Friday, May 05, 2006

Night of the Jewish Love Gods


I have to admit that I have this guilty pleasure: watching Numb3rs on Friday nights on CBS. Ostensibly, this show is celebrating how we use math in everyday life; CBS even has an associated educational program with teacher's guides accessible on the show's website. But I can't help but call this show what it is, 2.5 generations of Jewish hunkiness broadcast out every Friday night, subtly altering audience perception of masculine icons. Sure these guys are secular Jews, and no one utters word one about religion or culture, but two out of the three main leads, Rob Morrow and Judd Hirsch (as supportive patriarch Alan Eppes) have gotten their biggest recognition playing self-identified Jewish leading characters, and the third has mainly been cast as Jewish-identified supporting characters. Judd Hirsch as the smart, underachieving, left-leaning cabbie Alex Reiger on the long-running sitcom, Taxi and cornering the market on sympathetic therapists with his portrayal of Timothy Hutton's doctor in Ordinary People (1980). Morrow is of course known for playing the displaced New Yorker Dr. Joel Fleischman, on TV's Northern Exposure, providing the audience's entre into the sometimes surreal world of Alaskan natives and long-term transplants. Notably Morrow also played the ethnically marked Dick Goodwin, a Harvard educated attorney whose Jewishness kept being referenced during his work as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives on the Van Buren scandal as portrayed in the film Quiz Show (1994). David Krumholtz, the youngest of the three, is probably best known for his decidely non-Jewish portrayal of Bernard the Elf in The Santa Clause holiday franchise (Krumholtz doesn't appear in the forthcoming 3rd Clause film). His teenaged face is also familiar as Joel Glicker, Wednesday Addams' crush in Addams Family Values (1994) the shiksa-macking-dyed-blonde-would-be-non-Jew, Yussel, in Barry Levinson's rich family portrait, Liberty Heights (1999). Sci-Fi and Joss Whedon fans may know his adult face as Mr. Universe in Serenity (2005).

Each Numb3rs character plays to something of a type, hopefully this first season is just about establishing each of them and the writers will expand their scope in future seasons. Hirsch is Daddy (Alan) Eppes another left-leaning character who was a peace activist in the 1960s, and is now a widower living with his youngest son Charlie Eppes (Krumholtz) the boyish brainiac math genius professor with security clearance. The older brother, Don Eppes (Morrow) is the Jewish type less seen, but no less real. Think Brendan Fraser's closeted-Jew jock character David Greene in School Ties (1992), but without the overt closeting, or the street-tough self-hating Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001), without the self-hating. Arguably, Numb3rs is a situation drama response, by intention or not, which investigates the deep-seated insecurities Danny Balint's character (which was based on an actual person) forwards regarding Jewish masculinity. Don Eppes is a G-man, an FBI lead agent. Every episode he directs an accomplished and markedly macho team of agents; even the (straight) female on the team was her resentful father's son substitute. Chasing criminals, his gun drawn, barking commands, Don talks in the clipped sentences we expect from government men, and has the stereotypical problems exhibiting emotions.

You just don't see that many physically imposing Jewish males in the media, even the Beastie Boys' rap cool seems to stem more from a quirky New York ethnic male identity than a particularly physical masculinity. Jeff Goldblum is the exception that proves the rule. His particular offbeat brainy charismatic sensuality was such that he read as "sex on legs" even when he was turning into a big ol' insect (The Fly [1986]), plus was married to 1980s-early 90s WASP-claimed bombshell (and fine actor in her own right) Geena Davis, and he's '6"4. Folks usually forget that Michael Landon and Kirk Douglas are Jewish because the Hollywood studio PR machines downplayed or omitted that fact. Of course there is thickly chisled (Bill) Goldberg, the Oklahoma-born Jewish former pro football player, current pro wrestler, and burgeoning movie actor, but again he's an anomaly. I'm thinking there are some parallels between the feminization of Jewish and Asian American men in U.S. media, along with the WASP (white anglo saxon protestant) fear of both the Jewish and Asian (big) brain power in the sciences, math, and lastly (and yes, probably leastly) music.*

