A year glued to our TVs

With live entertainment and cinemas severely curtailed, 2020 was the year for watching TV. What caught Linda Marric's eye?


In a year when most of us were forced to stay indoors, glued to our TV screens, the biggest winners were established streaming platforms, public service broadcasters and assorted new digital services. In these very strange times, with cinemas closed and uncertainties over new releases, we turned either to slow burning TV dramas or smaller indie productions, while Hollywood opted for virtual releases.

UK Jewish Film launched its very own streaming platform, the state-of-art “In Demand” service. This proved particularly useful during this year’s festival which had to be held online after cinemas were once again ordered to close in early November. Happily, more than 21,000 people tuned into the programme, including this year’s audience winner — the excellent When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, directed by Caroline Link. The whimsical Israeli comedy Honeymood — by Zero Motivation writer-director Talya Lavie — was a worthy choice for a film to close the festival, while Ruthy Pribar’s sedate family drama Asia was another highlight.

On mainstream television, over on Channel Four, we were reunited with the Goodmans of Mill Hill when the long running sitcom Friday Night Dinner returned for a sixth season back in May. Airing during some of the darkest days of the first UK lockdown, this family favourite proved to be a hit as people found themselves stuck at home for days on end. Created by Robert Popper, Friday Night Dinner is focused on the regular dinner experience of a very standard British Jewish family every Friday night, with universality to the fore and Judaism on the side. Alas, it was hinted that this series may well be the last but considering its enduring popularity there are hopes that all involved might reconsider and return. At least it ended on a high, with the Goodmans about to become grandparents, please God by all of you.

Another comedy series reaching its sixth and final run was the hilariously funny Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek. Created by Dan Levy and his father Eugene (American Pie, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), the series followed the trials and tribulations of the once über wealthy Rose family and their journey from riches to rags after being defrauded by their business manager.

This year, in the limelight thanks to Netflix, the series went on to clean up at the Emmys with a full set of Best Comedy acting awards for Eugene and Dan Levy, Catherine O’Hara —who plays the family’s matriarch Moira Rose — and Annie Murphy who plays the family’s wayward daughter Alexis. The show has won deserved plaudits for its positive portrayal of a LGBT love story; it also shines for the throw-away mentions of the family’s interfaith Jewish/Christian status.

Over on Sky Atlantic, The Wire, Oz and Generation Kill creator David Simon returned with the fantastic and chilling drama The Plot Against America. Adapted by Simon and his frequent creative collaborator Ed Burns from the 2004 novel by Philip Roth, the series imagines an alternate American history told through the eyes of the Levins, a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. In this imagined version of history, the Levins see how Charles Lindbergh, established as an aviator-hero and xenophobic populist, becomes president and turns the nation toward his fascistic ideology. The excellent cast includes Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan.

Coming almost out of nowhere, The Queen’s Gambit took social media by storm as word of mouth turned it into one of the must-see shows of 2020. Set in the 60s, this gorgeously designed and beautifully acted Netflix mini-series tells how orphan prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), embarks on a quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. It was adapted by Scott Frank and Allan Scott from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name and co-stars Jewish actress turned writer-director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) in one of her best roles to date as Beth’s adoptive mother.

The excellent German-American miniseries Unorthodox became the first Netflix series to be primarily in Yiddish (unless you count Shtisel, series three of which aired in Israel last week) . Its story inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, created and written by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski and directed by Maria Schrader, Unorthodox stars Shtisel break-out star Shira Haas as 19-year-old Esther Shapiro, unhappily enduring an arranged marriage in an Strictly Orthodox community in Brooklyn. Soon she escapes to Berlin, intending to start a new secular life. Some viewers loved it, others hated it — debate raged in the pages of the JC — but it undoubtedly introduced many non-Jews to the Charedi world.

Early December saw the release of David Fincher’s Mank, another big-budget production from streaming giants Netflix. Mank is the story of one of early Hollywood’s greatest unsung heroes, Jewish screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played rather brilliantly by Gary Oldman, although some questioned his casting in a Jewish role). The film traces the tumultuous development of Orson Welles’s iconic masterpiece of 1941, Citizen Kane, written by Mankiewicz during one of the most trying times of his life. Amanda Seyfried stars as legendary Hollywood siren Marion Davies, while Arliss Howard excels as the larger-than-life producer Louis B. Mayer.

Finally, this year saw the release of The Vigil, the first horror film to be made in Yiddish. Written and directed by novelist turned filmmaker Keith Thomas, it stars Dave Davis (The Walking Dead) and Charedi actor Menashe Lustig, who previously starred in the 2017 semi-autobiographical Yiddish feature film Menashe. The film relates how Yakov Ronen (Davis), a formerly observant young Chasid, is tasked with keeping watch over a deceased member of his former Orthodox community and finds himself targeted by a dybbuk.

In a year when many questioned the future of film, when cinemas closed and much production came to a halt, it felt fitting that the saviour of 2020 could be Gal Gadot, back again as WonderWoman 1984. I found the film a little disappointing but can only hope it delivers the profits the industry is praying for.

All in all, we may have been confined to our homes in 2020 but, against the odds, plenty of screen entertainment made a turbulent year almost bearable.


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