‘Mrs. Maisel’ Is Marvelous
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an incredibly joyful show. Given, of course, that it takes place in 1958 and the protagonist’s husband leaves her and their two children on erev Yom Kippur. And given, of course, that when she starts to channel her rage and hurt into standup comedy, she’s repeatedly arrested for violating obscenity laws. And given how often the ensemble discuss the recent horror of the Holocaust. The titular Mrs. Maisel, Midge, played terrifically by Rachel Brosnahan, joins the recent relative wealth of TV shows about Jews that are extremely Jewy. It’s a show about comedians that is genuinely funny, and witty in a way that should draw at minimum everyone who loves Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series (especially Gilmore Girls and Bunheads). Even for new audiences, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an extremely entertaining and dynamic show; episodes directed by Sherman-Palladino include her best directing work yet. Above all, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel serves as a reminder that absolutely no one makes television like Amy Sherman-Palladino, at all.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work has been compared in some ways to Aaron Sorkin’s, particularly their shared use of long dolly shots on a conversation, called a “walk and talk” and credited on Sorkin’s shows to director Thomas Schlamme. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in particular demonstrates the wide difference between the styles — scenes may include classic walk and talk straight-on shots of the characters talking, but mostly Sherman-Palladino’s camera is inquisitive, wandering around spaces absolutely full of busy action, like Alfonso Cuarón-meets-Deborah Kaplan-and-Harry-Elfont. This effect is heightened by her trademark fast-paced dialogue that creates urgency whenever people are talking — this series makes it genuinely feel like all characters are coming from and going somewhere. In rare moments without dialogue, the scene often includes dance (and sometimes scenes with dialogue), another Sherman-Palladino trademark. Sometimes the dancers are dancers, but Maisel also includes terrific moments of characters dancing for fun, like all of us do. The show is also very interested in the repetitive beauty regimens of women in Midge’s demographic in 1958, so conversations often take place during era-specific aerobic exercises and restrictive meal preparation. Though it misses the mark often on the ways it centers whiteness (as Sherman-Palladino shows often do), it in many ways gets more specific about elements of unpaid white women’s labor in 1958 than any other mid-century period series.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is also an extremely specifically Jewish show. When Midge’s husband Joel (Michael Zegen) leaves her, it’s the night before she was to host the rabbi for breaking Yom Kippur’s fast — a coup so great her butcher knew about it! — and now she must withstand the indignity of uninviting the rabbi. And what could be more Jewish than casting Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby, outpacing Dustin Hoffman’s Lenny by miles) in the role of Midge’s fairy godmother, appearing occasionally to cheer her on and smoke her up? In Midge Lenny Bruce sees a sympatico spirit — Midge’s standup in particular is explicit and honest, enough so that, like Lenny, she’s arrested often for her act. Though Lenny Bruce is a strange choice to play such a kindly role, it does retell a story familiar to free speech advocates in a way that hopefully reminds us all the difference between genuine First Amendment violations and no-platforming. Midge’s standup is dangerous, all the more so as a woman comedian (though contemporary with, say, Joan Rivers, Midge’s standup has much more in common with the party records her manager Susie — played with typical excellence by Alex Borstein — buys her) talking about sex and her marriage.
This era in comedy, in this location (mainly the real Gaslight Cafe), was a truly exciting period. It isn’t just limited to Lenny Bruce (or Mort Sahl, who gets name-checked). In the pilot, a taxi ride from Midge’s apartment on the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village feels magical and sensational: she sees greasers, stoners, hipsters, artists, and a burgeoning youth culture (for her husband, it means a change from necktie to turtleneck). As she spends more time in the area, she grows more familiar with the world outside the stage (starting with reading Marx at a Communist get-together), taking her eventually to a Jane Jacobs rally (where’s THAT series?). She also spends more time hanging out with Susie, with whom she shares a friendly/contentious banter that energizes their scenes together (along with Susie pushing back against Midge’s classism). Susie is also queer, though her personal life, like queer characters in Sherman-Palladino’s other works, gets too-little attention. One of their best scenes together involves Susie growing more and more shocked and disgusted as the two walk between Midge’s enormous apartment and Midge’s parents’ enormous apartment upstairs. These sets are terrific and detailed. The production design on this show is uniformly spectacular, and the series takes advantage of opportunities to show characters rushing between these apartment sets. Midge’s parents (played by Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub, both of whom are great) are loving but incredibly toxic presences in Midge’s life; like Gilmore Girls, Midge’s tension with her mother is a central and recurrent conflict, especially as Midge deliberately strays further from the specific and strict life her parents had planned for her.
For many comedians today, standup is a way of dealing with feelings that can be difficult to talk about; this is the case for Midge, and for many comedians in the era The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is leading into. Something Maisel understands is the way that standup can work as consciousness-raising. After Midge learns her apartment is in her father-in-law’s name, she admonishes a woman walking out during her standup set: “When you get home, check the name on your deed!” Her standup is in some ways mirrored by the way her mother works through problems — by visiting a psychic. Midge and her friends talk during a fitness class; she and her coworkers at a department store chat in the breakroom. Maisel is not just interested in what standup comedy can do for Midge, it’s a show about the many ways people, especially women, communicate what they feel they shouldn’t say. At her wedding reception, she makes jokes that are received with laughter and discomfort, then shocks guests with an announcement that the food isn’t kosher. Eventually, she finds people who need to hear what she has to say, and takes risks to say it. And by speaking up about hypocrisy, she risks her career and goes to jail.
It’s nice to hear Amy Sherman-Palladino’s repartee on television again, and to know that this won’t meet Bunheads’s end. The show’s cast is terrific, with Alex Borstein and Kevin Pollak standing out in particular. It also uses its setting to put lie to myths about the dull conformity of the 1950s — for many people, it was a time of huge changes. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is placed right in the center of these changes, and it’s exciting to watch Midge grow along with the times around her. Greenwich Village begins to feel like a Stars Hollow populated by artists, radicals, and outcasts, and the more time Midge spends there the bigger her world becomes. She meets jazz musicians and organizers and Lenny Bruce, and she also encounters more than her share of pigs and sexist hucksters. In Amy Sherman-Palladino’s world, the clever always get the last word, none more than the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. One of the show’s greatest homages to trailblazer Joan Rivers is the way Midge doesn’t pretend to be immune from the world’s crushing expectations. She’s still dealing daily with her controlling parents and their blueprint for her life. What she realizes by talking about it onstage, though, is that she’s not alone — a lot of people just needed to hear someone else articulate it first.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.