most extreme elements in Israel’


Last year’s Egyptian television series for Ramadan “Harat al Yehud” (Jewish Quarter) displayed nuance and nostalgia toward Egypt’s mid-century “Israelites.”

This holiday season’s “Alqayasar” (The Kingpin) reveals a full-frontal hardening of attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians of Gaza.

“Alqayasar” portrays the evil deeds and shady alliances of a terror cell leader who uses tunnels near Rafa to commute between his hideouts in the Nile Delta and the Gaza headquarters of Islamist groups, where he also meets up with Palestinian mafia dons and hatches a series of plots against the Egyptian homeland.

Much of the action takes place in the North Sinai, where Egyptian forces are in the third phase of a struggle against the local branch of ISIS, dubbed Operation Martyr’s Right by the army chiefs in Cairo. 

Both the Ramadan holiday and the “Alqayasar” series have several more weeks to go, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the show’s virtuous and now digitally savvy Egyptian army will ensnare the fictional kingpin by the time the country celebrates Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the month of fasting.

Less certain, however, is the outcome of efforts by real-life Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, commonly known as Sisi, to quell a Sinai insurgency and motivate the Israelis to conclude a statehood deal with the Palestinians.

Both items are linked in Egyptian strategic thinking. 

One year ago, Sisi told a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute “will eliminate one of the most important reasons relied upon by terrorists to attract people to join their cause.”

Last month, the Egyptian president said his country is willing to exert all possible efforts to make a final peace deal work between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sisi made a direct appeal on Israeli TV channels pledging that, once an agreement is reached, both peoples will be able to overcome the layers of animosity currently separating them, “just as the Egyptians and Israelis have.”

While Cairo and Jerusalem now enjoy unprecedented levels of security cooperation, neither the Egyptian military nor its diplomats have ever reconciled themselves with Israel’s 2004 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. 

At the time, the army expressed fears of the consolidation of a Hamas-controlled entity on the edge of the Sinai and fretted over the possibility that an Islamist Gaza would militarize the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political echelon saw the move as a deviation from the Bush roadmap, which in part reflected the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace initiative. 

As far as Cairo is concerned, events since the withdrawal have proven these pessimistic forecasts accurate. 

Saeed Okasha, in-house Israeli affairs analyst for the quasi-governmental Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Sisi’s new initiative is connected to the rise of ISIS militancy — the radical Islamist group claimed responsibility for the October explosion of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai and is believed by many Egyptians to be the likely culprit behind the downing of the EgyptAir flight from Paris in May — and, as importantly, the emergent threats posed by Iran to the Sunni Arab states.

“The IS presence in the Sinai, the provision of weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood from Gaza and the lack of a breakthrough on Palestinian statehood are related problems for us,” Okasha said in an interview with the Journal. 

“But now we are facing [a] new reality where both the Arabs and Israelis don’t trust the Americans to coordinate a peace effort, and the Saudis have joined us in an effort find to a solution that frees us to confront Iran.”

A poll released by the by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya on the eve of its annual conference seems to demonstrate that public opinion in Egypt and the Gulf is aligned with Sisi and Saudi King Salman.  

More Saudis (41.6 percent) and Egyptians (32.1 percent) think the next U.S. president should get behind a regional agreement, rather than force direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which garnered only 18.9 percent approval in the Saudi kingdom and 25.5 percent from Egyptians. 

Both Egypt’s and Jordan’s ambassadors to Israel participated in this year’s Herzliya conference.

“It’s time to activate the Arab Peace Initiative,” said Egypt’s ambassador, Hazem Khairat, referring to the regional framework conceived by the Saudis under the rubric of all Arab states fully recognizing Israel, in return for an independent Palestinian territory resembling something close to the 1967 borders.

“The two-state solution is the only way to end this conflict. There is not much time left, and there is no other alternative,” Khairat said.

Eran Lerman, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center, thinks regional realities in 2016 have generated positive changes in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. 

“Both face the same threats to their security — Iran, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood — even if the Egyptian order of priorities is the reverse of the Israeli.”

The Al-Ahram Center’s Okasha says Egypt won’t even let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s Defense Minister deter efforts to broker a deal. 

“We think Israeli public opinion will be more convinced by an agreement backed by someone like Lieberman. If you want real peace, you have to do it with the most extreme elements in Israel,” Okasha said.

“And that is what [Anwar] Sadat achieved with Menachem Begin.” 

‘Dig’ producer sues insurer, saying 2014 Hamas rockets were terrorism, not war


USA Network’s owner is suing the company’s insurer for refusing to cover expenses after filming of the series “Dig” in Israel was interrupted by Hamas rocket attacks.

The Atlantic Specialty Insurance Company is denying a $6.9 million claim because it defines the 2014 rocket attacks as war, not terrorism, the Hollywood Reporter reported Monday. The insurer excludes coverage for war or warlike action, according to the suit.

The mystery-thriller miniseries is set in Jerusalem and began filming in Israel, but shifted production to New Mexico in the summer of 2014 when Israel was hit by multiple rockets fired by the terrorist group Hamas, which governs Gaza. 

 

Israel launched the seven-week Operation Protective Edge in response to multiple Hamas attacks that summer.

In a complaint filed in a California federal court on Monday, Universal Cable Productions, of which USA Network is a subsidiary, the company is arguing that the coverage should have been provided because the insurance policy does not exclude acts of terrorism, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The complaint alleges that a representative of the insurance company told NBCUniversal in a letter dated July 28, 2014, that “the terrorism coverage should not apply” because the focus of the acts “is not the United States or its policy” and “the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury has not certified” that summer’s events as “acts of terrorism.”

The suit also argues that the Gaza Strip is not a “recognized sovereign nation.”

“The United States government does not recognize the Gaza Strip as a sovereign territorial nation, and does not recognize Hamas as a sovereign government,” the complaint argues. “Rather, the United States government has officially designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, Atlantic has ignored the United States government position and applicable law.”

The production company called the insurer’s position “a self-serving attempt to invoke the war exclusion and avoid its coverage obligations.”

The complaint also references State Department reports and travel advisory warnings about Hamas and says that the insurer initially agreed that an insured event had occurred but then changed its position.

The series, which was canceled after airing for one season in the spring of 2015, was created by “Homeland” creator and Israeli director Gideon Raff. Pro-Palestinian groups objected when it was announced that it would be filmed in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which has been a flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Jill Kargman is a modern Jewish mother in ‘Odd Mom Out’


Following Mark Twain’s famous advice to “write what you know,” Jill Kargman penned satirical stories about being a mom who didn’t fit the mold of the perfect Upper East Side Manhattan socialite. Then she turned those tales into the hit Bravo series “Odd Mom Out,” in which she stars as a fictionalized — but emphatically Jewish — version of herself. 

With the second episode of its second season set on Yom Kippur and, Jill Kargman promises, Jewish references sprinkled throughout the series, “The humor is very Jewish,” she said. “We embrace my ‘Jewyness.’ ”

But you don’t have to be Jewish — or a mom — to appreciate the humor of “Odd Mom Out,” which returns June 20 at 10 p.m. 

“I don’t think it’s about parenting. I think it’s about fitting in and being an outsider, and that’s a universal theme,” Kargman said, noting that teens and gay men have embraced her show. So have straight men who got hooked by watching with their wives and girlfriends. 

‘Good Wife’ creator Michelle King satirizes D.C. politics in ‘BrainDead’


The acclaimed drama “The Good Wife” ended its seven-season run May 8, and Michelle King, who created, wrote and produced the series with her husband, Robert, is already missing it. 

“It’s bittersweet. It’s sad to say goodbye to these characters,” she said. “I’ve read stories in the newspaper or heard things and thought, ‘There’s an episode in that,’ and then realized [there were no more]. But we feel a lot of gratitude that we were allowed to end the show how and at the time we wanted.”

The Kings have already moved on to another series for CBS, a satire of Washington, D.C., politics with a science-fiction twist, playfully titled “BrainDead.”

“It’s an effort to explain all the craziness that’s going on in D.C. right now, which, as far as we’re concerned, can only be explained by bugs from outer space crawling into politicians’ ears,” King said. “It has some shocks and scares and a lot of humor, and also a romance and some real characters at the center of it.”

The heroine is Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Mercy Street”), the daughter of a Democratic political dynasty who left Washington to make documentaries in Los Angeles. As the series begins, she has returned to the nation’s capital because her brother (Danny Pino), a Maryland senator, has asked her to run his office. 

When the alien ear-invaders attack, they make their victims on both ends of the political spectrum more fanatical and extreme than ever. “There are no more moderates left. D.C. stops and nothing gets accomplished. So our heroes have to work together across the aisle,” King said.

If that scenario sounds reminiscent of current election year divisiveness, it’s purely coincidental. The Kings sold the series to CBS in fall 2013. Their inspiration was the fiscal crisis that shut down the federal government at that time. 

“There was a lot of unexplained craziness,” King said. “We really like politics, but to just do a straight political show, our concern was that it would veer toward the earnest, and that was not what we wanted. So this was a way to tell the story with a bit more fun.”

The series is shot in Brooklyn, N.Y., with additional exterior locations in Washington, D.C. It has an initial 13-episode order, which King finds a lot more manageable than the 22 “Good Wife” episodes produced each year.

Although there were Jewish characters in “The Good Wife,” including Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) and his daughter Marissa (Sarah Steele), there are none in the first season of “BrainDead.” But that could change in the future.

When asked whether being Jewish influences her writing, King said: “That’s like asking if being left-handed or green-eyed influences my writing. It’s so intrinsic to who I am as a person. It’s really hard to parse it out.”

There are Holocaust survivors on both sides of King’s family. “My mother’s family was underground in Holland and my father’s family kept moving from country to country after they left Germany in 1933,” she said. “They kept being displaced. They made it to the United States in 1940.”

Today, she is “acutely culturally identifying” with Judaism. Robert, her husband of 29 years, is Catholic, and the difference in faiths has never been an issue for them. “It’s worked out far more seamlessly than I could have hoped,” King said. Their 16-year-old daughter “is being raised with both traditions and is fluent in both.”

Collaborating so closely with her spouse is similarly seamless. “We never really try to separate the two,” she said of work and home life. “It flows naturally.”

King is proud that she and Robert “tried as hard as we could with ‘Good Wife,’ and we never settled. We really put our utmost into it,” she said, adding that she hopes to continue writing and creating quality shows for television. On her future slate: a “Good Wife” spinoff for CBS All Access, the network’s subscription-based video-on-demand and streaming service. Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo will star.

And what is King’s proudest personal accomplishment? She didn’t hesitate to answer. “The friends and family that I’ve been lucky enough to keep around me.” 

“BrainDead” premieres at 10 p.m. June 13 on CBS.

Weston latest Jewish actor to take the plunge as Houdini


The life of renowned Hungarian-Jewish magician and escapologist Harry Houdini has been portrayed onscreen by multiple Jewish actors, including Tony Curtis, Paul Michael Glaser and Adrien Brody. 

The tradition continues with Michael Weston as the showier half in the Fox series “Houdini & Doyle,” which premiered May 2 and pairs Houdini with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan) to help Scotland Yard solve crimes. Jewish on his father’s side, Weston is the son of actor John Rubinstein and grandson of pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

While the lighthearted series focuses on paranormal-themed cases and an argumentative relationship between the two men, who also clashed in real life, “Houdini and Doyle” makes Houdini’s Jewish heritage part of the plot. “Houdini was up against a lot of racism and anti-Semitism in his life and had to find his way through that,” Weston said in an interview. “In one episode, there’s a story where he gets into a fight when he’s confronted by anti-Semitism. He’s a very brash character, and it touches a chord in him.”

