It’s a good thing Christopher Lasch isn’t around today to consider reality shows such as “My Unorthodox Life” and others of its ilk.
Lasch, a historian and social critic, gained a modicum of fame for his book “The Culture of Narcissism.” He posited that the post-World War II United States produced a growing social epidemic of behavior consistent with narcissistic personality disorder — where people have, according to the Mayo Clinic, “an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”
Considering that Lasch published his book in 1979 — years ahead of social media, reality shows and the ever-increasing trappings of celebrity — he was only scratching the surface of narcissism’s rise.
Reality shows have thrived for the past two decades, and show creators are always looking for the latest variation on a theme.
Enter “My Unorthodox Life,” which debuts July 14 on Netflix. The nine-episode show follows the life of Julia Haart, CEO of Elite World group model management agencies, and her family.
The kicker: Haart left an Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, seven years ago, and the show purports to show how she’s thrived and enjoyed the freedom gained with that change in lifestyle. Her lush Tribeca digs, high-profile position and expensive clothes seem to back it up.
The problem: The show is abysmal. Vapid barely begins to describe it.
Perhaps the appeal of most reality shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “Jersey Shore” and the “Real Housewives” franchises is hate-watching because the characters are so reprehensible. But when Jews are the ones being hate watched, it’s a bit more problematic, especially when they’re trashing a portion of the “Jewniverse.”
In the first episode, Haart rails repeatedly about her former Orthodox community, lambasting her lack of freedom. At one point, she leads a male-bashing dinnertime discussion about how women in Orthodox communities are second-class citizens.
In the second episode, she returns to Monsey to visit her 14-year-old son Aron, who still lives with her first husband. A significant chunk of time is spent showing a conversation between mother and son, as she criticizes him for maintaining his faith.
And the series gives short shrift to her rise to power — perhaps because, in part, she got remarried to wealthy telecom exec Silvio Scaglia, who likely helped her climb the ladder.
A lot of this seems forced (and even phony), as well, since Haart left the community seven years ago; the freedoms she’s experienced should, at this point, be old hat.
In the first episode, Haart also leads heated family criticism of her son-in-law Ben Weinstein, who is married to her older daughter Batsheva. Turns out Weinstein is clinging a bit more to his Orthodox past than the others and is uncomfortable with the idea of his wife wearing pants. He’s not domineering or demanding, just conflicted.
Between Haart lambasting her son-in-law, and younger sister Miriam saying that poor Ben is just no good — mostly because he still holds some Orthodox values — it’s kind of nauseating. To her credit, Batsheva stands by her man. In episode two, he gives in to his wife’s wishes.
Problem two: As mentioned in the introduction, these characters are narcissistic to the nth degree. And who in their right mind would want the whole world to know this much detail about their lives?
In the opening scene, Haart counsels her daughter and son-in-law in fairly graphic terms on ways to spice up their sex life. Granted, the scene’s there to hook viewers with something salacious, but really? EWWWWWW!!
Problem three: Yes, reality shows have been debunked numerous times, but “My Unorthodox Life” seems particularly contrived.
Between playing up the newfound freedom angle — it seems as if Haart was coached by producers to mention it as often as possible — to hitting every politically correct touchpoint, there’s just way too much that’s tailor made for the camera.
Problem four: The family and other characters simply aren’t likable.
We’re told that Miriam is attending Stanford University, but she doesn’t come across as too bright, unless your idea of intelligence is saying “like” in every sentence. It’s, like, annoying to hear her say that, like, every few seconds.
Batsheva’s voice is a cross between a Kardashian and Fran Drescher. She seems just as privileged.
Ben is milquetoast, as is older son Shlomo, who confesses to his mom that he’s a virgin.
Elite World Chief Operating Officer Robert Brotherton may well have been the template for Dan Levy’s David Rose character in “Schitt’s Creek.” Funny on a sitcom, cloying in real life.
Problem five: Is any of this really entertaining?
Haart seems like she’s pretty good at her job, but assorted struggles, both real and manufactured, fail to hold one’s attention, unless you like to hear her spout adjectives at a record pace.
The first episode ends on a cliffhanger: Will Elite World’s fashion show to debut a new clothing line fall apart? Turns out the face of the campaign is sick. Another model is sitting in jail for some unclear reason.
But as we turn to episode two — spoiler alert — everything turns out just fine.
If you’re looking for a show that would give you insight into the Orthodox community, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’re a reality show junkie, this is right in your wheelhouse.
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