On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review March 6, 2000/26 Adar 1, 5760

Elliot B. Gertel

Jamie Pressly, as Audrey Griffin
Jack and Jill: Turning the table on stereotypes?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN THE NEW SERIES, Jack and Jill, the WB Network comes as close as it ever will (or as most networks will) to an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. Sure, this ensemble fare about 20-somethings rooming in close proximity owes much to the Friends formula, with attention-getting doses of angst and surprise. But it boasts a cast who are appealing not only in their looks, but in their efforts to bring some character to their persona.

While the writing does not allow this on a regular or even frequent basis, and often frustrates the young actors' best efforts, there are some worthwhile moments here.

If Jack and Jill is an old-fashioned romance, then it breaks with tradition in at least one blatant way. Some love stories of the 60s and 70s featured Jewish men and women (usually Jewish men) whose humble origins were deplored by the haughty WASP parents of their love interests. In Jack and Jill, it is a young Jewish medical student, Barto Zane, who must shield his beautiful, spirited girlfriend, Audrey Griffin, from his pompous, artsy, Manhattan parents.

In an episode written by Randi Mayen Singer, a producer on the show, Audrey learns that Barto has not told her about a dinner invitation from his parents, and worries that he is ashamed of her. Barto's friends know that he is trying to spare Audrey from his parents' overbearing "disapproval factor." Barto tries to tell Audrey that he is not ashamed of her, that his concern is entirely about the unpleasant behavior of his parents, but it becomes clear to him that he must let her experience an evening with them.

Econophone Audrey is overwhelmed by Barto's parents' stately, elegant apartment. ("One apartment per floor?" she asks in awe. "Less confusing that way," he answers). When she tells Barto's mother that she has a print just like the one that graces this elegant apartment, Barto's mother hastens to let her know that she owns the original.

From the moment they sit down to dinner, Barto's parents, Dr. Jonas and Louise, take every opportunity to inform Audrey that they regard her as an unhealthy distraction for their son. They remind him of a senator's daughter who attended Dalton with him. When they discover that Audrey's mother ran a dance studio and that she doesn't see her father, they make a crack about family being "important."

When they hear that Audrey chose to dance on Off-Broadway instead of going to college, Jonas insists that Barto needs to be devoting all his time to study, and Louise patronizingly laments her inability to visit Off-Broadway productions because of her involvement with high culture.

Yet Audrey handles herself well, or at least forcefully, in the face of such rudeness and arrogance. When Barto's parents ask her how she plans to "sustain" herself as a dancer, she declares: "Actually, I thought I'd snag a medical student and get him to marry me before he realizes what a lowbrow loser I am." Even after that outburst (which the writer intends as repartee?), Louise does not let up on her pontifications about high culture, with classical music playing in the background as if it were another pretentious air in the room.

As Audrey and Barto exit his parents' building, Barto compliments her, "You did something at dinner that I stopped doing years ago. You called them on it --- the subtle posturing, the maneuvering, the criticism. You rose above it." When Audrey asks Barto why he did not do the same, he replies that he has "given up." She does not let up on him. "They're parents," she says. "They mean well. I don't hold it against them, but I expect more from you."

Trakdata She accuses him of holding his silence because his parents are paying his medical school tuition. Then she lays down the law to him. "The strong outspoken guy that I fell for suddenly had nothing to say, and no idea how to stand up for himself or for anybody else. And believe it or not, I can accept your parents, but I don't accept that guy. And I don't care what your parents think about me. I care about what they think you think about me."

Here is some of the better writing on Jack and Jill. But is it more than stock psychobabble? The episode would seem to leave us regarding Audrey as a dispenser of wisdom, a charter of sensible boundaries, an effective protester against patrician slights against the proletariat. Yet when one thinks of it, her response to Barto's parents was rather unrestrained, even over-the-top. Her pious talk about understanding his parents does not explain away her rather vulgar, tit-for-tat behavior.

What is the writer's intention? Is Ms. Singer suggesting that Audrey become a kind of mascot or patron saint for Jewish daughters-in-law? Do we have an instance here of the non-Jewish woman glorified as an effective import to set boundaries with Jewish parents that a young Jewish woman would, by some definition, be incapable of doing? Is Audrey just another of TV's proposed replacements for Jewish women?

It would seem that the issue here is not at all a religious one. At the beginning of the episode, Barto's childhood friend attributes to Jonas and Louise the outlook that "precious sons in medical school and blond shiksa dancers just don't mix." But their objections are entirely socio-economic and not religious. What we may have here is the first time that an American TV series has defined "Jewishness" as a socio-economic caste! Jews become synonymous with snobs.

Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel is JWR's resident media maven.

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© 2000, Elliot Gertel