Sunday, October 23, 2005

I always said JTS is like a sitcom

From the New York Times

In a Town of 'Friends,' an Amen Corner

WHEN David Light was a student at Columbia University in the early 1990's, dating a future rabbi who would later become his wife, the couple watched in fascination as the biggest party animal they knew - a beer-guzzling, skirt-chasing frat king - recreated himself as a rabbinical student.

Out of this conflict between the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and the pursuit of a good seat at the bar at the legendary West End, Mr. Light eventually created "Morningside Heights," a script for a television sitcom that NBC recently bought. Mr. Light is now developing the script with two executive producers in the hope that NBC will finance the filming of a pilot.

The sitcom is set on Seminary Row, the block of West 122nd Street where the Jewish Theological Seminary sits diagonally across Broadway from Union Theological Seminary. The show is a piously irreverent comedy about good-looking would-be ministers, rabbis and imams who share a dorm and try not to sleep with one another.

It could scarcely be set anywhere else.

"The neighborhood is a huge character in the show," said Mr. Light, 31, who attended Columbia as an undergraduate and a graduate student in the film division of the School of the Arts, and whose wife studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Along with its grand Gothic churches, Riverside Church and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the neighborhood's sheer density of institutions of higher learning - Columbia, Barnard and Seminary Row itself - makes Morningside Heights an area that Mr. Light calls "a hotbed of seeking."

"Whether it's knowledge, or what your place is in the world, it's a place to ask these huge questions," Mr. Light said. "Whether in Riverside Park or St. John the Divine or the Hungarian Pastry Shop, it's a truly contemplative and vibrant place that I love."

The area also provides the soaring visual backdrop for a new, perhaps more spiritually highbrow representation of New York than America is accustomed to seeing in television comedies.

Over the past decade, the dominant comedic images of New York beamed around the planet have been the sophisticatedly shallow self-absorption of "Seinfeld," the chirpy chumminess of "Friends," the winking urbanity of "Will & Grace" and the cosmo-swilling, Manolo-obsessed man hunters of "Sex and the City." Regardless of how unrealistically those shows may have portrayed New York, they shared a certain upscale levity. If "Morningside Heights" makes it into the NBC lineup, it will most likely present a different face of the city.

"It's definitely a step back from 24/7, and it's a step back from the glamour, too," said Ron Simon, who is curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio and who studied film at the Columbia School of the Arts. "You're not downtown, you're uptown, where there's a little possibility of solitude, where you can have discussions that deal with self-examination instead of materialistic striving."

Faith and spirituality, he added, "were certainly words that we didn't hear much pre-9/11."

If there's a link between "Morningside Heights" and the more upscale New York comedies of recent years, it is Eric McCormack, one of the show's executive producers and the actor who plays Will in "Will & Grace," in its final season on NBC.

"The New York of 'Will & Grace' is almost a kind of a dream New York," Mr. McCormack said. "It's Riverside, it's Upper West Side, it's people with money and time to spend it. It's a little bit fantasy almost in the way Noel Coward's New York was in the 30's, as opposed to what we're going to attempt to do with 'Morningside Heights.' I keep thinking of that opening shot of 'Welcome Back, Kotter,' just that sense of more where real things happen."

In addition to their tone of youthful joie de vivre, the major New York-based sitcoms of the last decade all had at their heart a group of supportive friends that served as an ersatz family. In this sense, "Morningside Heights" is not such a radical departure. While the show's cheerfully intolerant evangelist character may tell his cohorts of different faiths that they're destined to burn in hell, by the end of the pilot episode, even he is sharing dinner and camaraderie with the rabbi, the imam and the others. In this reimagining of the New York ideal of perfect integration, the melting pot has become a large pizza at the West End, with everything on it.

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