'A strange fall' indeed--even for fictional TV characters

Only someone immersed in the television industry knows what the future holds for our favorite TV shows, sidelined by the pandemic.

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Chatting with a TV critic these days is a lot like going to a fortune teller. Only someone immersed in the television industry knows what the future holds for our favorite TV shows, sidelined by the pandemic. I caught up with L.A.-based Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter's Chief TV Critic, and a fellow member of the tribe, to talk television making in the age of social distancing and the evolution of Jewish-themed shows through the decades.

Q. As we head into the new fall TV season, this year feels different than all other years. What's the Hollywood scuttlebutt in terms of shows starting up again, or are they all just in a perpetual holding pattern?

Bit by bit, things are attempting to start over again, but in many different ways. So, on one hand, the Tyler Perry--produced shows out of Atlanta have been in production for a while, because Perry has a studio in Atlanta, so he has been able to lock people down completely--sort of the NBA bubble approach to making television…Then, in Los Angeles, where we're still largely in lockdown… every show has a different sense of how comfortable they are to make the show they want to make. There is no one uniform answer or timetable for when things will premiere on television. It's going to be a very strange fall.

How do shows move forward in the age of masks and social distancing? I've read that certain shows are using intimacy dummies for love scenes instead of real actors.

The intimacy dummy thing is absolutely one of the funniest things that shows are doing. A couple of the soap operas that resumed production are having the actors' actual partners as intimacy stand-ins so they'd be doing a scene with another actor and then when the kiss comes, they're making out with their wife or girlfriend…

I read a Hollywood Reporter

piece you wrote on how fruitful this past season has been in terms of Jewish storytelling on television. Why do you think this year has been such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Jewish-themed shows?


We're moving away from the idea that television is going to have every show be for everybody. That is an old, outmoded broadcast version of television that says that 35 million people are going to watch every show. I think a lot of [television producers] are realizing that specificity is a way to attract an audience, that specificity depicts the way people live lives…

The way Judaism has [historically] been treated on television is you'll sometimes get a wedding where someone steps on a glass and someone yells 'mazel tov' and that counts as Jewish. For a large percentage of American Jewry, that is what being Jewish consists of. On the other hand, there are also a lot of people for whom it means lighting candles on Friday night or going to synagogue on Saturday morning.

I don't think we've reached the point yet where we're seeing active observance, but if you look at shows like Hunters

, The Plot Against America , and Unorthodox , you're seeing specificity that TV hasn't had for a while. It's the way storytelling is supposed to be. It's supposed to depict the nuances of human life--and religion is one of those.


What makes a show "Jewish" in your mind?

There are shows that are perceived Jewishly [depending on] your prism. For instance, of course Seinfeld is a Jewish show. There's no question about that at all. But, on the other hand, it's a show that many people don't perceive in any way as being a Jewish show, and that you can watch without any awareness of Judaism and you won't lose anything.

But if you have a cultural context in which Jewishness means a wide variety of things, of course you look at a show like that and go, 'I recognize all these things.' In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel , 95% of the things that are very Jewish in that show have nothing to do with the observance of Judaism. It's just a very Jewish show. It universalizes the experience while being very specifically something--if you know what to look for.

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