Jews in the News: Natasha Lyonne, Caroline Kepnes and Michael Douglas

On Netflix and HBO—A Doll, a Stalker, and Two Writers

The original Netflix black comedy series, “Russian Doll,” premieres on Feb. 1. It has kind of a “Groundhog Day” premise. It stars NATASHA LYONNE, 39, who co-created the series with Amy Poehler. Lyonne plays Nadia, a 36-year-old chain-smoking coder who is the guest of honor at a party.  Time-and-time again, Nadia finds herself going to this same party, dying, being mysteriously revived, and doing it all again the next day.  As you might imagine, Nadia has doubts about her sanity and is obsessed with trying to figure out why she’s in this loop.  Lyonne told the “NY Post”: We set out to make an existential adventure show, the likes of which you rarely see a woman in the lead of.”

“You,” a surprise hit Netflix series, has an interesting premise and back story. “You” began as a 2014 novel of the same name by CAROLINE KEPNES, 42, a former Entertainment Weekly writer.  Kepnes said that when she wrote the novel (2012) she was in a dark place because of the death that year of her (Jewish) father. (Her mother isn’t Jewish). The novel follows Joe Goldberg, a 30-ish bookstore manager, who stalks and then dates Beck, an attractive and intelligent female college student. He quietly gets rid of anything or anyone who interferes with his obsession with Beck.

Joe, a good looking and deceptively charming fellow, is described as being Jewish on his father’s side in the novel. But his religious background is left unmentioned in the TV series.

Last fall, the 10-episode first season of “You” aired on “Lifetime”, which is not generally known for high quality shows. The series was developed by, and mostly co-written by Greg Berlanti and SERENA GAMBLE, 35.  Gamble’s parents, both doctors, left Poland in 1968 following an anti-Semitic campaign by the Communist government that drove out most of the Jews (around 20,000) who choose to return to Poland after the Holocaust. Gamble was born in New York and grew up in Cincinnati and California. She had a Jewish religious upbringing.

“Lifetime” decided not to renew the series despite good reviews (ratings were so/so). Netflix, however, opted to re-run the first season last December, where it found a really big audience. I understand the appeal: the “You” main characters are much more vivid and multi-layered than the usual stalking story characters. When first encountered, they remind one of the types of characters that appear in a charming romantic comedy. But Joe’s “dark side” takes that “rom-com” trope into a wholly unexpected and morbidly fascinating place. A second Netflix season, probably based on the Kepnes’ sequel novel, “Hidden Bodies,” is now being made.

An HBO biography of the famous New York City newspaper columnists, Pete Hamill, 76, and the late Jimmy Breslin, premiered last Monday, Jan. 29 and is now available “on-demand”. Entitled, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” it was co-directed by journalist JONATHAN ALTER, 61.

As I write this, the documentary has not aired, so I don’t know if they will include a biographical footnote about Pete Hamill that I often think about when I hear his name. It’s a small thing—so I doubt it will be in the HBO film. Hamill was one of a surprising number of famous people who served in his youth as a “shabbos goy.” Hamill even wrote a best-selling novel (1997) that was inspired by his “shabbos goy” experience. Entitled “Snow in August,” it follows the friendship of an 11-year-old Irish Catholic boy (who is a "shabbos goy") and a refugee Czech rabbi. It was made into a Showtime movie of the same name in 2001. By the way, other famous “shabbos goys” include the late Governor Mario Cuomo, former Sec. of State Colin Powell, and, yes, Elvis.

Another Yiddish Word in the Mainstream?

“Alta Kakas” (politely ‘old farts’), a Yiddish term, recently burst into the “mainstream” when MICHAEL DOUGLAS, 73, used it when accepting a Golden Globe award, and when it was used as the title of a “Law and Order: SVU” episode. Now “tucas” seems to follow. I was stunned when I stumbled on a “Preparation H” TV ad about the sheriff of a town called “Tookas”. There were a lot of puns about how “Prep H” protects his tucas they way he protects “Tookas”. I have to assume that “Prep H” ad-men think enough non-Jews know “tucas” to get the jokes. You can view it on Youtube, enter “Preparation H commercials.” You’ll see other funny Prep H ads. One with the song “Ring of Fire” in the background and another about a town called “Kiester.”


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