Arts & Culture

The Red Tent, Part 1: Embrace the Melodrama

Best taken with a grain—or even a pillar—of salt Read More

By / December 8, 2014
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

The goyim had “Peter Pan Live!”; now the Jews get their turn at a televised hot mess with the two-part Lifetime Original miniseries “The Red Tent,” based on the Anita Diamant’s book of the same title, and starring Brody’s wife from “Homeland” as Rachel and Jorah Mormont from “Game of Thrones” as patriarch Jacob. Chaverim, it does not disappoint. Every element of this production is best taken with a grain—or even a pillar—of salt.

“The Red Tent” is not merely cheese. It’s highly artificial, brightly colored, processed cheese, the kind you lick off your fingers after binge eating a bag of Doritos and worry might give you cancer. Unfortunately, unlike its source material—Diamant’s novel was a book-club favorite in the 90s—the televised version of “The Red Tent” is the least Jewish adaptation of a Hebrew Bible story ever made, with the possible exception of Ridley Scott’s Exodus, starring Christian (Christian!) Bale as Moses, coming to a theater near you this Christmas.

If only it embraced its own inherent campiness, it would be so much more fun.

The show begins with a quivering, melodramatic voiceover, in a British accent, no less. America’s conception of foreignness is pretty narrow: to us, an English accent is exotic. Thus the cast, a collection of delicate, blue-eyed European actors, who wander around the desert in makeshift sandals looking lost. (As well as they might: twenty minutes too long under the scorching sun and these pale fools would be melting like candles.)

Both the book and the miniseries are retellings of the violent, controversial story of Dinah, the daughter of patriarch Jacob and his first wife Leah (Minnie Driver). In the Hebrew Bible Dinah is portrayed as a victim and her story warrants only a few verses; in Diamant’s imagination she’s a fully-developed character.

Jacob, you may recall, sought refuge with his kinsman Laban after nearly getting himself killed by tricking his blind father Isaac into giving him the birthright due to his brother Esau. He falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel—a romance dramatized here with an energetic make-out session by the well—and manages to marry her and her older sister Leah. For good measure, he also acquires the girls’ two female slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah. More bang for his buck.

Before you can say Joseph Smith, the fellow has four wives and children into the double-digits. He needs his own compound, out of the shadow of his grumpy father-in-law. With the help of the local king Hamor, he picks the town of Shechem; but his attempts at serene polygamy are dashed when Dinah and the hunky crown prince marry without his permission. Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi take the elopement as a particular insult, and, feeling generally unloved since their father favors their little half-brother Joseph, vent their spleen with some Red Wedding-type slaughter.

We are supposed to root for Dinah because, as we are told several times, she is a “strong, beautiful woman.” Instead her impetuous brand of girl-power feminism feels as incongruous as a plastic water bottle dropped into the set of “Downton Abbey.” She scolds her grandmother for owning slaves, ignoring the fact that her father does too; she promises to uphold her honor and then gets it on with a dude she barely knows. (Hasn’t she seen Frozen?)

We are left, then, rooting for Dinah’s mothers, who will no doubt have to suffer the consequences of the young woman’s poor impulse control. How will they cope? Where will they and Jacob go now? How many different ways can they braid their long, thick, lustrous hair and where do they get their conditioner in the desert? Tune into Part Two tonight to find out!

Ester Bloom is an editor of The Billfold. Her work appears in Slate, Salon, Creative Non-Fiction, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Flavorwire, and the Toast, among numerous other publications. The recipient of the 2014 Creative Non-Fiction Prize from Dogwood Literary, she has been interviewed on MSNBC, MTV.com, and by Geraldo Rivera. Follow her @shorterstory.

Related: The Red Tent, Part 2: Let There Be Blood (And Feminism, Sort Of)