Joining the cast just a week before shooting began, Weston didn’t have much time to prepare, but he learned as much as he could about Houdini, his relationship with Doyle and the show’s turn-of-the-20th-century setting. 

“He was a Jewish immigrant who pulled himself up by the bootstraps from poverty and became this international celebrity, but he was this odd mama’s boy,” Weston said of Houdini. “There’s a madness to him, a mischief to him, and there’s this great showman persona that precedes him by a mile. But behind that is a guy with a lot of questions and a vulnerable soul. He likened Houdini’s friendship with Doyle to “a great boxing match, with someone he respects but also frustrates him. They’re friends, but it’s contentious. They don’t agree on anything. Their whole approach to life is different. But they need each other and thrive on the challenge, which is constant,” Weston said. “They’re two great minds going at figuring out a puzzle.”

Weston relished playing his first period role. “I loved every second of it. The sets were spectacular; the costumes were these wonderful, glorious clothes you couldn’t believe you got to wear. It was all so meticulously executed,” he said of the 1901 setting. “We had tailors in London [from shops that] have made the same shoes and fabrics for 300 years, weaving these waistcoats for us.”

Weston recalled riding in a carriage for a scene “where everything felt so real that you lose yourself in it. We had these moments that you so rarely get as an actor. It was magical,” he said. As for practical magic, Weston learned some tricks “on the fly. I get to do a lot. I’m very amateur at this point. There’s a guy named Danny Hart who showed me how to make a card disappear and appear again. That’s the best trick I had,” he said. “It was harder than I thought it would be to learn. It took hours.” 

Much more daunting was replicating Houdini’s daredevil escapes, “with some very helpful stuntmen,” Weston said, recalling the heart-stopper that had him shackled and suspended upside down in a water tank. 

“I was sort of cocky about it at first. I thought I could do it. I’m not claustrophobic and I’m [a] relatively good swimmer,” Weston said. “But when you’re shackled and hanging upside down in this tank with, like, four tons of water … I got so nervous that I couldn’t catch my breath. They’d plunge me in and I had to remain serene and calm. But it was terrifying. I did it for 20 seconds and Houdini did it for three minutes-plus.” 

It gave him a new appreciation of Houdini’s accomplishments. 

“He embodied the inexplicable in a way that people still can’t figure out exactly how he did things. There are a lot of question marks about the feats that he did,” Weston said. “When you can make someone feel that sense of wonder again, which I feel this show does, it makes you nostalgic for that time.”

Weston, a New York native, grew up in a non-religious home in a Jewish community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with Jewish friends whose seders and bar mitzvahs he attended. “It’s been a big part of my life,” he said of participating in those traditions.

A graduate of the theater program at Northwestern University, his screen credits include TV shows “Six Feet Under,” “Scrubs,” “House M.D.,” “Burn Notice,” “Elementary” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as well as the films “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here,” both starring and directed by his friend Zach Braff.

Weston was in the midst of shooting “Houdini & Doyle” in Toronto when his wife, singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn, was due to give birth to their first child. “I made it back to L.A. for the birth but had to go back and shoot, which was tortuous. But I’ve been home since, and it’s the greatest thing that’s happened to me,” Weston said of his son, River, now 5 months old. 

Weston is hoping “Houdini & Doyle” will catch on with audiences. 

“It has these very pertinent, modern themes that we’re dealing with that have this great historical, real backdrop to set it in,” Weston said. “But if we get a second season, I’ll be logging some serious hours at the Magic Castle.”

“Houdini & Doyle” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

Lisa Edelstein returns in ‘Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce’


With its frank, funny dialogue and authentic take on adult relationships and life in Los Angeles, “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” returns Dec. 1 to Bravo for its second season, providing a plum role for “House, M.D.” and “The West Wing” actress Lisa Edelstein. Edelstein plays Abby Shoshanna McCarthy, a Jewish (on her mother’s side) writer navigating newly single life with the help of her divorced friends. In Season 2, former marriage-advice maven Abby has reinvented herself as a happily single “Face of Divorce” columnist, but that’s complicated by the fact that she and her estranged husband, Jake (Paul Adelstein), have secretly rekindled their romance. “When we last saw Abby in the finale of Season 1, things were still pretty confusing for her, relationship-wise,” Edelstein said in an email interview. “Season 2 starts just a matter of days later, and you will see Abby and Jake try and give things a go just one more time, to see if they’ve learned enough in their painful time apart to actually save their marriage. Now that she has inadvertently become the face of divorce, staying with her husband is as threatening to her burgeoning new career as leaving him was in the early part of Season 1. She is still trying to be all things for all people and it really bites her in the ass, big time.”

It’s a predicament that rings true for Edelstein. 

“Abby’s journey reminds me of my own when I was in my 20s,” she said. “Lots of mistakes and misjudgments due to inexperience in the big, bad world of dating. Meanwhile, her career is taking off in an unexpected direction and taking her out of her comfort zone. In other words, the s— hits the fan, and hilarity ensues. And crying and yelling, too.”

The character’s vulnerability, flaws and foibles are the most attractive element for her as an actress. “Despite the effort she puts into putting on a good face, she’s completely incapable of it,” Edelstein said. “She’s clumsy, she tries hard, she’s expressive, she’s fun. It’s an amazing job for me. I get to do physical comedy, drama, dramedy, all rolled into one job. I count my lucky stars everyday, even when I’m too exhausted to count.”

Abby is the latest in a long line of Jewish characters Edelstein has played, including a rabbi on the sitcom “Nothing Sacred,” an Orthodox woman in an episode of “Family Law” and Dr. Lisa Cuddy on “House,” a role she played for seven years. 

“I don’t do it on purpose, but somehow 90 percent of the characters I play become Jewish by Episode 2. I guess I don’t pass,” she said, putting Lisa Cuddy, Rhonda Roth on “Relativity” and, especially, Abby McCarthy at the top of that list. “I’m sort of living my favorite experience right this second.”

Edelstein enjoys the opportunity to show Abby’s Jewish side, and that arose again this season, but not without calamity.

“We have a family dinner at one point this season, and on the day we shot it, we realized what a great opportunity it would be to make it another Shabbat dinner. Even though the dinner would be almost over, you’d still see the remnants of the ritual: candles burning down, crumbs of bread on the challah plate,” she said, noting that “a sudden inspiration to make it a Shabbat dinner is not so easily done in Vancouver,” where the series is shot.

“We have a new, wonderful set-decorating team this year and they had no idea what Shabbat candles looked like, or where to find a challah, once we explained what a challah was. If you have never seen a challah, I have no idea what you’d think ‘braided egg bread’ actually looked like — probably some monstrous combination of scrambled eggs twisted over a loaf of white bread,” she said.

She has fond memories of real-life Shabbat dinners and other Jewish rituals celebrated in her youth.

“Relative to the people I grew up around, ours was a very traditional household,” she said. “My grandparents were Orthodox, my family was Conservative, our house was kosher, we hadShabbat dinner every Friday night and went to synagogue on Saturdays. We built sukkahs, we played dreidel (although I still don’t understand that game) and we had what seemed like 18 sets of dishes and silverware.”

One particular tradition proved to be pivotal and influenced her choice of career.

“My bat mitzvah was the first time I realized I had a completely captive audience. I sang that haftarah like I was Ethel Merman,” Edelstein said. “Other than that, I was a tiny, flat-chested, disco dancing girl with large, plastic-framed glasses, a head too big for her body and hair that was somewhat desperately blown into a (very unsuccessful) flip.”

Edelstein has been to Israel four times, “first as a little girl visiting relatives and the last time just a few years ago, on a trip with my now-husband and a bunch of the folks from ‘House.’ It’s wonderful, complicated and intense but it’s hard to have a free and easy, all encompassing opinion on the place as a whole, as it’s also the hotbed of many opposing ideas.” 

Jewish tradition continues to be important to Edelstein.

 When my husband and I got married it was important to both of us to have a wedding riddled with ritual,” said Edelstein, who married Robert Russell (né Uswetsky, a Russian Jew) in May 2014.

“To me, it’s like an invisible ribbon that binds me to the generations before me and the ones yet to come, like touching the past and the future simultaneously,” she said. “We have Shabbat dinner with the kids, too. It’s very sweet. I hope their memories of these things help inform them when it’s time for them to make a family and a home life. But either way, I’m glad we were able to share ours.”

“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” premieres at 10 p.m. Dec. 1 on Bravo.

Where Jewish stars are shining this season


With Andy Samberg emceeing the Emmy Awards on Fox (Sept. 20) a week before his return in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” style maven Rachel Zoe hosting the weekly Lifetime talk show  “Fashionably Late” (Sept. 24), plus former kid stars Josh Peck and Fred Savage in the back-to-back Fox comedies “Grandfathered” and “The Grinder” (Sept. 29), and David Krumholtz in drag as a Boca Raton Jewish grandma in IFC’s “Gigi Does It” (Oct. 1), it’s clear the fall TV season will have a full dose of members of the tribe.

Funny ladies? Check! Zoe Lister-Jones plays a new mom in CBS’ “Life in Pieces”F (Sept. 21); Michaela Watkins is a dating divorcée in Hulu’s “Casual” (Oct. 7); and Rachel Bloom becomes an obsessed “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW (Oct. 12). On a more serious note, Amazon’s drama “Man in the High Castle” posits the chilling hypothetical of what the world would be like had the Germans and Japanese won World War II (Nov. 20). 

As the profiles below reveal, there will be something for every viewing taste.

Jennifer Grey, “Red Oaks”

As one of the 1980s’ biggest movie stars, with “Red Dawn,” “The Cotton Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Dirty Dancing” to her credit, it’s no wonder Jennifer Grey has a fondness for that decade. Her latest project, the Amazon series “Red Oaks,” takes her back to that heady time, and for some viewers, a nostalgic milieu: a Jewish country club in New Jersey in 1985. 

“It’s as if ‘Caddyshack’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’ had a baby, but it was brought up by John Cassavetes,” Grey said of the series, which was shot in New Jersey and New York, where she grew up. “It feels truly innocent and truly funny.” 

Joining a cast that includes Paul Reiser and Richard Kind, both of whom are Jewish, Grey plays a woman who has been defined by her role as wife and mother, and experiences an awakening that finds her asserting her independence and seeking her own happiness. “She gave up her dreams as a young woman. Her son was her whole life, and all her self-esteem came from how good a job she was doing with him. But with her son out of the house, she’s going to advocate on her own behalf.”

Grey can relate to the overprotective parent aspect. Once reluctant to leave her only child, Stella, she turned down work, especially out-of-town projects. But now that her daughter is 13, Grey decided this was a perfect time to get back to work. 

The daughter of actor Joel Grey and granddaughter of comic Mickey Katz, Jennifer Grey has recently reconnected with Judaism. “I love being a Jew,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot more Jewish in the last five years because of my daughter’s bat mitzvah, and I realized I really care about being a Jew.”

“Red Oaks” begins streaming Oct. 9 via Amazon Prime.

