It’s a bad year for Jewish men. As portrayed on prime-time television this season, they’re a bunch of nice nebbishes. From Miles Silverberg, “Murphy Brown”‘s insecure producer, to contentedly neurotic Marty Gold on “Anything But Lover to sensitive, self-absorbed Michael Stedman on “thirtysomething,” to Stuart Markowitz, “L.A. Law'”s prime nudge, Jewish men are being depicted as good-hearted but weak.
Miles (played by Grant Shaud) worries aloud. Marty (Richard Lewis) shlumps around. Michael (Ken Olin) whines and Stuart (Michael Tucker) pouts. As for Jackie Mason, well, he was in a category by himself.
It wasn’t always like this.
I used to watch Mick Belker (played by Bruce Weitz), the tough, dedicated cop, and Henry Goldblum (Joe Spano), the serious, introspective lieutenant, on “Hill Street Blues!’ “St. Elsewhere” had practical Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), an intern who practiced in a Red Sox cap, and philosophical Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), the hospital administrator. Lt. Bert Samuels (Al Waxman) was a fair, decisive authority figure on “Cagney & Lacey” and Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) was “M*A*S*H'”s wise, compassionate psychiatrist.
I knew these men were Jewish because periodically they’d mention a grandson’s bar mitzvah, say kaddish for their fathers or celebrate Chanukah. However, their religion was incidental to the roles they played on the programs: that of capable men who did their jobs well and were respected because of it.
The difference with this year’s crop of Jewish men is that although they are also outstanding in their fields (Marty’s the star writer on a Chicago magazine, Stuart’s a partner in a prestigious law firm, Miles produces a network news program, Michael is an executive at a top advertising agency), that’s not what makes them noteworthy.
The emphasis is on Marty’s uncertainties, Miles’ insecurities, Stuart’s need to be in control and Michael’s endless self-analysis. The men are caricatures of “weak Jewish men” — even if affectionately or gently drawn. What seems to make something like Stuart’s worrywart neurosis acceptable (spending hours in unnecessary color-coding and cross-filing in preparation for his first court appearance) is that it’s done in a manner that’s intended to be endearing and humorous, not ethnically maligning.
For some reason, Miles seems to get it the worst. On a recent episode, his BMW is hit by four different people in the course of a few days. After each dent, Miles throws a tantrum. “God is punishing me for buying a German car!’ he shouts at one point. Exasperated with his histrionics, Corky (Faith Ford) finally says, “Oh, Miles, zei un mensch!” — only she says it in English: “Oh Miles, be a man!”
However, could it be that as long as Miles doesn’t behave “like a man” he is safe? Could it be that television writers — so many of whom are Jewish — don’t want Jewish men to be seen as threatening arrivistes? Are the writers subliminally saying, “Don’t worry, national television audiences, Jewish men in influential positions are nothing to be afraid of. On the contrary, they’re just overgrown teddy bears who need a reassuring hug. They’re not taking over. No way.”
Perhaps this is why we constantly see Marty holding his head and making references to his mother and his psychiatrist, Michael griping about the difficulties of being a “grownup’,’ Miles looking to Murphy (Candice Bergen) for reassurance that he made the right decision, and Stuart preoccupied with irrelevant details.
None of this would be that remarkable — after all, there are plenty of Christian schlemiels on T V. this year, too — except for the fact that these are the only Jewish male characters on network television that I’m aware of. I am sensitive to how my own ethnic group is portrayed.
I liked it when, in T. V. years gone by, I felt respect for Jewish males — the Mick Belkers and Dr. Freedmans, even the Henry Goldblums and Dr. Auschlanders. This year’s sample is not so respectable. Interestingly, the Jewish women that I’ve seen on T.V. this year — Melissa (Melanie Mayron) on “thirtysomething” and Lilith (Bebe Neuhirth) on “Cheers” and Victor’s girlfriend Amy on “L.A. Law” — are self-possessed and independent, without a trace of Rhoda or Molly Goldberg in them.
A freelance photographer, Melissa grapples with personal problems, but, unlike Michael, she resolves them and lives with her decisions. When filmmaker Amy is raped, she refuses to blame herself or feel guilty, and leaves Victor when he is less than completely supportive. As for witty, confident Lilith, if she’s a caricature, it’s of a rationalizing psychiatrist, not of a Jewish woman.
But, of course, women — even Jewish women — are never as threatening as men.
Maria Stieglitz is a freelance writer living in Sea Cliff, NY who is a great fan of Mick Belker, Lt. Samuels and Wayne Fiscus.