Recently, I aced two online quizzes. One of them was called something like "How much of a true New Yorker are you?" and the other was similar: "How Jewish are you?"
I grew up in the American heartland, a.k.a. the Bible Belt, where I never once received an invite to a bar mitzvah (because there were practically no bar mitzvahs to attend) or saw New York with my own eyes until I was in my 20s. And yet, because we had a television and an Old Testament and a "Fiddler on the Roof" soundtrack, my brain somehow got what it needed to know. By osmosis, then, I became one of those gentile TV viewers who is faintly Jewish-ish (and/or New Yorker-ish).
Beneath the pernicious hostility of a statement such as "Hollywood is controlled by Jews" (or, more recently, those chants from young white supremacists in Charlottesville of "Jews will not replace us!"), there is always the happy truth that the reach of popular culture can enlighten any open-minded kid on ways of life besides his own, even when those depictions are a little too broad and reaffirm stereotypes.
What set of stereotypes, after all, is more firmly intact on today's TV than that of the American Jewish experience? Non-Jews everywhere, raised on a steady supply of "Seinfeld" reruns (and delighted by the return Sunday of its crankier uncle, HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm") can, by instinct, pick up on what a show is telling them about its characters, even when it isn't telling them directly.
Which is one way of approaching "9JKL," a mediocre and egregiously trite sitcom premiering Monday on CBS. In an undeclared but exceedingly Jewish-ish style, it's about a man in his mid-40s named Josh ("Royal Pains' " Mark Feuerstein) who leaves Los Angeles and comes home to New York after the bad TV show in which he starred ("Blind Cop") is canceled and his wife has taken "everything" in a divorce.
Josh moves — temporarily, he hopes — into Apartment 9K of a Manhattan building. The apartment is owned by his parents, Harry and Judy (Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin), who live next door in Apartment 9J. They also own Apartment 9L, where Josh's younger brother, Andrew (David Walton); his wife, Eve (Liza Lapira); and their infant son are living while their townhouse gets renovated.
On his first morning home, Josh wakes to find his parents beaming down at him with unrelenting pride and affection. "I just want to eat him and squeeze him and chew on his squishy little tushy," Judy coos.
Nearly every joke in the "9JKL" pilot (the only episode made available to critics) is about the claustrophobic lack of privacy in this family arrangement, where "Joshie's" parents feel free to let themselves into Apartment 9K (a sizable studio they've been using to store their Costco bulk items) at all hours, so they can loudly pressure their son about his career and potential love life.
Judy bribes the doofus doorman (Matt Murray) into alerting her anytime Joshie comes home and is headed for the elevator, so that she can drag him into her apartment, ply him with his favorite foods (i.e., bakery-fresh black-and-white cookies) and debrief him on the day's gossip she has gleaned from her friends about their children's success and the possible availability of their single daughters. Other details, pertinent or not: Harry is a successful estate attorney who prefers to go pants-less around Apartments 9J, 9K and 9L, offering anyone a taste of his fresh honeydew melon. Andrew and Eve are both doctors.
"9JKL" leaves it to the viewer to assume that this family is Jewish, because it never comes up in the pilot's 22 minutes. Their last name is decidedly neutral: Roberts. Yet, in a long-held prime-time tradition, they read as Jews; if they're not meant to, then why lean so heavily on the overbearing-parent stereotypes? Why saturate the show in potentially contemptible upper-class cues and easy signifiers of coastal elitism? What audience is this show for (just the Eastern and Pacific time zones?) and what audience will just have to wing it?
Feuerstein, who is also one of the show's six executive producers (as well as its co-creator), based "9JKL" on his own recent experience of moving back in with his parents. While giving journalists a tour of the show's set this summer, a reporter asked if there was a reason that the characters' Jewishness goes unmentioned — was there some desire to play it down, in a current climate of anger and hate? (Or is it more like a "Goldbergs" thing, in which the ABC comedy coasted for a couple of seasons on an implied Jewishness, until the Goldbergs finally celebrated Hanukkah?) If a show seems in every way about Jews but also seems to assiduously avoid saying so, what is the non-Jewish viewer supposed to think — that it's too hot to bring up in the touchy, temperamentally divisive America of 2017?
According to a transcript of the set visit, Feuerstein said he expected "9JKL" to be more direct about the Roberts family's faith in later episodes. "I am very proud to be a Jew," he said. "I'm very happy to say to you that, yes, this family is Jewish. And we will take our time with how we treat those issues."
This might be more germane if "9JKL" felt like the sort of sitcom with staying power (TV critic's rule of thumb: whenever David Walton is in the cast, it's a subliminal cry for cancellation), or if the show could somehow convey a sense of television's long, interesting history with Jewish New Yorkers and the fabulous apartments they've lived in. Entire theses, after all, have been written about the significance of sitcom living arrangements. Sadly, the show gets off to a dreadful non-start. Old pros like Lavin and Gould are given no choice but to play their parts way, way over the top, because their characters have been brushed far too broadly, with jokes that are beyond stale.
To drop Jill Soloway's Emmy-winning, consistently superb Amazon Prime dramedy "Transparent" into a discussion of "9JKL" seems rather unfair — like comparing the smartest kid in the class with the dumbest.
Yet here they are, the success of one surprisingly relevant to the failure of the other (and each featuring parents who dote on a Joshie), with "Transparent" furthering its proud and frank exploration of how being transgender might closely and eerily mirror the outsider experience of being an American Jew.
In Season 4, now streaming, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) is invited to speak at a gender conference in Tel Aviv; her youngest daughter, Ali (Gaby Hoffman), decides to tag along at the last minute. On the way to catch their flight at LAX, Maura softly sings a calming line from "Everything's Alright," a Mary Magdalene number from the 1970 rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar," an album Ali subconsciously recalls hearing from as far back as the womb. "Oh my God," she says, recognizing the tune. "You guys were obsessed with that."
After nibbling one of Ali's pot candies to relax herself, Maura has a humiliating experience in airport security, set to the raucous section of "Superstar" in which Jesus confronts the money changers at the Temple of Jerusalem; Maura hallucinates an image of Ali sailing through TSA on the arms of men in Orthodox dress. The scene is at once hilarious, disturbing and sublime — and among "Transparent's" finest.
In Israel, Maura and Ali make a startling family discovery that lures the rest of the Pfefferman clan to join them — daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) and her husband Len (Rob Huebel); son Josh (Jay Duplass); Maura's ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) and Maura's sister Bryna (Jenny O'Hara). On a bus tour that includes the Wailing Wall and the Dead Sea, the family experiences another series of self-realizations, while snippets of the "Superstar" soundtrack ("What's the Buzz?"; "I Don't Know How to Love Him") rattle around in their heads. Ali, who continuously opens new doors to her own sense of identity, parts ways with her family to visit Palestinian friends, with eye-opening results.
Although the episodes in this season are short (careful, or you'll blow through all 10 in one sitting), a viewer can sense that "Transparent" is nearing a conclusion — if not literally, then at least thematically, as far as its Jewish/trans dialogue goes. The Pfeffermans will continue to have their hang-ups, problems and assorted issues, but what's striking now is the way Maura has become a peaceful, gravitational center in the lives of her family and friends. She has made it home in every sense of the word, and everything's all right.
9JKL (30 minutes) premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.
Transparent (Season 4, 10 episodes) available on Amazon Prime. (Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)