Kevin Pollak, “Angel From Hell”

Kevin Pollak. Photo courtesy of Cliff Lipson/CBS

From an early age, Kevin Pollak, 57, liked having an audience. “At my bar mitzvah, it was very important to me that I got seven applause breaks from laughter,” he said, remembering performing for his relatives at Passover and the boisterous storytelling and arguing around the seder table that influenced him, as had the likes of comedians Don Rickles, Alan King and Lenny Bruce.

Pollak would go on to appear in many films, including “The Usual Suspects,” “A Few Good Men,” “Casino,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Avalon,” often playing Jewish characters. Also a familiar face on TV, he has appeared in “The Drew Carey Show,” “Shark” and recently “Mom” — that is, until his character suffered a fatal heart attack. 

But Pollak wasn’t out of work for long. In the CBS comedy “Angel From Hell,” he plays the father of a woman (Maggie Lawson) whose life is turned upside down by a well-meaning but meddling guardian angel (Jane Lynch). 

Working with Anna Faris and Allison Janney in “Mom” was “an extraordinary opportunity,” Pollak said, revealing that, to his delight, his initial couple of appearances expanded to more than a dozen. He’s equally jazzed to be in the company of women again in  “Angel From Hell,”  which follows “Mom” on CBS’ schedule.

Also busy behind the camera, Pollak has a documentary called “Misery Loves Comedy,” in which he interviews more than 100 funny celebrities — Larry David, Bob Saget, Robert Smigel among them — that was released this year, and he completed the feature “Late Bloomer.” “It’s based on a true story about a guy who goes through puberty for the first time at 30,” he said.

On screen, he enjoys toggling between comedy and drama and the diversity being a character actor offers. “I wrote a book called ‘How I Slept My Way to the Middle,’ and I’m here to tell you it’s fantastic in the middle. I get to have a life and also get the perks of show business, like getting a table at a restaurant,” Pollak said. “I’ve worked with a lot of giant movie stars, and that’s not an enviable life in any way, shape or form. You give up too much. I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

“Angel From Hell” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 5 on CBS.

Oprah Winfrey’s “Belief”

“Belief”: Mendel Hurwitz’s bar mitzvah. Photo courtesy of Harpo, Inc.

Religion can be a controversial and divisive topic, but as you might expect from Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, the seven-night documentary series “Belief” takes a positive approach. According to executive producer David Shadrack Smith, it was vital to Winfrey, who narrates the series, that the series focus on the part of belief “that gives us meaning and creates community, purpose and compassion, and [to] tell authentic stories through which people could encounter faiths and beliefs different from their own,” Smith said.

While the series was “never intended to be a comprehensive survey of faith and religion,” Smith said, it delves into the commonality among different faiths and “the same fundamental questions: Who am I? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to our lives? We did not set out to answer them, but to illuminate how those questions sit at the heart of some of the most incredible traditions and practices around the world.”

Judaism is well represented in the series by people “living out their beliefs in such personal and moving ways that were authentic to their own understanding and spiritual practice,” Smith said. They include Jeff Hoffman, a space shuttle astronaut who brought a Torah into space; Mendel Hurwitz, an Orthodox bar mitzvah boy in Budapest, Hungary; Rena Greenberg and Yermi Udkoff, a Chasidic couple marrying in Brooklyn; and a Jewish teenage cellist in Jerusalem who bonds with a Muslim flutist over their love of classical music. 

“Finding individuals whose stories were unique, powerful, and who could articulate the elusive intangibles of belief was a constant challenge. We relied on local producers, lots of research, personal connections and sometimes just plain luck to find people,” Smith said. Thirteen-year-old Mendel Hurwitz, a rabbi’s son in a community that had been nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, particularly resonated with Smith, who is Jewish. “The story of their small synagogue trying to restore itself in Budapest had deeper stakes than most. And when I compared Mendel’s scholarly approach to his bar mitzvah to my own years ago, I saw the religious rite of passage in a new light.

“Throughout filming, I was compelled to question my own beliefs, and I discovered a new appreciation of how to practice them,” Smith said, and he’d like to inspire a similar response in viewers. “Our hope is that there’s not only more understanding of diverse beliefs, but also those who watch the series might find themselves feeling a deeper, richer connection to their own faith tradition, whatever that might be.“

“Belief” premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 18 on OWN.

Ron Perlman, “Hand of God”

Ron Perlman in “Hand of God.” Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

In a career that began in the 1980s with films such as “Quest for Fire,” “The Name of the Rose” and his breakout TV series role in “Beauty and the Beast,” Ron Perlman has amassed a wide variety of credits, including “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim,” “Sons of Anarchy” and numerous voiceover roles. But in the Amazon series “Hand of God,” he plays his most challenging character to date, a man he describes as “a very strong, dynamic, powerful presence now liquefied by a series of events.”

As law-bending Judge Pernell Harris, he descends into madness after his daughter-in-law is raped and his son, a witness to the crime, is left comatose by a botched suicide attempt. Misguided by a shady preacher, Harris becomes convinced that the voice of God is directing him to seek revenge.

“This was a completely realized individual with all the power of a King Lear or a Macbeth and all of the sorrow and vulnerability of a Hamlet,” Perlman said. “This guy is royalty, and we’re watching him grasping with falling apart, and losing is not in his vocabulary. This is a real comeuppance for him, with all the ramifications of loss, of lack of control. He’s compromised for the first time in his life, and he doesn’t like it. He’s going to do everything in his power to meet that feeling head on and win even if it means destroying himself and his family.” The Lear comparison is particularly apt, he said, “because of how he’s falling apart emotionally; he’s losing control of his kingdom and grappling with how much of it he even wants to hold onto.”

But how does a New York City-born Jew relate to the born-again Christianity in the series? “I’m kind of agnostic when I’m an actor — a tube of paint to be used at the whim of the creator,” said Perlman, adding that Harris’ embrace of spirituality “is an act of seminal desperation and calls into question what we use religion for, what we need religion for. It wasn’t so much the details of what he was worshiping. It could have been Judaism, Islam. It wouldn’t have changed my approach to his zealotry.”

Perlman currently has four films in production and another three in development for his Wing and a Prayer Pictures, and as much as he hates the laborious makeup process involved, he’s not ruling out making “Hellboy 3.”

“With ‘Hand of God,’ which I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done, things are good in my world right now,” Perlman said. “It’s going to be an amazing year.”

“Hand of God” is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

Brad Garrett, “Fargo,” “Manhattan”

Brad Garrett Photo by Frank Micelotta/FX

Stand-up comedian and actor Brad Garrett, 55, is still much loved for his nine-year run on the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but his latest role is deadly serious: mob enforcer Joe Bulo in FX’s “Fargo.” As a foot soldier for a Kansas City, Mo., crime syndicate, he’s sent to South Dakota to exert influence on the drug trafficking Gerhardt clan led by Jean Smart.

“We butt heads, of course,” said Garrett, a “huge fan” of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” movie, which inspired the series. He actively pursued the role, which had been perceived by some as outside his wheelhouse, although he has acted in dramas before. “It’s a very different role for me,” Garrett acknowledged. “I had to go after it. I auditioned for it. You know, most comedians are pretty dark. So all I had to do was wake up, shower and show up.”

In addition, in October, Garrett will take a second dramatic turn in the WGN America series “Manhattan,” playing the ex-con father of one of the lead characters, an atomic-bomb scientist. The character is Jewish, noted the Woodland Hills native, who was born Brad Gerstenfeld and got his big break 32 years ago on “Star Search.” 

Jokes about his 6-foot-8 height, his family and his Jewish upbringing infuse the deep-voiced comic’s stand-up act, which he continues to perform around the country and at his comedy club at the MGM in Las Vegas. He remains connected to his Jewish heritage: “I consider it important,” he said, adding, “I still pay to go [to services] on Rosh Hashanah, though I’ve never understood why we have to!”

Considering the plot of the first “Fargo” season left few people alive, the odds are against Joe Bulo in the inevitable bloodbath. Might Garrett’s character survive? “I don’t know, and if I did, I couldn’t tell you,” he said, offering a final quip. “Who would kill me? I’m a pussycat!”

“Fargo” returns to FX at 10 p.m. Oct. 12.

Zoe Lister-Jones, “Life in Pieces”

Zoe Lister-Jones and Colin Hanks in “Life in Pieces” Photo courtesy of Cliff Lipson/CBS

In the CBS ensemble family comedy “Life in Pieces,” Zoe Lister-Jones stars opposite Colin Hanks, James Brolin and Dianne Wiest as a wife and mother dealing with a newborn. “It’s scary, but good practice. I will be a mom at some point, so it’s good for me to be certain that I can hold a baby,” she said, adding that she relates to the character’s “sharp wit and caustic humor, but there’s a softness to her.”

With credits including the series “New Girl” and “Friends With Better Lives” and movies “Salt,” “The Other Guys,” “State of Play” and “Arranged,” in which she played an Orthodox Jewish teacher, Lister-Jones grew up in a Conservative family in Brooklyn, attending Shabbat services at the Park Slope Jewish Center. 

“My mom was president of the synagogue, so I was very involved. I went to Hebrew school on Wednesdays and Sundays. I was bat mitzvah.  I was raised in a Jewish community that inspired me to uphold those traditions myself,”h she said, noting that since moving to Los Angeles 3 1/2 years ago, she has joined the IKAR congregation. She believes that comedy and Judaism go hand in hand. “It’s so ingrained in who we are as people. I can’t even articulate how it works.” 

On the dramatic side, Lister-Jones will play lawyer Harriet Grant in HBO’s upcoming “Confirmation,” about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill. She also produced, co-wrote and stars in “Consumed,” a thriller about genetically modified organisms. “I like to push myself to try new characters and never get too boxed into one shtick,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky to do that, to play in drama and comedy alike. I’m drawn to stories that interest me, that feel important and fresh.”

Josh Peck, “Grandfathered”

Josh Peck. Photo by Tommy Garcia/Fox

Many parents and 20-somethings remember Josh Peck as the chubbier half of the comedy duo “Drake & Josh” on the Nickelodeon series of that name that ran from 2004 to 2007, and the network’s “The Amanda Show” that preceded it, but a lot has changed in the decade since. Now 28, Peck is slimmer and playing a father for the first time in the Fox comedy “Grandfathered,” about an estranged son who re-enters his dad’s (John Stamos) life, toddler in tow.

Although he’s been cast in “Red Dawn,” “Danny Collins” and the “Ice Age” movies, his transition to adult roles hasn’t been easy, “because of people’s misconceptions,” Peck said. “Also, when you’re young and cute, you get by on a certain skill set, and when you get older it doesn’t necessarily translate. I’m lucky that when I was 14, I had a manager who said, ‘You’re a sweet kid and you’re funny, but you need to go to acting school and learn how to act.’ I’m forever in her debt. It takes an incredible amount of hard work, and I’m grateful I get to do what I’m passionate about. Every role I’ve had has prepared me for the next.”

Growing up in New York City with a single mother and grandmother, who “kept me centered” and taught him Yiddish words, Peck said he loves the fact that Judaism, “especially in entertainment, infuses everything from the moment we’re born.

“I’m in the right business to have Jewish heroes,” the former child stand-up comic said, naming Woody Allen as a favorite. He’s more spiritually Jewish than observant. “I’m very proud of the culture of it. And I love a good Shabbat dinner.”

Peck, who’ll be seen playing a pot dealer in the upcoming movie “Chronically Metropolitan,” is gratified that he’s getting offered roles that enable him to push beyond what he’s done before. “It’s such a challenging business, and so much of it you have no control over. Every actor walks around with fear and neuroses,” he said. “But I think the universe puts you where you’re supposed to be. I very much feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

“Grandfathered” premieres at 8 p.m. Sept. 29 on Fox.

