When the fall semes­ter end­ed last Decem­ber, I found myself in a posi­tion that many of us encounter when we hap­pen upon a bit of free time: scrolling through the menus of var­i­ous stream­ing ser­vices, look­ing for some­thing to watch that would be both enter­tain­ing and worth my time. I set­tled on Hulu’s recent minis­eries Fleish­man Is In Trou­ble, an adap­ta­tion of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 nov­el of the same name. The show stars Jesse Eisen­berg as Toby Fleish­man, a forty-some­thing physi­cian whose ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), dis­ap­pears the sum­mer after their divorce is finalized. 

In the end, Fleish­man did not dis­ap­point. Not only were the eight episodes both enter­tain­ing and worth my time, but they also offered a clever decon­struc­tion of par­a­digms of fem­i­nin­i­ty, mas­culin­i­ty, and famil­ial dys­func­tion through a Jew­ish lens, all fil­tered through the nar­ra­tion of Lib­by (Lizzy Caplan), Toby’s best friend and the viewer’s major con­duit through which to under­stand the nature of the Fleish­mans’ break-up. Toby is nei­ther as blame­less nor as vir­tu­ous as he imag­ines him­self to be. Rachel is nei­ther the image-obsessed Jew­ish Amer­i­can Princess nor the shal­low social climber that she ini­tial­ly appears to be. Lib­by, as the audience’s stand-in, is grad­u­al­ly forced to over­come her inher­ent bias­es against Rachel and, more impor­tant­ly, against her­self, root­ed in her fears of con­form­ing to any Jew­ish girl clichés.

The lay­ers of the series unpeel them­selves to reveal a seem­ing­ly sim­ple but nev­er­the­less cru­cial truth: that peo­ple are inher­ent­ly com­plex, that they can­not be cat­e­go­rized by stereo­types or con­sid­ered whol­ly good or evil. The fact that this truth appears against a back­drop of Judaism and Jew­ish­ness — both in the cul­tur­al mark­ers of New York’s Upper East and Upper West sides and, in one par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant scene, in a syn­a­gogue sanc­tu­ary where Toby per­forms the entire­ty of the Birkhat Kohan­im in Hebrew for his daugh­ter, a moody bat mitz­vah-age teen ques­tion­ing her iden­ti­ty in the midst of the Fleish­mans’ famil­ial chaos — chal­lenges every truth per­pet­u­at­ed in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture about unap­peal­ing and emas­cu­lat­ed Jew­ish men, over­bear­ing and demand­ing Jew­ish women, and dis­en­gaged sec­u­lar Jews removed from and embar­rassed by Jew­ish identity.

What Fleish­man ulti­mate­ly offers reflects the pat­terns that char­ac­ter­ize the best of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish tele­vi­sion, pat­terns that I explore in detail in my book, Peak TV’s Unapolo­getic Jew­ish Woman: Explor­ing Jew­ish Female Rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Con­tem­po­rary Tele­vi­sion Com­e­dy. While Jew­ish women his­tor­i­cal­ly have been offered the prover­bial short end of the stick in tele­vi­sion rep­re­sen­ta­tion — tucked into one-dimen­sion­al Jew­ish Amer­i­can Princess/​Jew­ish Moth­er roles; used as com­ic fod­der on the basis of their neu­roti­cism, unat­trac­tive­ness, or brash­ness; or absent alto­geth­er — con­tem­po­rary tele­vi­sion offers a com­par­a­tive embar­rass­ment of rich­es. Changes in the indus­try have opened the door for Jew­ish women in tele­vi­sion, both in front of and behind the cam­era. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of stream­ing series — on myr­i­ad plat­forms, avail­able on demand to a diverse view­er­ship that choos­es when and what to watch out­side the con­fines of tra­di­tion­al net­work sched­ules — com­bined with a grow­ing desire to gen­er­ate high-qual­i­ty con­tent with niche appeal have changed tele­vi­sion. Jew­ish women have sub­se­quent­ly tak­en advan­tage of the onset of what can only be described as an era of Peak TV, and the Jew­ish female char­ac­ters that have appeared on tele­vi­sion in the past decade amount to a renais­sance of Jew­ish female self-representation.

