All big series start with an upheaval. In the first episode of Breaking Bad, Walter finds out he has cancer and decides to make methadone to earn some fast cash. On a different note, Friends starts with a failed marriage, that of Rachel, who decides to move into what would become the most famous flat-share in the world. For Sopranos, the pilot (aired on HBO more than twenty years ago) begins with a shot of the main character, gangster Tony, determined to fix his anxiety attacks with the help of a psychiatrist. And how could anyone forget the plane crash that opened Lost, the beheading of Ned Starck in Game of Thrones, or even the death of the Fisher family patriarch in the first episode of Six Feet Under... Like all these shows that have entered the small screen pantheon, Unorthodox begins with a moment of chaos: this time it’s a character running away.
Produced by Netflix, this new series looks set to be a deeply moving. It starts with a close-up of a woman who looks like a girl, Etsy (Shira Haas), 19-years old, scarf on her head and wedding ring firmly in place. The girl with big eyes and a delicate features, hastily gathers her things together – passport, backpack, wig – and escapes the gaze of her neighbours dressed in long skirts, and their husbands wearing shtreimels (the traditional fur hats of orthodox Jews) and payots. She clambers into a taxi leaving her native Brooklyn for JFK Airport. Unorthodox has only just begun but we already get what’s going on: its shabbat and Etsy flies to Berlin, finally liberating herself of the ultra-Orthodox community that’s been oppressing her.
Inspired by American writer Deborah Feldman’s autobiography – Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, first published as a blog then a book in 2012 – the series, made by German actress and director Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe) looks to be subversive right from the off as it denounces the dark underbelly of the Hasidic community known for its large headdresses and long beards. This movement of religious renewal that started in the 18th century in Eastern Europe advocates a complete rejection of change, modernity and a joyful communion with God, practiced unreservedly through song and dance. An incredibly closed, sectarian community, it’s all about a traditionalist lifestyle centred on study and the family, governed by very strict rules. Unorthodox readily denounces the excess of forced marriage, rape, aborted dreams, extremist behaviour ...
But sadly while this show has all the ingredients to be utterly captivating, it doesn’t live up to its promises. Firstly because of its format: it’s only a miniseries, with just one season of four episodes, thus overly precipitating the intrigue. Etsy's escape and the ensuing chase by her husband Moishe (Amit Rahav) comes to an abrupt end at the expense of any credibility. Then there’s the script, too watered down and verging on silly: having only ever known New York and its Jewish neighbourhood, the young woman flies to Berlin, the European city where partying rules and excess is actively encouraged. We almost expect the bride to loose herself in the back rooms of the Berghain club, to snog girls and boys, heading home in the small hours and radically changing her life. But no, none of that happens. Instead Etsy pursues her rather classical dream of becoming a pianist. She gets close to a group of musicians from the Philharmonic and auditions to join their class.
Bande-annonce de “Unorthdox” (2020)
While it does denounce a set of archaic and degrading practices, Unorthodox remains unconvincing and simplistic, and never reaches the conclusion of the violence it evokes. There are occasionally powerful scenes such as Etsy’s wedding where, not yet of age, she is forced to wear a completely opaque white cloth over her face, while men and women celebrate the union in two separate rooms. And then there’s the outlandish conversations where only Yiddish is allowed and English banned. Unfortunately they’re not enough to save the first season of Unorthodox, which still looks like a damp squip. If Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, the creators of the show, are called back in for a second season, they'd be well advised to look at Yolande Zauberman and her film M – awarded the Cesar for Best documentary this year -, and her brutal yet fair portrayal of the true hell of the ultra-Orthodox communities.
Unorthodox (2020), a series created by Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski, available on Netflix.