‘Homeland’ creator to direct film on Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews


Since adapting his Israeli show “Prisoners of War” for U.S. audiences in the form of the Showtime hit “Homeland,” writer and director Gideon Raff has seen his Hollywood career take off.

After creating the series “Tyrant” for FX and “Dig” for USA, the Israeli Raff has now sold a pitch for a film on Israel’s early 1980s rescue of Ethiopian Jews to Fox Searchlight Pictures.

According to Variety, Raff will write, produce and direct “Operation Brothers,” which will be based on Israel’s efforts in the ’80s to airlift Ethiopian Jews who were trapped in refugee camps and discriminated against in Sudan. Raff’s film will follow the story from its beginnings in 1977, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin ordered the Mossad to devise a plan to save the Ethiopians. It is unclear yet whether the film will depict either of Israel’s two biggest rescue operations: Operation Moses (1984 -1985 ) or Operation Solomon (1991), which combined led to the rescue of over 20,000 Ethiopians.

A French film from 2005 named “Live and Become,” which centered on a young Ethiopian’s journey during Operation Moses, won a Cesar award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best screenplay and garnered several other awards in international festivals.

Alexandra Milchan, who was an executive producer on the 2013 hit “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is set to produce alongside Raff.

Raff has been arguably the most successful Israeli crossover filmmaker in recent years, bringing Israeli and Middle Eastern themes and political issues into the Hollywood mainstream. “Homeland” and its progenitor “Prisoners of War” both involved soldiers who return home after being held captive by Islamists. “Dig,” which got poor reviews and was cancelled after one season, followed an American FBI agent on an archaeological mission in Jerusalem. “Tyrant,” which has reached moderate success, follows the son of a fictional tyrannical Arab ruler in a fictional Middle Eastern country. The latter two shows had to be filmed outside of Israel during the summer of 2014 when the conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up.

But if Raff’s new project succeeds, it might be the most quintessential Israeli work he has created so far.

Actress Shiri Appleby chats about Jewish influences and life on the small screen


It may sound surprising coming from someone who’s been acting on TV since she was a child, but Shiri Appleby (“Roswell,” “Life Unexpected”) insists she doesn’t watch much television. Nevertheless, Appleby found the lead role in Lifetime’s new series “UnREAL” — a scathingly satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a reality dating show — too good to pass up.

The series, which premiered June 1 to critical acclaim, casts the actress as the beleaguered, conflicted assistant to the producer (Constance Zimmer) of a dating show called “Everlasting” (modeled after “The Bachelor”).  It’s a job that requires her to lie to and manipulate the contestants for dramatic effect, which wears on her conscience.

“She’s very good at it, but she’s constantly struggling with the fact that what she’s doing is killing her on the inside,” Appleby said. “She’s one of these people that hasn’t found her place in the world. She’s not close with her family. She doesn’t have any real relationships. She lives in the back of the grip truck. This world is her family. It’s incredibly dysfunctional, and it makes her hate herself so much. But she’s found her community in this world and does what she can to take care of herself. She really thinks she’s doing the right thing.”

Appleby said she was drawn to the concept, which felt “really fresh” to her, and the idea that the characters are all “at odds with themselves and trying to figure out what they believe in and what their morals are.” She also loves that she only needs to spend 20 minutes in the hair and makeup trailer to play the unglamorous Rachel Goldberg. 

Appleby said that Judaism isn’t a focus of the show, but that Rachel is “definitely a Jewish girl.” 

“You see the relationship with my mother [Olive, played by Mimi Kuzyk], and in the second episode, I say, ‘Sheket b’vakasha,’ ” (Hebrew for “Be quiet”).

Appleby grew up in a kosher home in Calabasas, where her Israeli-born mother, Dina, teaches Hebrew school and her semi-retired father, Jerry, is a former president of their synagogue’s men’s club at Temple Aliyah. “They’re both really involved,” she said. 

She attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, and celebrated the Jewish holidays with her parents and younger brother, Evan, observing both her father’s Ashkenazic traditions and her mother’s Sephardic ones. “My parents spoke to us in both Hebrew and English,” she said.

Appleby said her Jewish heritage “gave me a strong identity growing up. I always really knew who I was and where I came from. … I knew what my morals were, [what] my values were and what was expected of me.”

Although she doesn’t keep kosher now, Appleby does celebrate Jewish holidays with her husband, Jon Shook, a chef, and their 2-year-old daughter, Natalie. “He comes from a nice Jewish family as well. That was important to me. There are so many challenges, it’s a lot easier when you’re of the same faith,” she said. 

It’s also important to her to pass down Jewish traditions to Natalie. “We’re doing Shabbat more and more now. Now that I have a child, I feel that it’s important to light the candles, have a family dinner. And getting her together with her cousins for Chanukah, that family experience, was amazing,” Appleby said, noting that she does the cooking for the family and Shook mans the kitchen when they entertain.

“Passing on the wisdom and the experiences that my mother gave me and being able to replicate that in my own way, and also share that with my mother, is lovely. I appreciate the way I was raised much more now that I’m a parent.”

Appleby is enjoying her life as a working mother, but she hesitates to bring her daughter to the set, even though she herself grew up on them. “Having been a child actor, I don’t think [the] set is a place for children,” she said. 

She started out acting in commercials at the age of 4, segueing to guest spots in shows such as “thirtysomething” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” before landing her breakout role as Liz Parker in the teen alien drama “Roswell” in 1999. 

“I never really chose what I was going to do as a profession, which was a struggle I faced in my life,” Appleby admitted, adding that she began to enjoy it as she took classes and worked more. “Obviously, I’ve chosen it at this point. I was really good at it, and I was able to purchase my own home, not be dependent on anybody else. Being an actor is great, but it’s a challenge, and like anything that has great reward, it takes a lot of work.”

Her more recent credits include guest spots on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Elementary” and recurring roles on “Chicago Fire” and “Girls,” which she said has reinvigorated her career. 

But Appleby said she’s proudest of her work on “Life Unexpected,” a 2010 series on The CW, and of her experiences working with John Wells on “ER” and the late Mike Nichols on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the future, she said, she would love to do a period piece and to be directed by Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe and Richard Linklater. “I really respond to great directors,” she said. “It’s like when you’re playing tennis with a great tennis player. It makes you better.”

As for “UnREAL,” she had been optimistic about it getting picked up for a second season before it even premiered. “Since I did ‘Girls,’ I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to do things that are riskier, and this show is that,” Appleby said. “It’s an exciting time for me, and it’s great to be putting something out there that I’m proud of.”

The show was renewed for a 10-episode second season early last month. 

Nominees for the Emmy Awards


Following is a list of nominations in key categories for the Primetime Emmy Awards, the highest honors in U.S. television, announced on Thursday.

The Emmys are awarded by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and will be handed out in a ceremony in Los Angeles on Sept. 20.

BEST DRAMA SERIES

“Better Call Saul”

“Downton Abbey”

“Game of Thrones”

“Homeland”

“House of Cards”

“Mad Men”

“Orange Is the New Black”

BEST COMEDY SERIES

“Louie”

“Modern Family”

“Parks and Recreation”

“Silicon Valley”

“Transparent”

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

“Veep”

ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”

Kyle Chandler, “Bloodline”

Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”

Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”

Liev Schreiber, “Ray Donovan”

Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Claire Danes, “Homeland”

Viola Davis, “How To Get Away With Murder”

Taraji P. Henson, “Empire”

Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”

Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men”

Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish”

Louis C.K., “Louie”

Don Cheadle, “House of Lies”

Will Forte, “The Last Man on Earth”

William H. Macy, “Shameless”

Matt LeBlanc, “Episodes”

Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”

ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Edie Falco, “Nurse Jackie”

Lisa Kudrow, “The Comeback”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”

Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation”

Lily Tomlin, “Grace and Frankie”

Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer”

VARIETY TALK SERIES

“The Colbert Report”

“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”

“Jimmy Kimmel Live”

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

“The Late Show with David Letterman”

“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

REALITY COMPETITION PROGRAM

“The Amazing Race”

“Dancing with the Stars”

“Project Runway”

“So You Think You Can Dance”

“Top Chef”

“The Voice”

LIMITED SERIES

“American Crime”

“American Horror Story: Freak Show”

“The Honorable Woman”

“Olive Kitteridge”

“Wolf Hall”

ACTOR IN A LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Timothy Hutton, “American Crime”

Ricky Gervais, “Derek”

Adrien Brody, “Houdini”

David Oyelowo, “Nightingale”

Richard Jenkins, “Olive Kitteridge”

Mark Rylance, “Wolf Hall”

ACTRESS IN A LIMITED SERIES OR TV MOVIE

Felicity Huffman, “American Crime”

Jessica Lange, “American Horror Story: Freak Show”

Queen Latifah, “Bessie”

Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Honorable Woman”

Frances McDormand, “Olive Kitteridge”

Emma Thompson, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street”

Dustin Hoffman says it’s a great era for television, the worst ever for film


While television has never been better, according to veteran actor and two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, film has never been worse.

The star of the iconic Mike Nichols 1960s film “The Graduate,” who felt he was miscast because the main character, Benjamin Braddock, seemed to him appropriate for a WASP rather than a Jewish actor, observes that Hollywood is too obsessed with their bottom lines and budgets. He noted that “The Graduate” was a labor of love which screenwriters spent three years developing and took 100 days of shooting in a rather simple set.

The typical time for shooting a movie nowadays is only 20 days, which may be partly attributable to advances in digital technology, but may also be because of dwindling budgets per film to ensure that a larger number of movies get churned out.

Hoffman admits that in Los Angeles he felt encouraged to downplay his Jewishness, although he adds his non observant family did not emphasize being Jewish in the first place. He says the first time he became conscious that he was Jewish, about ten, he was tempted to go to a deli, buy bagels and decorate the Chanukkah bush with them.

“There was insidious anti-semitism in Los Angeles,” Hoffman told JC.com, and he looked forward to moving to New York at the age of 21. “New York was a town that had not had a face lift. It had not had a nose job.”

Hoffman’s first wife, Anne Byrne, was a ballerina of Irish Catholic extraction, and his second wife, Lisa Gottsegen, with whom he has been married for 23 years, has emphasized carrying on their Jewish tradition. Hoffman notes that the children have had bar and bat mitzvahs and they celebrate the holidays. He traces his love of herring and vodka to his Russian and Romanian heritage and adds, “I have a strong reaction to any antisemitism.”

He recalls being confronted in an upscale, pastry cafe outside of Hamburg, after visiting Bergen Belsen with a man screaming “Juden! Dostin Hovvman! Juden!” While the man was escorted out, Hoffman says he feels he should have gone up to the man and said, “Yeah? And? And? What of it?”

The dramatic ending of “Marathon Man” that had Dr. Szell, a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier, falling to his death while trying to retrieve his diamonds, resulted from Dustin Hoffman’s refusal to shoot him point blank, as was written in the script.

He told JC.com, “I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”

Hoffman hasn’t abandoned film as a pursuit, and recently starred in a film “The Choir,” about a director of a boarding school choir. He feels his having a leading role may be attributable to the fact he is already a big name, and laments that as actors get older, they are usually relegated to supporting roles. He said his role in “The Choir” should really be a supporting one, since it is “really the story of the boy.”

