A still from the Netflix show Living With Yourself, co-starring Paul Rudd.
As the secular New Year approaches, many people make resolutions, in an effort to become a better person. What if there were a shortcut? What if, for a tidy sum, you could be transformed, virtually overnight, into the person you’ve dreamed of being?
This the conundrum posed by the Netflix show Living With Yourself, an eight-part series released in late October, starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea, who play spouses Miles and Kate Elliot. Rudd is also one of the executive producers.
The premise is this: Miles, a shlub discontent with and disconnected from his wife, and suffering career ennui, discovers a “spa” that offers a treatment to improve his charm and confidence. For a small fortune, they promise, a “new you.” And so, a shlemiel enters and a gentleman exits. Just one problem: [spoiler] it’s actually a cloning lab and, unbeknownst to Miles and Clone Miles, the two men exist and, later, each must contend with the other in his life.
Rudd’s 25 years of movie experience includes Ant Man, Anchorman, Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin and Clueless. On television, he played Mike Hannigan in Friends and appeared in Reno 911, among other things.
The New Jersey-born actor hasn’t been shy in publicly discussing his Jewish identity. He kibitzed a bit about his Jewishness in an interview segment of Between Two Ferns. In an episode of Finding Your Roots, he found out that his grandfather, Davis Rudnitsky, fought the Nazis, only to return home to England to face antisemitism. In 2017, Rudd played his first (overtly) Jewish character, Moe Berg, in the biopic The Catcher Was a Spy, about a baseball player who joins the Second World War effort as an undercover agent.
In Living With Yourself, there is one explicit Jewish moment, when a Holocaust survivor tells Miles an off-colour anecdote about the Shoah, involving pork. But there are also hidden Jewish themes. For example, envious of a colleague’s extraordinary success in the office, Miles is spurred by the prospect that his technological makeover could help him outperform this coworker. Though Judaism has no problem with someone being motivated to accomplish because of another’s success, the Torah warns against jealousy. The ninth commandment is one obvious caution against such sentiment: “Thou shalt not covet.” Another is Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 36), who, enraged with jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery. In a sense, Miles and Clone Miles are like brothers, and they develop petty and spiteful jealousies, wanting the best of both worlds, but not able to have it.
If only Miles initially had derived fulfilment and was grateful for what he had, he wouldn’t be in this much trouble. Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot) (4:1) advises just that: “Who has wealth? The one who is pleased with his lot.” The meaning isn’t limited to “wealth” of materials, of course, but the wealth of blessings that are bestowed upon us, including, for most of us, our loved ones, our safety, our employment and access to the necessities of life.
Notably, though, Miles versus Clone Miles is illustrative of the yetzer hara (good inclination) and the yetzer hatov (bad inclination) at battle with each other. Interestingly, neither character is completely good nor bad, but a combination, reflecting the real, complicated, human condition, where we have both inclinations competing inside us.
Often, we are able to convince ourselves of the nobility of our decisions – that is, find a good reason for our perhaps less-than-good action; explain away the importance of a choice’s potential harm. Paradoxically, the yetzer hatov has a sneaky side. To explain this, author and radio host Dennis Prager often cites the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, former head of the Conservative rabbinate. He once told Prager that he had his yetzer hara under control, but his yetzer hatov “always got him into trouble.”
Rarely do ordinary people wake up each morning and strive to make another human miserable. Still, we must wrestle with our “other” selves, overcome our justifications and egos, to make principled choices. Every day is a lesson in living with ourselves.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.