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‘Extrapolations’ gives us an amazing Black rabbi (and a lot of embarrassing white Jews)

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The year is 2047. Israel and Palestine coexist peacefully as partner states. A Black rabbi is appealing to the government to rescue his shul from rising Florida sea levels. Kanye West is doing interior design for casinos — and investors are excited about it. 

Well, at least the rabbi story seems plausible.

The Ye stuff, which somehow manages to make Apple TV+’s new speculative sci-fi series, Extrapolations, feel dated (or perhaps prescient if you’re Elon Musk looking at land in Texas), is not the only place your suspension of disbelief has some mighty work ahead of it. It’s not that the show, which follows the effects of climate disasters from the year 2037 to 2070 through interconnected and some standalone vignettes, has a view of the future that’s particularly far-fetched. It’s mainly that the characters never behave exactly human — and that includes most of the Jews. 

One of the more utopian aspects of this dystopia is how little fuss is made over the fact that Daveed Diggs’ Rabbi Marshall Zucker, who appears in part of the first episode and takes up the whole of the third, is heading a congregation. His dwindling flock is mostly white, but no one, including the non-Jewish woman providing pumps for his flooded Miami shul, subjects him to the usual prying questions that Black Jews — and Black Jewish clergy — often face from their coreligionists. (What microaggressions there are are so micro as to be debatable, at least to my eyes.)

It’s refreshing, and Diggs does a great job with his Hebrew and, in one of the clumsier bids for exposition, catching us up on how cancer has been cured, humans went to Mars and Texas seceded from the Union.

More problematic are the white Jews who surround Marshall. In the first episode, Marshall’s father, Ben (Peter Riegert), insists that he abandon his dream of helping climate refugees. The two have a fight at a hospital when Ben decides he’d rather speak to his clients than be with his wife after a near-fatal health emergency. Ben, of course, also blames Marshall for his mother’s condition.

Marshall’s shul board bickers about the temple purse strings in a way that’s scarily accurate, and appropriately frugal given the circumstances, but his newest congregant, Harris Goldblatt (David Schwimmer) ticks far too many bad-guy boxes. Boxes that have some pretty traditional Jewish  associations.

Harris is a crooked real estate developer, capitalizing on receding coastlines, bribing city officials and stepping out on his CRISPR plastic surgery-obsessed wife to be with a younger woman. His daughter, Alana (Neska Rose), a sort of Gen Beta prophet of doom, is better, calling out human foibles and asking why God is punishing His people. But her concern for the world’s collapse is tainted by tired tropes. At one point she considers the following quid pro quo: if she promises to stop hiding her stepmom’s birth control, she can probably convince Harris to pay a kid to move his bar mitzvah date.

It’s pretty incredible that a series that imagines tech that can translate whale songs into English and build force fields around coastlines  couldn’t dream up more Jews who aren’t familiar stereotypes, or even imagine that, in the mid-21st century, more Jews of color like Marshall might be peopling the pews or advising him. Perhaps the handful of Black background actors and the all-white board are meant as a form of commentary, that, even in two decades from now, Jewish communal life will still be plagued with inclusion issues.

Granted, the show is about humans’ selfishness in the face of disaster, and Marshall’s standalone episode is a kind of retread of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Marshall handpicks it for Alana’s Torah portion, stressing its message of middah k’neged middah (the punishment fitting the crime, he explains it). In this analogy, Marshall, who unwittingly forces a homeless shelter to close as part of Harris’ bribery of state officials, is Lot, the one righteous Jew — even if he’s a Jew who needs to be reminded of his principles by a bat mitzvah.

Extrapolations, for all its talent — Meryl Streep, Edward Norton, Diane Lane, Marion Cotillard and Forest Whitaker and a who’s who of playwrights-turned-TV writers — feels like a more mealy-mouthed version of the excellent series sci-fi drama Years and Years, mixed in with some lesser episodes of Black Mirror and a scientifically spottier Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. 

Putting high concepts above human drama (nearly everyone is just one degree of separation from the president or an Ayn Randian CEO played by Kit Harrington), the few installments that linger on normal people like Marshall are bright spots. It’s also something of a novelty to see the theological aspect of apocalypse through a non-Christian lens. 

A certain kind of Christian might welcome the gathering signs of Armageddon. A Jew, in the tradition of Abraham, would challenge God, as Alana does, and not just at the Seder. 

In a pre-Pesach sermon, Marshall says, “as Jews we have always seen the question mark as our favorite piece of punctuation.” So true. Extrapolations left me with many questions, but they’re probably not the ones the writers had in mind.

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