In my book, I use case stud­ies of sev­er­al series from the past decade cre­at­ed by, writ­ten by, and, in some cas­es, star­ring Jew­ish women and non-bina­ry Jews in order to define the char­ac­ter­is­tics that make up television’s new, unapolo­getic Jew­ish woman. My explo­ration of series such as Crazy Ex-Girl­friend, The Mar­velous Mrs. Maisel, Broad City, Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple, Trans­par­ent, Grace and Frankie, Russ­ian Doll, Orange is the New Black, and And Just Like That… ulti­mate­ly demon­strate a truth that is not dis­sim­i­lar to the truth Lib­by dis­cov­ers towards the end of Fleish­man Is In Trou­ble: that Jew­ish women are com­plex, not eas­i­ly cat­e­go­rized, and, unsur­pris­ing­ly, are most inter­est­ing when they are giv­en space beyond the stereo­types that have con­fined Jew­ish female rep­re­sen­ta­tion on tele­vi­sion since its inception. 

As my book reveals, the Jew­ish women fea­tured in con­tem­po­rary TV com­e­dy share lit­tle in com­mon with their his­tor­i­cal coun­ter­parts, but they also share lit­tle in com­mon with each oth­er. The most sig­nif­i­cant change offered by the female-dri­ven com­e­dy series of the past decade is a diver­si­fi­ca­tion of television’s Jew­ish woman that eschews the idea of a sin­gu­lar mod­el of Jew­ish female iden­ti­ty in favor of a var­ied spec­trum of char­ac­ter traits, back­grounds, fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and rela­tion­ships with Jew­ish­ness and Judaism. 

The com­mon threads that tie these post-net­work Jew­ish women to each oth­er — a pos­i­tive­ly framed unruli­ness that empha­sizes sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty, an unapolo­getic con­nec­tion to Jewishness/​Judaism unob­scured by cod­ing or self-con­scious­ness, out­ward-fac­ing humor root­ed in action rather than in self-dep­re­ca­tion, open sex­u­al­i­ty, and a defi­ance of gen­der norms — ulti­mate­ly come togeth­er to serve two impor­tant func­tions. First, they under­mine his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Jew­ish fem­i­nin­i­ty, com­pli­cat­ing and, in many cas­es, bypass­ing alto­geth­er the Jew­ish Amer­i­can Princess/​Jew­ish Moth­er cul-de-sac of Jew­ish female rep­re­sen­ta­tion in order to estab­lish new tropes. Sec­ond­ly, and per­haps more impor­tant­ly, they human­ize the Jew­ish woman by indi­vid­u­al­iz­ing her. This recon­cep­tion of the Jew­ish woman as rep­re­sent­ing only her­self allows for more com­plex, nuanced rep­re­sen­ta­tion that leaves room for char­ac­ter flaws, com­ic mishaps, and pre­car­i­ous choic­es with­out com­mu­ni­cat­ing blan­ket mes­sages about what all Jew­ish women are like. 

These changes not only reha­bil­i­tate Jew­ish female rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but they also deep­en what Jew­ish­ness can mean on tele­vi­sion and thus under­mine clas­si­cal pop­u­lar cul­ture tropes of Jew­ish­ness — hyper-assim­i­la­tion, cod­ed Jew­ish­ness, stereo­types, cul­tur­al white­wash­ing — in order to present a less self-con­scious, more com­pli­cat­ed, and cul­tur­al­ly nar­cis­sis­tic” ver­sion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty that engages more mean­ing­ful­ly with Jew­ish cul­ture in many forms. 

Over the course of the series explored in Peak TV’s Unapolo­getic Jew­ish Woman, we see Jew­ish women (and Jews gen­er­al­ly) light­ing Shab­bat can­dles, cov­er­ing the mir­rors for shi­va, recit­ing the Vid­dui, fast­ing on Yom Kip­pur, putting togeth­er Passover seder plates, light­ing yahrzeit can­dles, attend­ing syn­a­gogue, par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Beit Din, exor­ciz­ing dyb­buks, attend­ing Yid­dish poet­ry read­ings, vis­it­ing Israel, going to the Catskills, and, above all, claim­ing their Jew­ish­ness open­ly and with­out shame. The end result is an almost Tal­mu­dic exe­ge­sis of Jew­ish fem­i­nin­i­ty and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty that dimin­ish­es the valid­i­ty of clas­sic arche­types, human­izes and empow­ers Jew­ish women, demys­ti­fies Jew­ish rit­u­al, and, per­haps most strik­ing­ly, does so while avoid­ing all those pesky Jew­ish girl clichés. Peak TV, indeed.

Saman­tha Pick­ette is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Instruc­tion in Jew­ish Stud­ies and the assis­tant direc­tor of the Schus­ter­man Cen­ter for Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin.