Parks and Rec was, and is, a popular television show. It’s objectively good, and a clever, funny show that was groundbreaking. The main character is a woman who is not a size zero, who is unapologetically ambitious, unironically enthusiastic, and unflinchingly kind. While flawed, Leslie Knope is a big deal, and for her alone Parks and Rec would be special. There are a number of other reasons that this Mike Schur project was so well received- the great writing, the hilarious cast of characters, and the emotional punches. It is a good show. So, when I first watched it with my partner, I got an uncomfortable itch when a certain character came on screen.
“Is this anti-Semitic?” I asked, a little aghast. The implication being, tell me I’m being too sensitive. Am I crazy?
There was a pause. “Is it?” Profound discomfort permeated the room.
“It’s probably nothing.” I said.
We continued watching. We love this show. Most fans do agree that season one is pretty lousy, but we love the show in its constituent parts. But the more we watched, the more individual characters started rubbing us the wrong way. There has been some dialogue about the Sapersteins, the three we see on screen being Dr., Mona-Lisa and Jean-Ralphio. Other characters of possible Jewish heritage include Jeremy Jamm, rival councilman and orthodontist. While the Sapersteins are more Jewish-sounding, Jamm fulfills a lot of Jewish stereotypes that make me pretty squirmy.
The Jewish American Princess
Mona-Lisa Saperstein is pretty much a straight-up copy/paste of this harmful stereotype. She’s materialistic, selfish, and interested in controlling weak-willed men. Most JAPs in media feel sexist, but Jean-Ralphio is at least as dumb as his sister, and maybe even more of a JAP than she is. He is indulged, stupid, and bad with money. He is annoying, presumptuous, slutty, and otherwise fulfills the stereotype’s parameters. At one point the two siblings do literally say “Money please?” to their dad, and are given cash. That was pretty on the nose, maximum levels of cringe.
The Jewish Lawyer (or Doctors)
Another stereotype that follows Jews is the idea of the Jewish lawyer. This is a flexible archetype, but the idea is that Jews are overly litigious, untrustworthy and nefarious. This can be seen in two notable instances in Parks and Rec, firstly with Dr. Lu Saperstein. Saperstein is a business man, while he is an obstetrician, he also invests in businesses around Pawnee, and uses underhanded techniques to try to undermine Tom’s entrepreneurship. He’s a threatening figure who uses his wealth to hurt others. While he does appear to be a good doctor (he delivered a couple of the main characters’ babies) Dr. Saperstein is a puppet master stereotype.
This is where we bring in Jeremy Jamm. While Jamm isn’t explicitly stated to be Jewish, he fits the bill. He’s a shortish, shlubby guy with dark hair and eyes. He’s also an orthodontist. Jamm is characterized as being effeminate, greedy, and corrupt. He tries to sell a lot to a fast food company to make some money off of the deal, and he legally blocks Leslie’s well-intentioned legislation several times during her tenure on the city council. He certainly fits the bill of the litigious Jew, out for themselves, greedy and corrupt. Another anti-Semitic stereotype is that of the disgusting, undesirable Jew, he or she who no one could possibly find attractive. Jamm is only ever seen as a romantic figure when he is being manipulated by one of Ron’s ex-wives. He also is revealed to have IBS- which would just be a footnote if digestive problems weren’t another common Jewish trait.
While it would be understandable to have few Jews in a small, midwestern town like Pawnee, no Jewish representation is better than the bad kind. While I love Parks and Rec, it’s disappointing to see what is either a blind eye turned to harmful stereotypes, or outright ignorance of anti-Semitic tropes. What’s truly disappointing about this is that the show is so good- it’s heartwarming, sweet, and comforting. It’s about romance, and friendship, and a good working relationship with a strange, yet lovable grizzly bear. It’s upsetting to have to recognize that something you love is so poorly representative of a demographic you belong to. Fortunately, Mike Schur’s Brooklyn 99 has a mostly positive characterization of a Jewish character, portrayed by Andy Samberg. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the writers were simply ignorant of the message they were sending. That lets me continue to love the show, even though it’s a little tarnished for me.