The Random, Idiotic, and Profoundly Non-Jewish New Face of TV
Fox’s new animated block replicating the popular Adult Swim means the end of TV’s Golden Era and its great Jewish sensibility
There are many things, good and bad, one can say about American TV in the last 30 years, but no matter its shortcomings, the medium has repeatedly succeeded in delivering a candid and uncynical affirmation of the need we all have for community and the sacrifices we all make to preserve it. Odd as it may sound, this remains a rare sentiment in American popular culture: As the movies, always vehicles for leading men and women, turned louder and more spectacular in the aftermath of Jaws and Star Wars, TV remained small and personal and dedicated to ensembles of talented actors and diverse characters. In 1985, to take one random example, movie-goers had both the second Rambo and the fourth Rocky to feast on, but at home they watched the debut of The Golden Girls and Growing Pains, two shows that weren’t just well-written but that also affirmed that life was less about punches and explosions and more about an endless stream of small and mundane moments that were meaningful only because they were shared with friends and family and loved ones.
This, I suspect, is why TV has meant so much to me and to so many others. We all know that we will never be as tough and resourceful as Rambo, but we all hope to one day have friends as loyal as Blanche, Rose, Sophia, and Dorothy, or to become wise and loving parents like Steven and Elyse of Family Ties, or to enjoy a marriage as stable as Archie and Edith’s. And we loved these shows because they taught us the greatest and most difficult spiritual lesson—namely, that we should look for redemption not in great heroes who come and fix everything and sweep everyone off their feet but in everyday moments that seem insignificant as they happen but that, taken together, make up a tapestry of a rich and well-lived life. Television, to paraphrase a sliver of wisdom from another medium, taught us that heaven was a place on earth.
Which, of course, is a very Jewish sensibility. It is no coincidence that all three shows mentioned in the paragraph above were created by Jews. While different in look and tempo, these shows, and others like them, shared a similar approach to storytelling, deeply humanistic and profoundly Jewish. This approach was best captured in a sadly forgotten novel, The Second Scroll, written by a sadly forgotten Canadian Jewish poet, A.M. Klein. In the novel, Klein argued that Jews owed their survival to their ability to make up compelling stories—that they are chosen people, say, and that there is a promised land awaiting them at the end of days—and believe in them while all the while ignoring their actual, grim history, which tumbled from one terrifying massacre to the next. Had they focused on the facts of their lives, Klein claimed, the Jews would’ve been traumatized beyond relief; it was their ability to turn their tales into a religious reality that saved them at every turn.
Norman Lear, Susan Harris, the late Gary David Goldberg, and TV’s other Jewish pioneers subscribed to the same logic, creating television shows that gave a battered America better stories than the harrowing ones that stained the front pages of its newspapers each morning. Like all masterful myth-makers, they understood that a myth works precisely because it combines the banal—family dynamics, petty jealousies, common lust—with the fantastic—gods and monsters and miraculous transformations—with each element making the other more believable.
The Adult Swim approach, already prevalent in many corners of TV and soon to be considerably more so once Fox debuts its new strip, is the antithesis of this approach. It believes not in communities but in individuals, and it rewards the personal incoherencies that set us apart rather than the far more universal desires we all share. It can think of no greater commodity than the random, GIFable chuckle. It has no interest in or use for the glory that is ordinary human life. That is probably also why so many of these shows are animated: Cartoons have traditionally shown little interest in life as it is lived by actual people.
Fox’s new flight of programming may prove a dud, hastily forgotten amid more and more excellent and serious TV storytelling. But if Adult Swim is any indication, that’s not likely to happen. We’ll soon have more and more characters on TV that resemble the squidbillies much more than they do the Golden Girls. And that’s not only an artistic decline but a moral one as well.
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