If you heard that Jaleel White, aka ur-nerd Steve Urkel from ’90s sitcom Family Matters, is starring in a Web-only TV show as a groom-to-be planning his wedding to a Jewish woman, you’d be forgiven for finding the news somewhat astounding. But the real surprise is that the series, Road to the Altar, is actually good, and that it offers up another star worthy of notice: Leyna Juliet Weber as White’s fiancée, Rochelle Shapiro. Produced by media company MWG Entertainment with a “brand integration” partnership with Panda Express, Pier 1, and iRobot, the show is released weekly on Mondays in four-and-a-half minute episodes, and also includes such notable characters as a pixie-like TV producer named Smurfette, who is filming the couple’s planning process for a reality show.
White’s character, Simon Fox, is the long-suffering straight man to Rochelle’s demanding, manic bride-to-be—she has made a detailed diorama of the first dance, complete with partners pre-paired by “skill level, height, and breath quality.” But Rochelle is also an effervescent and funny character played with warmth and a great sense of physicality by Weber, who is also the show’s co-writer, along with director Annie Lukowski. Rochelle may want things her way and have a butcher grandfather who’s “flying in the meat” for the big day, but, said Weber, she’s not a JAP. Rochelle is “definitely outspoken,” she said. “A lot of times, when women are portrayed that way, people are quick to assume it’s a stereotype.”
Weber’s got an intriguing back story, which has come to bear on her writing: when she was in seventh grade, her entire family (mother, father, and two sisters) became ba’alei t’shuva, embracing Orthodox Judaism—except for her, which is a little like if everyone in your family started speaking Ladino while you stuck with English. “I have that feeling of sort of an outsider and someone who breaks rules,” said Weber.
Next Monday’s episode will feature a culture clash straight out of Weber’s experience with her own family. Rochelle’s Orthodox cousin, Ruchel Leah, flies in from Brooklyn to try on her bridesmaid dress, which, because of her beliefs about modesty, has to cover her arms, neck, and legs. Her visit creates a sort of double fish-out-of-water scenario, with Simon confused by Ruchel’s requirements because, as he sees it, “you’re all Jewish,” and Ruchel taken aback by the “boobs flying around,” said Weber. “We’re pretty wild and racy to her.”
Where Curb Your Enthusiasm has license to misbehave by virtue of airing on pay cable, and Arrested Development pushed the boundaries of network TV farther than they could stretch, being on the Web gives Road a great deal of freedom—as Weber said, “We didn’t have a million censors going, ‘That’s not gonna work in Nebraska’”—and it goes where not many sitcoms have gone before. There’s a French florist played by a Korean, a vaguely Slavic lighting expert who offers to help “break in” the bride before the wedding night, and a surprisingly funny penis joke that goes on for a full minute—almost a quarter of the episode.
Road to the Altar makes consistent, satisfying use of the mockumentary format; more Christopher Guest than The Office, another show Road recalls. It also cannily employs the format of reality shows like the much publicized Jon and Kate Plus Eight, or The Real Housewives, using the characters’ vlogs, or video blogs on the show’s site, to further the conceit by providing mini “confessional” interviews with an array of side characters played by distinguished guest stars, including Jim Hanks and Earl Billings as Simon’s father.
The wedding itself, which will take place in a synagogue, is not featured in the series’ schedule 10-episode run, but Weber and Lukowski have written a feature film based on the show, which they hope to sell after Road to the Altar runs its course (the last episode will be posted on August 17), and, said Weber, “if MWG ordered more episodes, we’d be on board.” While Road may not be the kind of project they would be involved in, Weber said her sisters both watch the show and support her work. After her older sister saw one of the episodes, said Weber, “she called me and said ‘That’s the hava nagilah and it’s hip hop! You did a hip-hop hava nagila!’”