Good news for children of the ’80s and American Idol fans alike: Paula Abdul, the legendary Laker Girl-turned-pop star-turned-compassionate-if-occasionally-addled-reality-television-show-judge, may be making a welcome return to the small screen. In a new NBC pilot written by Kourtney Kang, and executive produced by Fresh Off the Boat creator and showrunner Nanatchka Khan, the autobiographical show will concern a biracial (white and Asian) girl growing up in Philadelphia. Abdul will be playing a “fun, imaginary friend version of herself” in the untitled project.
I can’t think of a more perfect casting choice. After all, isn’t Paula Abdul already a fun, imaginary friend version of herself?
Who hasn’t belted out a melisma-heavy tune in the shower, and then imagined Paula’s encouraging comments, where she doesn’t get your name quite right but thinks you look beautiful and loves what you’re wearing (even though you’re naked, because you’re in the shower)? Of all the late ’80s and early-’90s pop icons that girls of my generation relied upon to show us how to wear a bustier and properly tease our bangs, Paula was always the most accessible and the friendliest. (Madonna was too steely and ambitious and impossibly sexy; Janet Jackson too remote, too odd, too vaguely military in her styling.) Paula, on the other hand, always had a smiley, Jewish camp counselor energy—appropriate for a bubbly girl from the Valley who recently threw herself a bat mitzvah at the Kotel. She always seemed like she’d be game to stay up all night with you to choreograph a dance you could perform for the parents when they came to pick you up on the last day. And even if you couldn’t quite get all the steps, she’d still make you feel like you did a good job (while making it clear that you’d never be quite as cute or cool or able of effortlessly executing the splits as she could, which was actually part of the thrill).
But what’s even more exciting is that Paula Abdul, a person whose Jewishness surprises people due to her name—her father is a Syrian-Jewish immigrant from Aleppo, hence the “Abdul,” and her mother is Ashkenazi, hence the “Paula”—is herself a paragon of diversity, the kind of person that is so often forgotten in cultural depictions of Jews. She’s a Jewish Arab, or an Arab Jew, depending on which construct you prefer, and the fact that Hollywood has seen fit to put her in lighthearted TV show dealing with complicated identity is a heartening one. It’s heartening too, to see that pop culture is doubling down on its commitment to showing us more and more different kinds of people and what they have in common. That’s very good news for anyone who cares about America—and anyone who’s ever dreamed of dreamed of dancing in a leather jacket with a cartoon mouse. Which is to say, America.