The new fall television season is filled with mysticism, from stories about angels and the power to bring back the dead with the touch of a hand to a time-traveling hero.
I first read about the upcoming season — which starts the week of Sept. 24 — back in May during what’s called "the upfronts," when networks unveil to advertisers their fall lineup. Picking up The New York Times’ advertising column, Stuart Elliott’s headline, I read "In a Time of High Anxiety, A Sedative of the Occult," and I wondered, "Is there something Jewish behind an upcoming season with such a banner?"
By extending my antennae a bit and reaching out, I picked up the signal from last year’s hit show "Heroes" about a group of people who "thought they were like everyone else ... until they realized they have incredible abilities," such as telepathy, time travel, flight and instantaneous regeneration.
It was then I realized that if Jews were responsible for the heyday of comic book superheroes, such as Superman and Captain America, was this latest crop of prime-time players an outgrowth of that same "hero" worship, and if so, then perhaps there is something Jewish rooted underneath this new season?
While television has long been a medium for science fiction, the genre has come in waves, and we are clearly heading to a different, more supernatural world.
Part of what’s allowing us to get there is technology. Long gone are the days when we were given a choice between "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family" on only three networks. From TiVo to On Demand, television has come light years. Add those forces to cable and satellite and the choices are, well, astronomical.
Out Of The Ordinary
It was cable TV that came out of the gate early this summer. While the networks were gearing up for the fall, it launched a number of new shows. One of them was "Saving Grace."
While the term grace is usually thought of in a Christian context, the word is actually derived from the Hebrew Bible as chesed. Though "Saving Chesed" doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, according to the show’s creator, "Saving Grace" is a show about a woman who talks to an angel.
Creator Nancy Miller explains that the angel, Earl, is non-denominational. "He speaks to Grace in the language she grew up in. Grace came from a Catholic family, so he speaks in the language that she would understand," Ms. Miller said. "As we go on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to a Jewish guy, and speaks from that culture to him. Later on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to someone who is Muslim. So he speaks that language to him."
In addition to the cable stations, the networks also are channeling the spiritual and confronting the eschatological.
On Monday nights, NBC will air a show called "Journeyman" about a San Francisco newspaper reporter who travels through time and gets reunited with his long-lost fiancé who died in a mysterious plane crash. Interestingly, in Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah, communing with the dead is an act called yichud, and is a ritual that Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the most influential men in the history of Jewish mysticism who lived during the 16th century, often performed at the grave.
Also, on ABC this fall will be "Pushing Daisies," a show about Ned, a pie maker with a mysterious ability to make the dead live again. The gift is not without its complications, however; if he touches this being a second time, they’ll be dead permanently. If they live for more than 60 seconds, somebody else nearby will die.
While that may sound like a weirdly morbid game show, Ned actually resembles a shaman, again a concept not without Jewish roots. If it seems like a lot of hocus-pocus, according to Rabbi Gershon Winkler, author of several books on the subject of Jewish mysticism, "Shamanism and sorcery are not antithetical to the Hebrew Scriptures."
In his book "Magic of the Ordinary," Rabbi Winkler writes, "The notion of Jewish shamanism may seem like an oxymoron to a lot of people, but it happens to be an integral part of the Jewish tradition that has been suppressed for centuries."
While this may seem foreign to Jews of the 21st century, the reason is that it was associated with devils and demons and suppressed by the Catholic Church.
"Christians considered the Jew as the magician par excellence, a reputation that ultimately turned against them since, as practitioners of the occult, they were regarded by the church as demonic," according to Rabbi Winkler.
In another of his books, "Dybbuk: A Glimpse of the Supernatural in Jewish Tradition," he speaks to the issue of why now we see this trend toward the occult and a resurgence of interest in the supernatural. According to Rabbi Winkler, "A major factor behind modern man’s renewed flirtation with the occult is his quest for meaning in life."
He says: "Trapped, the human creature opts for the achievement of powers outside the realm of the natural world."
TV As Bible
In light of the events of the past six years, as 9/11 poked a hole between East and West, media analysts and television critics have noted the shifts in the wider cultural landscape and have remarked on its reflection through the medium of television.
David Zurawik, author of "The Jews of Prime Time" and television critic at The Sun, says, "The reason it’s happening now is the post-9/11 jitters. There’s this sense that in America we don’t know what’s going on. I think there’s a tremendous uncertainty in this country, a tremendous underlying anxiety. There hasn’t been this kind of anxiety since the Great Depression and World War II."