After 50 years in show business, Hoffman is still going strong. He directed “The Quartet” in 2012, about a group of retired musicians. He experienced disappointment when the HBO TV Series “Luck” was cancelled after its second season.

Dustin Hoffman says if he had not been an actor, he would have been happy being a jazz pianist, but he didn’t feel he was skilled enough to play professionally.

His Aunt Pearl told him that he should not try to be an actor because he was “too ugly,” and his mother suggested that he follow her lead and also get a nose job, reassuring him with “you’ll feel better.”

Mike Nichols asked Hoffman to give a screen test for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” after seeing Hoffman perform on Broadway, even though Hoffman confessed he imagined an actor like Robert Redford getting the role.

You’re fired! NBC dumps Trump over insults to Mexicans


NBC ended its relationship with real estate developer and TV personality Donald Trump and his “Miss USA” and “Miss Universe” pageants on Monday after he made comments insulting Mexicans when he began his run for president.

The pageants, which are part of a joint venture between NBCUniversal and Trump, would no longer air on NBC “due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants” the company said in a press release.

Trump was already not going to take part in “The Apprentice” on NBC, a show in which he uses “You're Fired!” as his signature command to eliminate contestants. NBC said “Celebrity Apprentice” licensed from United Artists Media Group would continue.

Univision said on Thursday that it would not air the Miss USA pageant on July 12 because of Trump's remarks. Trump's lawyer said the billionaire would sue the U.S. Spanish-language TV network.

Trump said on Monday after the NBC announcement that he was no longer affiliated with the broadcaster but stood by his campaign trail comments.

“Mr. Trump stands by his statements on illegal immigration, which are accurate. NBC is weak, and like everybody else is trying to be politically correct – that is why our country is in serious trouble,” a Trump Organization statement said.

Trump, in announcing on June 16 that he was seeking the Republican Party nomination for the November 2016 presidential election, described migrants from Mexico to the United States as drug-runners and rapists.

“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting,” he said in opening his campaign at Trump Tower on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

Trump's provocative comments, including a pledge to build a “great wall” on the border paid for by Mexico if he were elected, were the latest in a series of swipes against the United States's southern neighbor.

Mexicans rich and poor, cabinet ministers and staunch critics of the government alike reacted angrily to Trump. Trump defended his more divisive remarks on the grounds that he was worried about border security, jobs in the United States and trade arrangements.

Univision said it would also sever ties with the Miss Universe Organization, a joint venture between Trump and Comcast-owned NBCUniversal.

On Monday, when Trump spoke at the City Club in Chicago, a crowd of protesters, many of them Latinos, demonstrated outside, Chicago media reported. “Trump is a racist,” they shouted.

Trump spoke to a sold-out crowd of 350 people at the City Club. Hundreds more had tried to get tickets and were put on a wait list, the public policy forum said.

Political analysts have said Trump, despite being one of America's most recognizable figures, is considered a long shot candidate in the field of more than a dozen Republicans.

Trump also made inflammatory comments about fellow Republicans and the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

How ‘Transparent’ became the most important new series of the year


There's a phrase that has become popular among the kids today–'in your feelings,' or 'in my feelings.' As in, 'Oh, I was just all in my feelings the other day.' It's a way of admitting to being emotional, perhaps to a fault, and humorously exposing that vulnerability, owning it to the point of empowerment.

Whether she knew she was doing this or not, Jill Soloway took this concept and created the most important television show of the year, Transparent, the first of Amazon's original series. However, it's strange to hear an acclaimed and accomplished writer (know for her previous work on Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara) talk about working from a place of seemingly pure emotion. And it's almost difficult to hear her and her co-director, Nisha Ganatra, proudly proclaim that much of this brilliant show is a result of, well, feelings.

Such talk goes against a certain privileging of intellectuality that functions as home base for critical analysis and disrupts our understanding of how this golden age of television works. And any privileging of emotions seems to go against a feminism that strives to place women on equal intellectual and economical footing as men–for how can we convince others that women are not wildly emotional creatures, thinking, analyzing, and working from their feelings if Jill Soloway and Nisha Ganatra confess to doing just that in a conversation about the most important television series of the year? We'll get to that shortly.

The co-directors, joined by Amy Landecker (who plays Sarah Pfefferman on the show), open up to Paste about how Transparent was made, and how that experience transcended anything they'd ever seen in Hollywood. 

'She wanted to shoot it like no other series has been shot,' Ganatra explains. 'She's incredibly collaborative, and not afraid of anybody–not into the power dynamics.' Soloway hired Ganatra based on a 'good feeling,' and she became the only other individual to share the title of director, contributing three episodes that flow in seamlessly with the other seven. But there was such closeness between the directors, writers and actors (and so much input at every level), that those titles and labels almost seem inaccurate.

Landecker likens the process to 'some utopian TV fantasy.' As incredible as it is to watch the story of Transparent unfold, it was, apparently, just as powerful creating it.

'I went through a pretty bad depression when we stopped shooting,' Landecker admits. 'Because it was the most intense and fulfilling experience I have ever had.' 

Soloway purposely surrounded herself with women, and Ganatra proudly describes all of them as 'deeply emotional artists,' herself included. And she maintains that the series is the final product of a room full of people–mostly women–who were given permission to be emotional on the job. For this, she says, Soloway is incredibly brave.

'People really shy away from that, or don't want to admit that they're working from instinct, when they are,' Ganatras says. She argues that many artists work in this way–men and women. They just don't feel comfortable saying so. 'Jill just gives you permission to say, 'I just feel this way, and that's why we're doing it.'' Behind the scenes of Transparent, emotion was the most valued commodity. 

'I work in an open, intimate, collaborative way,' Soloway says, practically shrugging it off. Although the story was inspired by her own parent's coming out, she actually starts most of her work with a small idea, or an image (the family eating barbecue together was the first scene she wrote for Transparent), and asks the writers and actors to help her fill in much of the rest.

So it seems that this beautiful, succinct series–which moved so fluidly and with so much realism–was made by, well, everyone. Everyone Soloway chose to be a part of it in any way could contribute anywhere; all of which seems like the opposite of what one would do, if one were running a show. How do you hold on to your own vision, if everyone has say? If everyone's creating the piece, who is the true creator?

Luckily for us, Soloway and Ganatra didn't ask themselves such questions as they went about making Season One. As a result, they brought us the incredible story of the Pfefferman clan, at the head of which is Maura, formerly known as Mort (played by the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor). After being outed by her eldest daughter (Landecker), Maura explains that she has spent her entire life dressing up like a man. The series follows her as she transitions into life as a woman, under the gaze of her three adult children–Sarah, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Josh (Jay Duplass)–all of whom are experiencing their own physical and emotional transitions.

With an amazing score, bizarre yet identifiable characters, and an incredible storyline, Transparent takes on the institutions of marriage and sexuality, death, race, sex abuse, class, feminism and religion (in just 10 episodes), in the best and most entertaining way possible–with comedy. The very premise of the series–a man in his late 60s, coming out–lends itself to humor. But Soloway confesses that early on in the writing process, another key element was missing from her show. 

'The show was funny, and it was also kind of sexy, and it was emotional,' she says of those first scripts. 'But we realized that the missing thing flowing through everything was spirituality.' Soloway, who laughingly admits to 'a pretty hodge-podge, made-up belief in God,' sees herself as vessel more than a director, and once she allowed the underlying spirituality of her story to flow freely, religion–Pfefferman-style–became a major component of the narrative. Dubbed (lovingly) by one publication as the Jewiest show ever, it's significant that Soloway shares her position of director (or vessel) with Nisha Ganatra.

'I'm a deeply spiritual person,' Ganatra says. 'Even though I'm of the Hindu faith, and she's Jewish, there's so much overlap. It was something we knew without saying to each other.' Ganatra believes that this is why there's an energy over the whole project that 'comes across naturally in the scenes.' And along with that energy, religious doctrine and dogma–in all its comedy and glory–are written heavily into the script. 

'The show is about God,' Soloway offers. 'I think the show is about the soul, and the search for the self in the understanding of the soul. There's a yearning for soulfulness, and a yearning for meaning through the prism of family.'

The Shabbat dinner scene is one place where all of these elements come together under the umbrella of Judaism. Landecker says the scene is one of her favorites. 'It had it all–family, love, friendship, conflict, absurdity.' 

Her estranged husband Len shows up to get the kids, and, upon seeing Maura–not Mort–for the first time, he completely loses it, and poses a few questions to Sarah, her lover Tammy, Maura, and Maura's friend, another trans woman Davina:

'Would you ladies be more comfortable if you lived on an all-female planet? Maybe you could sail off in a uterus-shaped spaceship. Maybe I could cut my dick off!'

In this scene, Len is, suffice it to say, all in his feelings. But Landecker's correct–it's not just funny; it's a scene that has everything. Religious tradition is both embraced and subverted, as Sarah celebrates the day of rest with her lover (who is not Jewish) and her transitioning parent. 

'When Sarah says 'It's a tradition for the mother of the house to light the candles,' and hands the matches to Maura, I think that is such a beautiful moment of progress and tradition,' Landecker says. 'The show is firmly planted in the past, and the future–and it shows how the two can coexist.' The series accomplishes all this without playing like a show meant for people of the Jewish faith, or people of any faith in particular–which, in and of itself, is a small miracle. 

In Transparent sexual identity loses its 'statehood' and becomes fluid, treated like an ongoing process with its own ebbs and flows. Many of the characters reflect this in some way, but Sarah Pfefferman is probably the strongest example.

At the start of the series Sarah is a stay-at-home mom buried in bento boxes and private school playdates. She soon leaves her husband for her college girlfriend, Tammy (who is also married, but to another woman). When her 'lesbian' relationship eventually begins to experience problems similar to those in her marriage to Len, she finds herself back in the arms of her husband. Whether she is gay, straight or bisexual is the least interesting question here. The series demands greater questions. 

'[Jill and I] never did define her [sexuality],' Landecker says. 'Sarah is so great because she represents a continuum of love and sexuality, and as we explore LGBTQ issues within the show and within the community, we become more aware that binary thinking is a great pitfall for humanity. It's too limiting and disregards our potential for many shades of grey.' Landecker goes on to say that all of Jill's characters are complicated in this way–especially the women.

Soloway points out that Sarah's is a story of escape–not escape of the straight life, gay life, or any life with a specific sexual identity attached to it. Instead, it's an escape from what had become her unfulfilling norm. 

If Sarah Pfefferman represents a subversion of our expectations of sexuality and sexual identity, Kathryn Hahn's Raquel Fein represents a subversion of our expectations for the sexuality–and overall personality–of a religious leader. Hahn (described by Landecker as ' one of the greatest actresses I know') starred in Soloway's directorial debut Afternoon Delight, and the director knew she wanted her to play a significant role in Transparent. As Rabbi Raquel and love interest of Duplass' Josh Pfefferman, she often steals the show. In one of her early scenes she gives a moving sermon, breaking down the books of Genesis and Exodus, and explaining that those Jews who were in bondage may have escaped, but never make it to the other side. She brings out the tragedy in the story of the Promised Land. Shortly thereafter, we see her joking with Josh about being a single woman who suffers from 'crunchy, crispy eggs' (she thinks she may have missed the baby boat), and then shortly after that, we see her making messy, beautiful love to him. Any of our preconceived notions about what rabbis do in their spare time is suddenly and wonderfully complicated.