But Numb3rs prominently features nerds of all ethnicities including Peter MacNicol as Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, Charlie's charmingly awkward colleague at the fictional CalSci University, and attractive, well-socialized geek Navi Rawat as Amita Ramajuan, a mathematician getting her second doctorate, and on occasion Charlie's love interest. Not for nothing, each of these Eppes family actors is New York born and bred, and while you can fake it, there's nothing like the original. The Eppes men are written as a California family, yet in true California fashion they all sound like they're from somewhere else, uh, yeah, New York. Younger son Charlie has bought the family house where he lives with his retired father, and elder son Don often comes over for dinner and a little sibling rivalry. Don has recruited his brother to work with him on FBI cases giving them an opportunity to butt heads and compete on each other's terrain, hard evidence versus mathematic formulas, a conflict which also evidences their respective capacities for strength and compassion. Krumholtz is a physical, if not sensual, mathman. He paces, and postures, imagines formulas in 3-D layperson friendly analogies, fingers his (carefully) carelessly tousled head of curls, toys with chalk, and posits formulas with a passion that reminds you the brain is the number one sex organ. Don's willingness to jump into the fray, kick ass and take names, and get into the face of any evil-doing perp or, in the latest episode, a colleague
Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS
putting his brother and father in danger, touches the pleasure button of those who like their heroes in a more expressly "man of action" mode. Hirsch of course is the daddy bear, loving, but also a wise and in some ways no nonsense kind of dad, who values family and wants more than anything else for his two hard-headed sons to get along. Their family dynamic is a romance without the Freudian overlay. It probably helps that there is no mother's attention for the brothers to compete for, allowing the audience, particularly straight or bi females, to unimpeded fantasies about any of the men. I am wondering about the possible gay following, but haven't seen anything about this yet. Neither of the brothers have had a steady love interest, only a number of near successes; in regular guy fashion their passions for their respective work makes meeting and dating women challenging. But it's still only the first season (so Dad's not meeting any possible "mom-replacements" yet either). Nor have any of the Eppes men yet dated a woman who is clearly identified as Jewish, hmm. But that's a whole other issue. Even so, it's kind of subversive, and overdue, to see Jewish men portrayed with some diversity and as unabashedly sexy.

*Just to be clear, I'm not a proponent of the notion that European descendant Jews are not "white." I would agree that there are hierarchies of "white" privilege, and similar to Italians and other immigrants that negotiated (e.g. changing names; assimilating or not) and were begrudgingly admitted to this caste, the relative privilege is differential in relation to other Europeans/European Americans, i.e. all "whiteness" is not constructed equally. But that doesn't negate the existence of whiteness or its privilege.
In another case of a sweet and sexy white male nerd, the husband (British actor Jake Weber, sounding more British expat than Arizona-bred) of Patricia Arquette's eponymous character on the NBC show Medium is a rocket scientist. In a recent episode ("The Darkness is Light Enough"; Season 2, Episode 20; airdate 1 May 2006), a young, duly assimilated Asian American male co-worker in sharply tailored suits and designer glasses is breathing down hubby Joe Dubois' neck in a race to turn in numbers that will determine career advancement. In fear for his career's trajectory Joe is putting in extra long hours trying to keep up with the energetic and ambitious new guy; the family is none too happy. Arquette has a vision wherein the young co-worker is on his sharply pressed pants-knees, hands in supplication, tears streaming, begging for Joe's help. Something similar actually comes to pass, the co-worker gets to stay vertical, but his numbers are gibberish and it's only a matter of time before word spreads. Joe helps him and gets a promotiona advancing him ahead of the youthful second generation immigrant wunderkind. Now, is this a white male fear-based wish fulfillment fantasy, or just a regular subplot about workplace politics?

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