Sunday, 19 April 2020

TV review: Unorthodox, Netflix (2020)

Working on a number of levels, this diminutive miniseries – it’s only four episodes, and Shira Haas, who plays the lead (Esther, or Esty for short) must be no more than 150cm (five feet) tall – is not just powerful, it has refreshing poise. This is rare at a time when multi-season dramas are the rule rather than the exception.

The title is more like a question than a statement. Who is orthodox here? And does being in the minority allow you to abuse the privilege? The ideas motivating the characters in ‘Unorthodox’ also seemed to me, as I watched it on the TV, to have universal applicability. It is redolent with meanings that help the viewer interrogate some of the most profound life questions. It’s about being part of a group (or a team) and about individuality as well. If you predicate your worth on belonging to a claque, what are your obligations to outsiders?

As the newly liberated Esty lifts the veils that had shrouded the world, we see it through fresh eyes. It’s only because of her lack of guile that certain things are revealed to us. The show is not just about intolerance versus curiosity, belonging versus freedom, self versus collective, pluralism versus dogma. It is also about meaning versus excess or, to put it another way, consumerism versus truth.

Also biology versus persona; what, in the end, is innate to us as humans and what is overlaid upon that substratum by tradition and social conditioning? Such questions have possibly never been as important to answer as they are in our post-Cold War age. How restrictive are “universal” values or, to put it another way: should the point of view of the majority always prevail? And even if you have unlimited diversity, do you then succumb to a temptation to cleave to “shared values” and exclude those who, for their own reasons, reject plural viewpoints? What, in the end, are human rights if they lead you to compromise the most cherished notions of self? If you were in such a group and it became the mainstream (you must ask) would you then have to invent an enemy whose ideas you could continue to reject? All of these things might arise in the viewer’s imagination while watching this fabulous drama or, given enough time, afterward.

Its basic elements are quickly sketched out with the narrative alternating between the “now” of the story, where Esty flees from her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York City, and travels by air to Berlin, and the “before”, a thread that details her marriage to Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav).

The community sends Yanky and Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) over to Europe to bring Esty back into the fold, and replace with order confusion and the bad feelings it inspires. For her part, Esty goes looking for her mother Leah Mandelbaum (Alex Reid; Leah had long before left the orthodox community) having nowhere to live once she arrives unaccompanied, short on cash, and wide-eyed at the novelty of life in a world so unlike the place where she had been brought up, one with predictable rules, comforting customs, and a supportive social network.

But that’s not all Esty leaves behind. There are also the whispers, the restrictions, the intrigue, the meddling relatives, and the lack (!!) of smartphones or internet. Wilbusch’s Moishe is particularly good, adding a dash of chaos and darkness to what might otherwise have been overly predictable characterisation.

I especially enjoyed how, in the show, Jewish tradition possesses echoes that endure in our secular world, and not just due to what happened in the 20th century. There’re two interesting scenes featuring lipstick to make a point. One is when Esty goes to the restroom in a club and a young woman standing at the sink compliments her on her short hair (it is kept short for religious reasons). Esty replies she likes the woman’s lipstick, and the woman offers to let Esty try it, so she does. The brand name printed on the tube’s outer sheath is “epiphany”. This is an ancient word that means the manifestation of God to the gentiles, embodied by the Three Kings of Christian lore.

But over time the word has gathered other meanings as well. It can also mean an eclaircissement, or awakening. It’s just one of many telling little details that dot the narrative of ‘Unorthodox’ like stars in the night sky, or like rhinestones on a cowboy’s shirt. The way that tradition can live on in people’s behaviour in a modern world is a prominent theme in this quality production.

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