Shout! Factory announced last week that they will be releasing Rhoda — one of the best television spinoffs ever — on DVD in the spring. Although the DVDs won’t be available until April, I kind of see this announcement as a nice Chanukah present because, in my opinion, Rhoda contains the most authentic — and funny — representation of New York Jewish women in the history of television.
If you’re not familiar with the show, the title character, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), was the buddy on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was the slightly overweight, bohemian, earthy, ethnic “other” to Mary Richards’ thin, beautiful, modern career girl.
Rhoda’s spinoff had her moving back to her native New York to get married — and, of course, to be close to her family.
And, more specifically, to battle with her loving but overbearing mother (Nancy Walker).
The show was a critical success. Valerie Harper won an Emmy and Golden Globe the first season, and Julie Kavner, who played her younger sister, Brenda, won an Emmy a few seasons later. The wedding episode, which reunited most of The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast, was a huge ratings success. In later seasons, Rhoda struggled a bit and reinvented itself. (There’s an interesting theory that the show lost its way because, by making Rhoda pretty and successful — in contrast with her schlubby sister — Rhoda evolved into “the Mary” and audiences didn’t like it.)
In part, I’m nostalgic about television from my childhood. But I’m also looking forward to a little immersion in recognizably New York Jewish women on TV. There are very few out there. Occasionally, there’s an overtly religious Jew with a forced Russian or Yiddish accent, such as Marion Ross on the short-lived über-Jewish Brooklyn Bridge. And there was The Nanny (Fran Drescher). And Rachel on Friends was probably Jewish. And of course, there’s Jenny Schecter, a non-New York Jew who will never be accused of resembling an authentic anything.
Rhoda, however, was just matter-of-fact about its characters’ ethnicity. Jewish New York women could recognize their families in the humor and the relationships.
Remember the voiceover that provided the exposition during the opening credits?
“My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, New York, in December, 1941. I’ve always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food. I had a bad puberty; it lasted 17 years. I’m a high school graduate, I went to art school. My entrance exam was on a book of matches. I decided to move out of the house when I was 24. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home. Eventually I ran to Minneapolis where it’s cold, and I figured I’d keep better. Now I’m back in Manhattan. NEW YORK, THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!”
Rather than suck out all of the humor by trying to explain it, I’ll simply point out that it’s got it all: sarcasm, self-deprecation, food issues, guilt, mother-daughter struggles. These characteristics are not exclusively Jewish, of course, but they are definitely authentically so.
This spring, I know what I’ll be watching. Anybody else?