There hasn’t been a good television show about New York Jewish life since Seinfeld, whose final episode aired in 1998. The latest program to attempt an honest and funny depiction of the shtetl that is Gotham, the novelist Jonathan Ames’ Bored to Death, was recently cancelled by HBO following the conclusion of its third season. Artistically, this was the right call.
Ames’ cheeky story of a writer-turned-private detective (named, of course, Jonathan Ames) was cleverly conceived and lazily executed. True to type, Zach Galifianakis played a simpering man-child perpetually offending his shrill-twee girlfriend. Jason Schwartzman, the nominal star, was a blocked writer and accidental private eye. Jewish and in thrall to New York’s mythology, he had some charming affectations—terribly weak in the knees, a fondness for white wine and confessionalism—but every week, his private detective persona turned a promising burlesque into a farce, usually punctuated by a couple pratfalls. Ted Danson’s character, an over-the-hill-but-down-for-anything magazine editor named George Christopher, was by far the best thing. A touch manic and painfully alive, Danson was the only one who seemed to be acting rather than playing a part in a sketch.
Bored to Death benefited from its milieu—gentrified Brownstone Brooklyn—and its habitual nods to various signifiers of the hipster literary life. It featured John Hodgman and Patton Oswalt, two darlings of this demographic. Critics and members of the press, who tend to live less overheated versions of the lives depicted in the show, were smitten because this was a program by and about one of their own. (These are the same folks who, a few years ago, put Gossip Girl on magazine covers.) They had drank in these bars, walked these streets, stared bleary-eyed into the filth of the Gowanus Canal—some, perhaps, with Ames himself.
The show wore its Judaism thinly, but explicitly. Few episodes went by without at least one appropriate crack; Ames himself played a recurring psychopath whose distinguishing characteristic was wearing a yarmulke. And more broadly, neurosis was the show’s true star. But that’s the problem. Bored to Death still lived in a Seinfeld world, albeit one updated with 21st-century self-consciousness and more permissive attitudes towards weed. Schartzman’s Ames was Jewish in the most facile, Seinfeldian ways. It’s safe to assume that he was secular by default, not after any deliberation. He was nebbishy, weak, self-effacing, anxious, and easily bowled over: these, after all, are the classic markers of the New York Jew.
The end of Seinfeld was necessary (as Jerry Seinfeld knew before any of us did). For too long Jewish humor had been represented only by Ashkenazi, nebbishy, Woody Allen-lite Manhattanites. Despite our small numbers, we Jews like to trumpet our diversity, our inclusive sense of plenitude, but in popular culture, we’ve rested on a few tired archetypes—which is why, for example, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s unadulterated anger towards the world, his refusal to give in to his neurotic id, is so refreshing on his own HBO program, Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Meanwhile, the HBO show that did hint at the diversity of Jewish life in New York City, How To Make It in America, was cancelled the same day as Bored to Death.)
This crisis of secular Jewry was well expressed in Nathan Englander’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” recently published in the New Yorker. While I don’t share Marc Tracy’s enthusiasm for the story as fiction—I found it unnecessarily laconic, its intentions telegraphed—it worked marvelously as a debating prompt. In posing an ultra-Orthodox American-Israeli couple against their secular American counterparts, it refreshed a few perennial questions: What makes us Jews? Is it how others define us, vis-à-vis anti-Semitism and the Holocaust? How can we define secular Judaism as something coming out of the religion, rather than in reaction to its antagonists?
With wit and penetrating intelligence, Allen grappled with this question, but he created a paradigm for secular male Jewry that metastasized to dominate the culture. Bored to Death took the nebbish as a given—a persona that’s easily put on and palliative for audiences. But the culture has evolved; it is able to explore other, richer manifestations of Jewishness, secular or religious. The novelty of an anxious Jerry Seinfeld fretting over, well, anything has worn off for all but the most uninitiated of viewers. Similarly, there is little novelty in seeing our lives, in Brooklyn or elsewhere, reflected or refracted back to us; through the distorting lenses of social media and reality TV, this happens every day.
Judaism, Brooklyn, writer’s block, private detectives, male bonding, father issues, weed as a social currency—sure, there was life in Bored to Death. But it handled its conceits with all the grace of someone dropping names at a cocktail party. It offered what was familiar because it wanted to be liked. It had little interest in anything more.