Interestingly, it was during that very time when the fantastic era of comic books was first created, and the comic book hero was born. I brought up the issue that was still unresolved for me with Mr. Zurawik, though, that 9/11 was six years ago. Why was this new metaphysical phenomenon taking shape on fall TV in 2007?
I then shared with him a book that describes the era we are living in, while depicting the period during the birth of the comic book. About halfway into Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," there’s a passage where things change. Mr. Chabon has one of the main characters, Joe, and the creator of "The Escapist" transform, from fighting the forces of the Iron Chain, in battles that were increasingly grotesque and ornate "grinding Adolf Hitler’s empire into paste," to creating a creature of the Other World.
Mr. Chabon has Joe create Luna Moth, "a creature of the night and of mystic regions where evil worked by means of spells and curses instead of bullets, torpedoes, or shells. Luna fought in the wonderworld against specters and demons."
I wondered aloud, "So as we’ve gone from television shows like ‘24’ and ‘Rescue Me’ to this new season filled with fantasy, are we seeing a similar kind of transformation take place, a tipping point — a metamorphosis?"
I ran this notion and the passage from Mr. Chabon’s book by Mr. Zurawik, and he agreed, summing up the point simply, "For a while, Osama bin Laden was real. Now, he’s a phantom we can’t catch."
That seemed to explain so much. He then added, picking up on the hero idea again, "There’s something otherworldly we have to try to attach ourselves to, for strength or purpose or for a reason to go on, so as not to be defeated."
He likened our time to the Cold War of the ‘50s, a time like today when we lived with anxiety and a threat that wasn’t fully manifested. The show that summed up the era for Mr. Zurawik was none other than "Superman," and the other was "The Lone Ranger," a variation on a theme but with a different genre — the Western. "Together," he said, "they combined the two great frontiers — the Space Age and the frontier."
A former colleague of Mr. Zurawik, Diane Winston, who is now a Knight chair in media and religion at the University of Southern California, lent an additional perspective.
"The popularity of Westerns in [the 1950s] spoke to the Cold War mentality of good guys/bad guys, and the Americans as heroes who were strong and tough and macho in a cowboy way," she said. "We had a more conventional view of religion than today, when we’re much more interested in spirituality."
I asked her about shows like "Heroes" that tap into that sense of both the hero and the otherworldly and have led to this new slew of fall shows that portray humans with extraordinary powers.
"Everyday, people find a new reason to be overwhelmed," Ms. Winston said, "whether it’s the bridge collapsing or talk about earthquakes in California. We live in what feels to be uncertain times, all with the backdrop of 9/11. These things give us a sense of our own mortality and vulnerability.
"When we look to be entertained, we want to be soothed and calmed, we want to see things that make us feel as if people can triumph over death. All these supernatural shows feature heroes who can control what’s going on. They speak to our deepest needs and fears."
I asked Ms. Winston if she sees these stories having deeper roots, mythical ones that go back to the Bible. Her immediate reply was, "I think television is the contemporary equivalent of the Bible. Not that television supersedes the Bible, but at a time when biblical language sounds foreign to us, we find similar stories of heroism, suffering, sacrifice on television, and they are like biblical morality stories."
Indeed, finding pop culture’s pulse in the Bible is, and has been, more prevalent than a lot of us think. For example, you may not think a show about a vampire has much to do with Judaism. But it does on a few levels.
CBS’s "Moonlight" will be about a city-dwelling vampire who attempts to resist his urge to kill and drink the blood of humans, but instead decides to help them. As it turns out, the earliest reference to a vampire is in the Bible. And, of course, one who tries to help people is practicing tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Helping to tie the thread together in these particular shows was something interesting that Rabbi Winkler told me. "There are many stories about the living dead in the Zohar," he said. "As for chesed, it is the ancient act of taking care of the dead. You’re not going to get a ‘thank-you’ from the dead. It’s altruistic, unconditional love."
Why all the interest now with such notions? "The obsession with the occult is a response trying to understand the great mystery of suffering of the innocent," he replied. " ... In our own time, every human being is thirsting for something beyond what is tangible, because everything is becoming too tangible, too instant, too accessible, and the soul is searching for mystery."
Scanning over the television landscape this fall, what’s coming in clearly and noticeably is we are tuning in a new frequency. It’s a channel that’s projecting our collective psyche with shows that are far from reality TV, but instead cable and the networks have aimed their satellite dishes toward a higher orbit, one that’s closer to God, steeped in spirituality and, in many ways, grounded in Judaism.
Abe Novick is a frequent contributor to the Baltimore Jewish Times.