'It's a really fun way to invert people's expectations of certain figures.' Because of Raquel, we can now envision a rabbi as a lover, as a friend, and as a flawed human being. And her presence in Transparent is another representation of a necessary collapsing of oppositions–sex, spirituality, tragedy, comedy–it's all there (even in that single character), an apt, appropriate reflection of real life for many of us. 

Transparent is the most important series of 2014 because–even as it exists alongside shows like The Good WifeScandal, and other series actively participating in the feminist movement–it takes all of these messages further by shaking up the rigidly defined structures upon which we've all depended for so long. In Tambor's Maura, 'male' and 'female' are shaken up (as a result, so are 'mother' and 'father'), and in the very presentation of the series–this collaborative project where actors also took on writer and directorial duties (and Soloway even made a cameo, as the unforgettable professor in Ali's Gender Theory course), no one position is easily defined. In the closing scene of the finale, we also see Judaism and Christianity coming together, as a character named Colton says a final prayer. 

'The last line of the season was going to be [Colton's], 'In Jesus name we pray,'' Soloway explains. When Tambor improvised with 'Oy gevalt,' that became the last line–but the message still stood. 'We knew it would have that shape,' she says. 'Opening up from Judaism, from the Old Testament, into religion as a whole.' 

Tambor's penchant for improv led to another great moment in the series. He's learning to sit in a more feminine manner, when his friend Davina scolds him for letting it all hang out. 'Your male privilege is leaking all over the place,' she says. And when Maura tries to work that femininity into her walk, she eventually gets fed up–and walks right out of the 'lesson.' Ganatra laughs as she recalls shooting that scene and says that it was never in the original script.

'He's going from being a very confident and competent man in the world, to going back to learning everything, like a child,' she says. 'So he just walks right out!'

And it's a great image to associate with the feminist movement. Training for womanhood, if only to abandon the notion altogether–but doing so with a splash (or more) of comedy.

'It's important for feminism to have a sense of humor, and look at all the silliness that comes from people really wanting women to argue with each other, instead of focusing on changing, and growing, and bringing forth the revolution,' Soloway says.

And such humor is the backbone of her series, which has been picked for a second season, and will see Ganatra and Soloway back in the directors' seats (while Josh Pfefferman may be moving into the family house).

Landecker says we should all brace ourselves for impact, as she has high hopes for the series.

'I want it to save lives. I actually think it will. I want the world to get comfortable with the transgender community.'

Even as Transparent goes on to change lives and the world (for there's no doubt that it can) we suspect that the people behind this amazing show will continue to operate from their emotional spaces–that they will enact such change by continuing to work, create, and stay all the way in their feelings. 

This essay first appeared in Paste.  Reprinted with permission. 

In “My Opinionation”: Looking Back on Blossom


My interest in Blossom blossomed relatively late, since I discovered the television series well after it stopped airing on NBC. When Blossom premiered in 1990, its title character was thirteen and I was six—more interested in Garfield and Friends than Blossom and Co. Instead, Blossom was “that show” to which older friends and other babysitters made wide-eyed reference. It was that show to which they hitched the nebulous term “very special episode,” one which did little to pique my youthful interest. In short, Blossom and I were not in step.                                                                                                                                  

Nineteen years later, we fell into step. Rather, in spring 2009 I stepped into Half Price Books in search of decently half-priced entertainment and casually stopped my shoes in front of “Blossom: Seasons One and Two.” I contemplated the timing of the DVD as the words “very special episode” flashed across my mind. There was a month and a half left before returning to graduate school and I had a rough interest in a television series with which older, other persons once had some sort of association.

I purchased the DVD that Monday evening, befitting the Monday evenings on which the show ran. Back at my apartment, I dimmed the lights, popped on my pajamas and popped in Blossom.

Several episodes into the first season, I fell in love with the series. To be more precise, I fell in love with the idea of what the series was to a teenage girl in 1990 and with what it was to a twenty-something girl in 2009. Five years later, I remain nostalgically in love with Blossom and with the idea of Mayim Bialik’s Blossom Ruby Russo, who showcases adolescence at a remove; she sashays alongside Full House’s Stephanie Judith Tanner as the other girl I would have wanted to befriend during the similarly precocious 1990s. For this twenty-something, the decade now unfolds to the tune of Jesse and the Rippers and big families and to that of Salt-N-Pepa and big hats. Belatedly, I wish to be Blossom, in a retroactive sense, as one could be before the 2000s.

The show’s heroine arrives onscreen with teenage panache. She fearlessly wiggles, shuffles and shimmies into the first season’s grainy, goofy camera sequence, and prances and dances through subsequent sequences. Clad in a comfortingly large sweater in the second episode, Blossom careens her cart down the aisle after Tampax shrouded in glum grey wrapping. In ensuing episodes, Blossom’s best friend Six, and sometimes she, speaks very, very fast and shrieks, in short succession, in her room. In one episode, Blossom calls up Six to talk, and she’s talking about the big time here—she’s thinking of going to second base with Jimmy! In one episode a month later, Blossom frets over what everyone’s going to think when her friend Dennis claims they went all the way in the balcony at the multiplex! Yet in time Blossom is not shy about the fact that she wants her boyfriend Vinnie and that she wants Vinnie to want her. Mayim’s Blossom repeatedly stresses this ambition to Six in a voice wonderfully inflected with Jewish notes; in the course of episodes, the equally academically ambitious young woman repeatedly stresses over attending Stanford.             

I see the bookish and sweetly preoccupied Blossom and I see myself at that age. Blossom and its protagonist confront me with my own adolescence. At thirteen, I, too, was on the cusp of junior fashions and was getting through womanhood with the help of chocolate ice cream. In due course, I, too, would consider Stanford.                  

As a result, I catch myself with the perverse wish to be an adolescent again. But I wish to be one on a particular day and time, namely, Monday evenings from 1990-1995.                              

I wish to be the brainy girl who is caught fervently studying her Latin assignment with Vinnie on these Monday evenings, the balanced girl who catches a study break to tune in to a Blossom television episode and to Mayim’s Blossom herself.                                                   

I wish to be the wry, witty girl who susses out her Harvard interview and evolving ambitions by visiting with her dotty, but not doddering, grandfather.

I wish to be the fretful girl who valiantly tries to talk to her father about her woes over chocolate chip cookie dough—even if that talk ends with the straight-faced “Good night, good-bye, God bless.”

I wish to be the astute, able girl who lovingly utilizes multisyllabic vocabulary words and who quirks asides in the privacy of her own room, her punch lines unknowingly aided by a laugh track.

Alternatively, I watch the episodic evolution of this girl between emails, via internet connection.

As taken from the show’s title character, this girl is “Blossom Russo, she wrote.”

Seeing humor in ‘Arab Labor’


On a recent Friday morning, the Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, 38, wearing jeans and a Superman T-shirt, slouched forward over a tiny outdoor table at the Cafe Hillel located in an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood 10 minutes from his home. He was trying to explain to a foreign reporter the urgency of moving his family back to Beit Safafa, a nearby Arab town that sits atop the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. (Kashua had fled Beit Safafa for Israel proper a few years back, when local sentiment against him hit a bitter low.)

“I will show you,” Kashua said, pulling up a photo on his smartphone of his 3-year-old son. The kid was holding a balloon designed to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day — silver with a blue Star of David in the center.

“I have a little son, and he goes to a wonderful daycare in our [Jewish] neighborhood. That’s the way I picked him up from the kindergarten two days ago,” Kashua said, touching a finger to the screen. “He doesn’t even speak even one word in Arabic. He speaks only Hebrew, and I think that he’s racist.” At this, Kashua laughed his trademark silent laugh — small puffs of air through a great wall of teeth, so that you don’t even realize he’s laughing until you look up.

This coffee-shop scene could easily have made the cut for an episode of “Arab Labor,” the prime-time family sitcom that Kashua debuted on Israel’s Channel 2 to harsh criticism seven years ago and that KCET is now airing in Los Angeles. In fact, in an Independence Day-themed episode called “Remembrance” from Season 2, the main character — Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad, a slapstick version of Kashua — faces a similar dilemma. It’s Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and Amjad is sweating over whether he should let his daughter sing holiday songs with her Jewish classmates or keep her home to teach her about the Palestinian Nakba (the “catastrophe” of 1948), which falls around the same date.

Shay Capon, 47, the show’s Jewish director and a close friend of Kashua, called the Yom HaAtzmaut versus Nakba episode “the heart of the series.”

Speaking on the sunny front porch of his country home outside Jerusalem a couple of days prior, Capon said: “The beauty of this show is it laughs at everybody. In Israeli society, for the first time, you can see an Arab and not associate him with bombs. For the first time, you see him as a person who has his fears and his desires and his small little family that he loves and wants to protect.”

And most important, wrote a reviewer for the U.K. Guardian, “It‘s just really, really funny.”

In “Arab Labor,” as in Kashua’s three novels and in his weekly column for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it’s difficult to tell where Kashua’s life ends and his fiction begins.

Both he and the “Arab Labor” character Amjad are Palestinian citizens of Israel working at left-wing newspapers, raising their families in well-to-do Jewish neighborhoods and trying to answer to both Arab and Jewish society. The show is even filmed at Kashua’s own apartment building in Ramat Denya, Jerusalem. (Actually, one building over, because “I really didn’t want my neighbors to be totally involved.”) Yet Kashua wrote his family’s move from Beit Safafa to Ramat Denya into the “Arab Labor” script before it even happened in real life: “I first tested that on paper, and then I saw, OK, it can work — and then we moved,” he said.

In life, though, Kashua is more of a tortured, fidgety artist type than his TV caricature. He looks constantly inspired yet fatigued, his buzz cut and beard stubble flecked in gray and white. Kashua’s face is softer and rounder than that of Norman Issa, the Palestinian actor who plays Amjad, and a war appears to be raging behind his eyes at all times.

To witness the inner turmoil and rootlessness of a Palestinian annexed into Israeli life, one need only waste a few hours and a handful of cigarettes with Kashua on a Friday morning.

“If you ask Shay [Capon] and my producers, they will say, ‘Yes, of course, it’s making huge changes,’ ” Kashua said of the show’s impact while driving his eldest son, a shy 9-year-old in Crocs, between English and mandolin lessons. “But when I look at the political situation, I really see that my writing has nothing to do with the politics in the region. It’s really frustrating.”

Adding pressure to Kashua’s identity crisis is the fact that, like it or not, he has become something of a celebrity ambassador for the largely unheard-from Arab-Israeli population, which makes up 20 percent of the country. “I was not planning to represent anyone,” he said. “It’s a lot of duty.”

This hasn’t always sat well with his community. When “Arab Labor” premiered in 2007 — the first show about Palestinians on Israeli TV — many members of the Palestinian and far-left Israeli media were outraged, labeling Kashua a nuisance, a traitor and “an affront to the Arab image.”

“I was a little bit of a suspect for them,” Kashua said of his critics. “Like, ‘How come this man who we have never heard of got a spot on commercial Channel 2? He must be a man of the authorities.’ ” The writer later explained: “It’s very difficult, when you are the persecuted one, to accept humor. For the Israelis, it’s really much easier. They won the war.”

His Palestinian audience has since warmed considerably to the show — so much so, Kashua said, that he now feels ready to move his wife and three kids back to the Arab town of Beit Safafa. But first, Kashua plans to debut a second, even more autobiographical series on Channel 2 about the process of writing “Arab Labor,” then spend a year teaching Hebrew, TV writing and comedy writing at two Illinois universities. The fifth season of “Arab Labor” may even take Amjad’s family to suburban Champagne, Ill., he said.

