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Review: ‘Unorthodox’ is a Positive Character-Driven Tale

March 25, 2020
4 min read

One of the reasons that Netflix managed to present extremely appealing productions was by showing viewers everything that traditional network TV shows could not. Unfazed by censorship, the streaming network presented stories of and from underrepresented people, fuelling a liberal’s dream. It is fortunate that Netflix has not let go of that ideology and the four-part series, ‘Unorthodox’ is proof that such a revolutionary outlook could be enough to make any tale enjoyable.

The television series tackles the topic of modernization and liberal ideology head-on. ‘Unorthodox’ is a show about that rather than one that just leans towards such thinking. Sure, there are guns and there is sex, but it is the largely humanistic nature of ‘Unorthodox’ that makes the show delightful. Hence, it is, in many ways, unlike any Netflix series you might have seen.

‘Unorthodox’ is a story about the protagonist, Esther Shapiro. The series belongs to her, even if a couple of other, pivotal characters are sketched well. Played aptly by Shira Haas, Esther is a nineteen-year-old Hasidic Jewish woman from Williamsburg, New York. However, her experience of having grown up in the Big Apple and the USA is starkly different from the general perception of the country’s free society, thanks to her insular community.

Esther is depicted to be Yanky Shapiro’s wife through an arranged marriage. Although Yanky is depicted to be, what many would call, a nice man, it is the pressure of societal expectations that coerces Esther to flee from her home. She leaves her world behind to boldly start a new life in Berlin: something which proves to be especially challenging for her since she has practically lived her entire life in a bubble.

In Berlin, she befriends a group of music students and thinks she has found her calling as a music artist. Meanwhile, Yanky arrives in Berlin to find Esther and convince her to return. Rather than opt for a linear narrative, ‘Unorthodox’ consistently jumps back and forth in time, depicting Esther’s struggles to restart and the events that led her to take such a drastic measure. In this manner, ‘Unorthodox’ turns out to be a compelling character study.

The experiences of Esther feel extremely divorced and different from those of most viewers. Yet, it is easy to empathize with her since she is neither depicted to be an all-out rebel/black sheep or someone naive and submissive. In doing so, ‘Unorthodox’ manages to depict the weight of societal expectations at an individual level without personifying and reducing the show’s themes to one or two characters.

For instance, one does feel for Yanky Shapiro. The genuine pain of Esther’s husband is fairly depicted. Moreover, one does not feel too much dislike for his character even after some of his unethical actions since the pressure on him from the same society that Esther is attempting to escape is quite apparent. Thematically, ‘Unorthodox’ is a winner.

It manages to simplistically show how, for example, how women themselves often turn out to be the carriers and purveyors of a patriarchal mindset. The series meditatively shows Hasidic Jewish customs, to highlight their redundancy. However, such a tone also turns out to be one of the show’s biggest demerits.

The pacing of ‘Unorthodox’ is quite uneven and at times, pretty slow. The plot, although thematically victorious, turns out to be quite bland. It hardly ever takes a direction that viewers cannot expect. Plot is definitely not the focus of ‘Unorthodox.’ The whole series could have been a long movie. Yet, its portrayal of orthodox Hasidic Jewish beliefs is what packs the most punch, despite slowing down the pace. It functions like a necessary evil: heightening the impact of the show’s message, but making it less engaging at times.

While ‘Unorthodox’ presents a feel-good narrative which will certainly change the perceptions of many and uplift the spirits of a few, there is not much extraordinarily artistic about it. For instance, it introduces a “Chekhov’s gun” quite literally, but that does not end up being too relevant, causing some expected dissatisfaction. Well, the series is based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman and hence, the writers of the show did not have much creative leeway.

To conclude, ‘Unorthodox’ feels like a weird mixture of Disney and Netflix stories. Netflix’s unabashed, censorship-free outlook is extended to provide a warm, feel-good story that feels tonally attuned to Disney tales. It is slightly darker than Disney’s stories but less cynical than Netflix’s productions.

Read More: Best Jewish Movies Ever 

Rating: 3.5/5

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