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The 12 best Jewish and Jew-ish TV series of 2021

It’s been a long year – again. The pandemic that kept us locked inside last winter is rearing its ugly head again, people are still protesting vaccines while wearing yellow Stars of David and now, just to make sure we have no small pleasures left, there’s a cream cheese shortage.

Thankfully, though, it’s been a good year for TV, with plenty of series that allowed us to escape the exhausting slog of headlines. At its best, a good series can get everyone talking, providing good conversation fodder and common experience in a time when little of note was happening in people’s personal lives as we huddled in our apartments. Plus, a series can be meted out over weeks, which is essential with so much empty time to kill in the pandemic.

So, here are the series that transported us out of the slushy New York winter, comforted us after a stressful news week or, as all good art does, gave us perspective to process the topsy-turvy world we’re all living through. (And scroll to the bottom to read our coverage on these shows from the past year.)

1) “Checkout,” created by Yaniv Zohar and Nadav Frishman

Streaming on ChaiFlicks

Newly arrived to ChaiFlicks, “Checkout” is an Israeli show following the mishaps, internal staff politics and troublesome customers at a small grocery store in Israel. An Israeli show about neither Haredim nor Mossad is a rare bird, but the comedy still offers sharp social commentary on the class divides and social stereotypes that pervade Israeli life. In a way, the show feels like it could be set in an American store — its real subject is the everyday drudgery of minimum-wage workers — yet its characters feel deeply Israeli, making the experience of watching it oddly nostalgic for anyone who has waited in an unmoving line in a grocery store somewhere in Rishon LeTsiyon or Petach Tikvah as the cashier walked off for a smoke break mid-shift.

2) “Midnight Mass,” dir. Mike Flanagan

Streaming on Netflix

A scathing polemic against charismatic religious leaders — and taking communion — “Midnight Mass” is a grand, patient drama packed with vivid monologues. It’s a horror series with a lot of Tony Kushner in its DNA. Is it Jewish? Apart from Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife, who plays an agnostic Catholic, not so much. Yet the character of the Muslim sherif (Rahul Kohli), who capably challenges the Christian hegemony of the local school, is certainly one Jews can identify with. It’s not for everyone, but even if you’re squeamish about horror, you still may appreciate its thoughtful reflections on faith, mass hysteria and grief. Just be prepared for a not-insignificant amount of gore.

PJ Grisar

3) “Hacks,” created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky

Streaming on HBOMax

Rising star Hannah Einbinder was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her role as Ava, a writer who, ostracized for an insensitive tweet and out of better options, lands a gig writing jokes for an elderly once-legendary comic, played by Jean Smart, now struggling to stay relevant. The two grate against each other, yet find common ground in their struggles to revitalize their careers and manage their personal lives. Einbinder’s character might be a lapsed Catholic, but Ava’s neuroticisms and overbearing mother feel pretty Jewish, and the comedian herself posts her bat mitzvah photos on Instagram and wears a Star of David proudly.

4) “The Chair,” created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman

Streaming on Netflix

When is a Nazi salute not a Nazi salute? So asks Netflix miniseries “The Chair,” which stars Sandra Oh as a beleaguered department chair trying to revitalize the English department at an elite liberal arts college and Jay Duplass as the professor who said the sieg heil in an attempt to illustrate facism during a lecture. Jewish groups are notably absent from the campus backlash to the salute, and the show doesn’t address antisemitism at all, but it’s a thought-provoking exploration of cancel culture. Plus somehow, it’s still witty and watchable while taking on the precarious future of academia.

5) “Shtisel,” dir. Alon Zingman

Streaming on Netflix

The first two seasons of this slow, atmospheric Israeli drama about a Haredi family were such a big hit among American Jews when released on Netflix in 2018 that it was renewed for a third season, despite having been canceled years before. The third season, which premiered on Netflix this year, picks up six years after events of the previous season, and gets a bit more lost in convoluted plotlines, but still excels in its thoughtful depiction of an insular religious community and its deeply human characters. You have to watch the first two seasons for the third to be worth it, but you probably should anyway.

6) “Only Murders in the Building,” created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman

Streaming on Hulu

Who knew a show about making a podcast could be so delightful? And yet, “Only Murders in the Building,” which stars Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short as neighbors in an Upper West Side building is a romp. The three meet when a neighbor dies — or is murdered — and, as fans of the true crime genre, they set out to both solve the case and make their own podcast about it. There are plenty of little nods to Upper West Side life, such as nosy neighbors, a character obsessed with schmears and a local deli magnate who said his grandmother fled the Holocaust — the Greek and Armenian one, but close enough I suppose.