While dropping his son off for mandolin lessons at the boy’s mixed Arab-Jewish
elementary school in Jerusalem, Kashua asked the school’s Jewish security guard, Guy, if he wanted to appear as himself in an episode of his upcoming show, an “Arab Labor” spinoff. Kashua’s vision was to shoot a scene in which Guy makes his early-morning rounds with a paintbrush, erasing all the “Death to Arabs” price-tag graffiti from the night before — as he actually does most mornings. 

Guy appeared over-the-moon at the offer. Later on, in the parking lot, the school’s Arab janitor likewise approached Kashua about how much he loved the show.

Film-festival announcers and PR people like to introduce Kashua’s show as “controversial” — but four seasons in, “Arab Labor” may be the most agreed-upon thing in the Middle East. Since its jarring debut, the sitcom has become a steady favorite at Israel’s annual version of the Oscars, and Seasons 3 and 4 saw an average share of 35 to 40 percent of viewers in its time slot.

“People really, really, really love this show,” Capon said. “The most prejudiced people love Amjad — even the most right-wing Israelis. Everybody loves Amjad.”

The KCETLink channel on Central and Southern California digital cable is now airing episodes of “Arab Labor” every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. Full episodes also can be watched on the KCET website, KCET.org. 

Two TV specials look at Jewish history’s darker days


The mass killing of 6 million Jews ended nearly 69 years ago, but almost every month we discover a new aspect of the Holocaust, its aftermath and its impact on future generations.

Witness, for example, two new television specials scheduled to air in the next few days: “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” uncovers new scientific evidence on the existence and mechanism of the death camp. “Sosúa: Make a Better World” is an offbeat teen musical recalling a barely remembered footnote to the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and Austria.

While Auschwitz has become shorthand for the Holocaust, as well as a pilgrimage site for more than a million visitors each year, very few pay homage to the victims at the other death factory, Treblinka.

The reason is simple: The camp was destroyed.

The complex, 65 miles northeast of Warsaw, consisted of Treblinka I, primarily a forced-labor camp, and Treblinka II, the site of the killing machine, closed in 1943 after 24 months of operation.

During that timespan, its 10 gas chambers asphyxiated 900,000 men, women and children. The grisly work done, the Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to erase every trace of the camp’s existence.

SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s men destroyed all structures, filled in and leveled the earth above, and even installed a Ukrainian “farmer” in a newly built farmhouse.

Viewed from the ground and from the air, Treblinka appeared as peaceful farmland and forest, without barracks or gas chambers, and marked later only by a stone monument.

Given the absence of visual evidence, Holocaust deniers around the world focused on Treblinka to claim that it was really a transit camp rather than a killing ground.

Six years ago, Caroline Sturdy Colls, a young British forensic archaeologist from Staffordshire University, arrived at the site, determined to dig underneath the placid surface.

The documentary “Treblinka” (airing March 29 at 8 p.m. on the Smithsonian Channel, Direct TV and various cable channels) follows the painstaking work of Colls and her small team, whose task was to pinpoint the most promising excavation sites. Through sophisticated aerial photography, which created a picture of the landscape without foliage, the team detected faint imprints on the ground that pointed to the original foundation of the camp.

Inch by inch, the team carefully dug two trenches that yielded no evidence. Finally, in a third trench, Colls found human bones and, more importantly, broken tiles imprinted, incongruously, with the Star of David.

What was the significance of this strange discovery? Two of the few living Treblinka survivors testified that the Nazis disguised the front of gas chambers to resemble a mikveh, or ritual bathhouse, complete with tiles bearing the Star of David.

Colls breaks down at times at the horror of her discoveries, but the film’s emphasis is on the scientific approach she brings to the project. Indeed, the Smithsonian Channel is presenting “Treblinka” as part of its monthlong “Women in Science” series.

There is one jarring note in the film’s attempt to hype Colls’ quest as a kind of detective thriller, breathlessly questioning: Will she ever find the evidence?


Jewish refugees en route to Sosúa in a scene from “Sosúa: Make a Better World.”  Photo courtesy of Willow Pond Films

“Sosúa: Make a Better World” (on PBS, airing locally April 1 at 9 p.m. on KLCS) has elements of “West Side Story,” Jewish refugees in a strange land and civics lessons on American diversity, all rolled together into one sweet film.

It’s set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a neighborhood whose current population consists mainly of Latino immigrants from the Dominican Republic and their descendants. Back in the early 1940s, however, the area became the destination of so many Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria that it was labeled “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.”

The two ethnic groups now live side by side but rarely interact. The self-imposed separation bothered Victoria Neznansky, program director of the local Y (Young Men’s & Young Women’s Hebrew Association) community center, who looked for ways to bring together the teenagers from the two communities.

From this sprang the idea of a full-fledged musical on a theme linking the histories of both communities.

Flash back to 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the international Evian Conference to find countries of refuge for the German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

After many high-flown declarations by leaders of 32 nations in attendance, 31, including the United States, expressed regrets that they would be unable to absorb any Jewish refugees.

The unlikely exception was the Dominican Republic, whose ruthless dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, had murdered 25,000 Haitians during the previous year.

Trujillo offered to admit up to 100,000 Jews to his Caribbean country and to settle these former professors and businessmen in Sosúa, a former banana plantation abandoned by the United Fruit Co.

The dictator’s noble gesture was part of his plan to “whiten” his country’s population through hoped-for intermarriages between the native residents and the “white Jews.”

However, with the outbreak of World War II, only some 500 to 750 Jews made it to Sosúa, where, with the help of kibbutz experts from Palestine, they established thriving meat-, butter- and cheese-processing plants.

Taking the Dominican-Jewish link as the backbone of the musical, Y officials enlisted the talents of Broadway director and composer Liz Swados to put the show together.

With a cast consisting of 20 youths, ages 12 to 17 and evenly divided between Dominican Latinos and Jews, the musical slowly took shape. In the process, the actors on both sides shared stories of racist slurs (mainly against the Latinos), as well as against their home life and religious holidays (mainly Jewish).

In the process, barriers were broken and friendships were made, but, perhaps fortunately, filmmakers Peter Miller and Renee Silverman managed all this without the distraction of budding adolescent romances.

On opening night, we witness proud Latino and Jewish parents applauding enthusiastically as the show brings down the house.

For more information on “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” go to smithsonianchannel.com

On a bike, on a jet ski, climbing Masada — the sporty Bibi gets his TV special


“Can you get me a sandwich?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said aloud to no one in particular in the film crew as he emerged from the back of an SUV, stepping into a bright, egg-yolk-hued sunset over Jaffa, Israel. A swarm of security dudes in sunglasses and secret-service earphones immediately closed in behind him. “Lo humus” (“no hummus”), the prime minister added over his shoulder.

Netanyahu had come to shoot a scene with CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg — one of the last in a grueling week of shoots for “Israel: The Royal Tour,” the long-anticipated special set to air on U.S. public television beginning March 6. This will be the latest in the “Royal Tour” series, in which Greenberg tours various countries — including Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand — with each country’s head of state as his guide.

For the Jaffa scene, Greenberg walked along a beach promenade with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as the trio admired the Tel Aviv skyline rising to the north and the Mediterranean shimmering to the west.

“When I first came here, there were no high-rises in Tel Aviv,” Greenberg tells the Netanyahus in the final cut.

The prime minister responds, coolly: “Well, that’s actually what my son told me. He was 5 years old, and he said, ‘Daddy, we don’t have a skyline!’ And I said, ‘Relax, kid. I’ll get you a skyline.’ ”

The Jaffa set had been pretty chaotic for the half-hour before Netanyahu’s arrival. Public-relations people from the Tel Aviv municipality, a bunch of extras on Segways who thought they were about to shoot a commercial for the Ministry of Tourism, and a couple of Israeli news crews darted about aimlessly, waiting for the prime minister’s motorcade to crawl through rush-hour traffic. Armed men, dressed in black, started to appear on hilltops overlooking the promenade. Greenberg himself paced nervously in a nearby parking lot, dealing with a helicopter problem for the scene at Masada the next day. “Let’s get this thing solved, man, right now!” he said into his cell phone.

When the SUV carrying the prime minister finally pulled up, chaos exploded into pure star-struck energy. Much to the crowd’s delight, after walking the promenade, Netanyahu and Greenberg hopped on two green bicycles, part of Tel Aviv’s prized bike-share program, and began to race.

“Hey guys, I hope you’re getting him on the bicycle, because that was totally unexpected — we won’t get that again,” John Feist, the show’s director, shouted at his cameramen.

The normally stony-faced prime minister, a gargoyle of strength for Israel and a divisive figure in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, seemed to embrace this breezy, candid persona he was shaping for American TV. After the bike race, he said to Greenberg: “You have to come here once a year and we do this program, so I get out — ride a bike, run a jet ski, have some fun!” (A few days before, they’d gone jet skiing on the Sea of Galilee.)

Sara Netanyahu agreed — as long as no soccer was involved.

She was referring to the ankle pop heard round the nation in June 2012, when the “Royal Tour” first began filming: On an outing to a soccer match between Arab and Jewish youth, Netanyahu sprained his ankle while taking a penalty shot.

“When he came to the United Nations and he had this special speech where he showed the [illustration of the Iranian] bomb, he was actually limping, but nobody saw it,” Greenberg said in an interview with the Journal while driving on the freeway from Jerusalem to Jaffa.

Netanyahu and Greenberg on Masada at sunrise. Photo by Tina Hager, courtesy of WNET New York Public Media

With its star in a leg cast, the “Royal Tour” was forced to pack up and fly home. However, Netanyahu and Greenberg picked up where they left off the following summer — rafting, jet skiing, boating, hiking, driving and bicycling across Israel.

“His own security guard looked at me and said, ‘We have never, ever seen him like this,’ ” Greenberg said. “He and I went on dune buggies together, and he was driving like a madman. It’s great television.”

Although the Ministry of Tourism has taken credit for luring Greenberg to Israel, he said the segment was entirely his idea and was initiated through a friend of a friend who knew the prime minister.

No doubt, Israel stands to benefit from the show in a big way: According to Greenberg, tourism went up almost 20 percent in Jordan after his “Royal Tour” with King Abdullah II in 2002 and rose almost 10 percent in Mexico, Peru and Jamaica after his tours in those countries. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has predicted a boost of about 200,000 tourists thanks to Greenberg’s show, infusing an extra $285 million into the Israeli economy.

“Everyone who sees a program by Peter Greenberg, who is well known in the travel community — it’s going to be a major revelation, and hopefully it will lead to the creation of Israel as a desirable destination,” said Scott Feinerman, director of clergy and travel industry relations at the Ministry of Tourism’s office in Los Angeles.

Greenberg sees “Israel: The Royal Tour” as a chance for the world to get to know the nation through the eyes of its leader. However, he draws a firm line between travel reporting and PR: He said there has been “truly a separation of church and state” between him and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which was not allowed to review the final cut.

“It’s not my job to promote Israel — that’s the job of advertisers,” Greenberg said. “If I’m doing my job right, it’s to present it in a way that’s credible and that’s real. You have two guys, like two guys on a road trip, and one of them just happens to be the prime minister. And he and I are talking to each other, like you and I are talking to each other. It humanizes the country.”

Although Greenberg succeeded in helping the prime minister let loose a little, chronic Israel critics are sure to attack the show for avoiding more contested parts of the country. Unlike food critic Anthony Bourdain, another half-Jewish TV journalist who toured Israel last year and covered all his bases — Gaza, the West Bank, the settlements — the closest Greenberg comes to controversy is when he enjoys a cheese pastry called kanafeh in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, sans prime minister.

“Look, there will be people out there who say I was too hard, and there will be a lot of people saying I was too soft. But that’s not what the show’s about,” Greenberg said.

At the beginning of the episode, Greenberg does sit down with Netanyahu for an eight-minute interview that addresses the elephant in the room: the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Every time I’ve come to this region, and I bring up the notion of peace, someone always says, ‘It’s not the right time in the Middle East’…,” Greenberg says. “So I have to ask you: When is it ever going to be the right time?”

Netanyahu’s response, in part: “I think when I bring a peace agreement to the people of Israel, they’ll believe me. Because they trust me to take care of that foundation of peace, which is: You can’t have peace without security in the Middle East. It won’t hold for a day. I’m a great champion of peace through strength. I insist on the strength; therefore, I can get the peace.”

The Israeli prime minister’s son, 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu (right), explained the Tel Aviv party circuit to visiting journalist Peter Greenberg. “We start the night around 1 or 2 [a.m.],” he said. “This is really early, so you call this the pre-game.” Photo by Simone Wilson

From there, the show takes a turn toward feel-good and never slows down. Netanyahu leads Greenberg to check out emerging technologies at Technion (“Israel’s MIT”), swim with wild dolphins in the Red Sea, raft the Jordan River, touch the little-known underground section of the Western Wall, climb the Masada fortress in the middle of the Negev desert and float in the Dead Sea.

“It’s best between the scenes,” said Mark Feist, the show’s lead sound guy, who was hooked up to Netanyahu’s feed. “When the mics are running off-camera, he gets really pushy.”

The shoot also coincided with a tense period of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, so Greenberg got to witness some residual state matters. “When I’m with Netanyahu, he’s on the phone taking a call from [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] at least once a day,” Greenberg said. “He and I have had a number of back-channel conversations about the issue.”

In front of the camera, though, Netanyahu never seems to fully let down his guard; ultimately, he remains the hard-to-pin-down politician the world knows him as. In a definitive Vanity Fair piece called “The Netanyahu Paradox” from 2012, reporter David Margolick called the prime minister of Israel “compulsively cautious” and “both its strongest and its weakest leader in memory.” Aside from revealing his more goofy, sporty side, the “Royal Tour” episode doesn’t do much to clear up the Netanyahu enigma. His one-liners often come off as slightly canned — perhaps because some were shot multiple times to avoid any stumbles in conversation.

On July 7, after filming a couple of scenes in Jaffa, the group headed to Vicky Cristina, a high-end, Barcelona-inspired bar on the edge of Tel Aviv.

“It’s become just a hub — it’s a high-tech city, fashion city, culture city,” Netanyahu says of Tel Aviv at the bar.

Upon arrival, the prime minister and his wife did a slow lap around Vicky Cristina to the tune of a lively Spanish guitar, posing for cell-phone pictures and shaking hands. And when they finally settled down at the bar, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 23-year-old son, showed up to order a round of elaborate pink cocktails and talk about his area of expertise: Tel Aviv nightlife.

Yair, not as practiced a politician as his father, spoke freely, giving some context to Tel Aviv by critiquing its neighbors (“We’re surrounded by countries that stone people and execute women”) and lending some insight into Birthright (“All the Americans come here because you can drink when you’re 18”). 

But any indiscrete comments were cut from the episode — as was a midnight visit to a club next door. After Netanyahu and his wife headed home, Yair and a group of good-looking girls led Greenberg to a V.I.P. table for a few rounds of shots. 

It was an Israeli tabloid’s dream — not in small part because the group of clubgoers included Sandra Leikanger, a Norwegian college mate of Yair, who would later see her face plastered across the Hebrew media when she was outed as his non-Jewish girlfriend. (“She’s great,” Greenberg said of meeting Leikanger. “I think anybody should be able to date anybody they want.”) Hanging back in the crowd, Yair’s bodyguard, who did not give his name, said his job often consisted of staying out until dawn at nightclubs to keep an eye on his young boss.

But Greenberg and the crew soon left the youngsters to their own devices, as they were on a tight schedule: They had to be at Masada in a few hours for a sunrise shoot. “Nobody slept at all. It was pure adrenaline,” Greenberg later said.

The next morning, at the historical site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans, the crew would film their opening shot for “Israel: The Royal Tour” — a swirling aerial view of Netanyahu standing atop the fortress, looking out across the Negev. Goldberg narrates: “He’s a man who lives and breathes the past and future of his people. And now, he leads his nation as it faces one of the most critical crossroads in its history.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Israel: The Royal Tour” on March 4, after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. The show will begin airing on public television throughout the United States on March 6. 

Noir drama ‘Mob City’ shines light on L.A.’s criminal underbelly


In the postwar 1940s, organized crime was rampant in Los Angeles, and the men behind the mob were Jewish, guys like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, who rubbed elbows with movie stars and reveled in their notoriety. These rather glamorous gangsters are the focus of TNT’s new noir drama, “Mob City,” with the first of six episodes premiering on Dec. 4. 

The series is the brainchild of writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Walking Dead”), who mixes fictional and real-life characters — including corruption-fighting police chief William Parker — to tell the story.

“People don’t realize how prevalent the Jewish mob was. It was huge. Like my friend Steven Spielberg says, they were tough Jews  — street kids that came up during Prohibition and the Depression, and they did what they had to do to survive,” Darabont said in an interview. “These guys had to break the rules to make ends meet and get ahead. They lived in an extremely violent world, the world that was bequeathed to them.”

Darabont’s main research source about the period was “L.A. Noir” by John Buntin, which is rich in detail, including about the relationship between Siegel and Cohen, who in the series are played by Edward Burns and Jeremy Luke, respectively. “They were terrific friends. Ben let Mickey get away with stuff he never let anyone else get away with, because he liked the guy,” Darabont said. “What struck me was there was never a power struggle between them, though the table was set for one.”

“Mob City” is set in 1947, when boomtown Los Angeles attracted enterprising criminals “like flies to honey. What stood in their way was William Parker [played by Neal McDonough] drawing a line in the sand, but first he had to clean up the police department. Half the force was on the mob payroll,” Darabont said. Other characters in the show are fictional, among them detective Joe Teague (“Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal) and trigger-happy mobster Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper). 

Darabont, an avid fan of noir “thrillers with desperate men and dangerous women,” encouraged his cast to watch well-known examples of the genre like “Double Indemnity,” “The Third Man,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “True Confessions,” as well as more obscure ones like “Nightfall” and “Killer’s Kiss.” Luke zeroed in on films featuring Cohen as a character and read “L.A. Noir,” finding it revelatory. “Something that surprised me was his obsessive-compulsive disorder and how close he came to death a number of times.” 

Burns researched “just enough to get familiar with the time period and, specifically, Bugsy Siegel,” which informed his portrayal. “This guy needed to be larger than life, very cocky, but also charming. He says whatever comes to mind. He reacts violently, and that short fuse, combined with the ambition, is the thing that led to his downfall,” Burns observed. Being Irish-American was no obstacle. As a friend remarked to him, “If Liev [Schreiber] can play a Donovan, you can play a Siegel.”

For Darabont, getting the look and style of the period right was crucial to the success of “Mob City”: “I take such delight in the fashions of that time and the music and the cars and the tone and the vibe, and inviting the audience to admire what was a very stylish and sexy era.” Everything from vintage draped, slim-waisted suits to the rented old phones and typewriters at the police precinct lend the project authenticity, as do the settings, some of which were created digitally. 

Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) in the “Mob City” premier “Guy Walks Into a Bar.”

“We have a beautiful view of Sunset Boulevard when Bugsy Siegel is pulling into the Clover Club in his big cream Buick Roadmaster, and most of it is digital, mixed with footage we shot on a back lot,” Darabont said. “It’s a magic trick that lets us create a past era.”

While interiors of City Hall and the adjacent police headquarters were meticulously re-created on a soundstage, Darabont used some of his favorite Los Angeles locations for exterior scenes, including Union Station, the Baldwin Hills oil fields and, for a shoot-out sequence, the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, near Darabont’s 1924 Spanish-style home in Los Feliz. “On concert nights, I hear the Greek Theatre from my house,” he said.

Born in 1959 in a French refugee camp to Hungarian parents fleeing the revolution there, Darabont grew up in Hollywood from the age of 5, attended Bancroft Junior High and Hollywood High School. “I’m not Jewish, but all my friends’ grannies would feed us kreplach soup after school, and I went to all the bar mitzvahs — the adopted goy,” he said with a chuckle. 

It’s not surprising that he relates to the Jewish mobsters, “having come here as an immigrant and seeing generations of families having to adopt and adapt and fit in. Whether you’re involved in crime or not, these are very real things for every generation that is new to this country. I think that aspect of it is tremendously potent.”

Darabont wrote the first two “Mob City” episodes, co-wrote the sixth, directed four of them and oversaw them all. He said he also has thrown in several plot twists that will surprise the audience. “I love being caught off guard, and when storytellers manage to surprise me, and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said, hoping he’ll be able to do a longer second season. “There are things about the Jewish mob that have not been explored. I’m hoping to get a couple of Hungarians into it at some point. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was a killer for Murder Inc., and he was a Hungarian Jew.”

While Darabont has set aside a couple of months to have back surgery and then a few months off to relax and recuperate, he has other projects percolating, including an adaptation of a Stephen King novella called “The Long Walk.” He received Oscar nominations for his “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” screenplays, based on King’s stories. 

In choosing projects, he said, “I find the thing I’m most excited about and walk down that road, following the passion. It’s a philosophy that has served me pretty well.” 

ABC orders up more of ‘The Goldbergs’


Fans of “The Goldbergs,” kvell away. ABC has announced it is picking up the fledgling comedy for a full season.

While the series received lukewarm reviews from heavyweight critics such as yours truly, it is averaging 7.5 million total viewers and a 2.7 rating in adults 18-49. Apparently folks like being inundated with 1980s memorabilia  (think Rubik’s Cube and Ghostbusters Halloween costumes) and hearing Jeff Garlin lovingly refer to his TV brood as idiots ad nauseam.

Yes, we think it’s cool that a Jewish family is standing in for the average American family. That said, is it so wrong to hope for a little more overt Jewiness now that the season has been extended? We’re envisioning a Chanukah episode, a seder, or even better, some blue eye shadowed, shoulder padded bar mitzvah action.

Marty Kaplan: No news is bad news


If you think the widening chasm between the rich and the rest spells trouble for American democracy, have a look at the growing gulf between the information-rich and -poor.

Earlier this year, a Harvard economist’s jaw-dropping study of American’s beliefs about the distribution of American wealth became a “>new Pew study of the distribution of American news consumption is just as flabbergasting. 

According to the Harvard study, most people believe that the top 20 percent of the country owns about half the nation’s wealth, and that the lower 60 percent combined, including the 20 percent in the middle, have only about 20 percent of the wealth.  A whopping 92 percent of Americans think this is out of whack; in the ideal distribution, they said, the lower 60 percent would have about half of the wealth, with the middle 20 percent of the people owning 20 percent of the wealth.