7) “Squid Game,” created by Hwang Dong-hyuk

Streaming on Netflix

This Korean mega-hit follows a group of haggard debtors who compete in deadly versions of schoolyard games in a tournament run by shady rich men in the hopes of winning a huge jackpot at the cost of their competitors’ lives. No, there’s no secret Jewish history to “Squid Game.” But the show’s release, which coincided with the beginning of the shmita year, made for a good parable about the desperation to which debt can drive people. Be warned — it’s phenomenally bloody. But the show poses challenging moral conundrums about human nature and society that we should all be grappling with – especially during a shmita year.

8) “Family Business,” dir. Igor Gotesman

Streaming on Netflix

What do you do when your family’s legacy kosher butcher shop just isn’t pulling in the big bucks anymore? Convert it to an underground marijuana dispensary, of course. At least, that’s the premise of the French dramedy “Family Business.” Set in the alleyways of Le Marais, the show follows a dysfunctional Jewish clan determined to save the business that holds them together — even if that means wading into the international drug trade. A nuanced exploration of modern French Sephardic Jewry? Not so much. A stylish, bingeable romp? Absolutely.

— _Irene Katz Connelly

9) “The Way Down,” dir. Marina Zenovich

Streaming on HBOMax

Cults are a reliable source of audience for most streamers, and “The Way Down” is just as hard to look away from as “The Vow” or “Wild, Wild Country.” The miniseries, streaming on HBO, follows Gwen Shamblin, the founder of the Weigh Down Workshop, and subsequently a Tennessee-based megachurch called Remnant Fellowship. Shamblin initially found success in a Christianity-based weight-loss program — for which she found inspiration in the starved victims of the Holocaust — but began to exert increasing control over her adherents’ marriages, parenting and finances, even becoming implicated in a child’s death by abuse. Mesmerizingly, the more off the rails Shamblin goes, the higher her hair grows; if nothing else, the evolution of her look will keep you hooked.

10) “The Great British Baking Show,” produced by Love Productions**

Streaming on Netflix

The ultimate comfort TV, Bake-off, as it’s known, is nothing new; it’s been beloved for over a decade. If you’re unfamiliar, a cast of British amateur bakers compete in three themed baking challenges each week for the chance to win a bouquet, a cake platter and eternal glory. This year’s season was exceptionally good, with a cast of lovable characters, about as much suspense as one can expect from a genteel baking competition and some particularly creative bakes. Plus, after a long history of getting Jewish food very wrong, the show finally got one right with a matzah-topped pavlova that was kosher for Passover.

11) “Succession”

Streaming on HBOMax

The dynastic HBO dramedy, about a family closely modelled on the Murdochs, has long flirted with the subject of emerging white nationalism. Though never short on Jewish actors – plus a character who is clearly a Bernie Sanders analogue – Season 3 introduced the show’s first explicitly Jewish character in Adrien Brody’s Josh Aaronson, a major invester in Waystar Royco and the subject of Logan Roy’s jocular antisemitism. Continuing to grapple with birthrights and betrayals that rival the Patriarchs and court of King David, “Succession” remains one of television’s strongest shows. The introduction of an arch-Catholic, populist presidential hopeful in Justin Kirk’s Jeryd Mencken (a possible riff on famed cultural critic and antisemite H.L. Mencken) means we may see a more Jewish show in Season 4 – or at least one concerned with the media’s role in the recent spate of American antisemitism.

PJ Grisar

12) “White Lotus,” created by Mike White

Streaming on HBOMax

I tried so hard to find something Jewish about this one — I really did — but I came up empty-handed. Still, Mike White’s show following the over-privileged and deeply-damaged rich people and the beleaguered staff at a resort in Hawaii is possibly the best show of the year, with sharp dialogue and cutting social commentary set in front of a stylized, oversaturated backdrop. Marriages fall apart, families betray each other and there’s even a dead body to worry about, all while swaddled in scuba gear or boasting cheerfully bright Hawaiian shirts, a performative luau put on for tourists swaying in the background. The effect is jarring — and riveting.

Read the Forward’s 2021 TV highlights below

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