The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel begins with the sound of a clinking glass. “Who gives a toast at her own wedding?” Miriam “Midge” Maisel asks. “I do.” Gripping the mic stand with both hands, Midge launches into the first of many comic spiels, recounting the story of how she became the confident Bryn Mawr graduate standing there in her sparkling white gown, ready to begin life as Mrs. Joel Maisel. “I thought I should get up here today and tell all of you that I love this man,” she declares, gesturing to her new husband (Michael Zegen). “And, yes, there is shrimp in the egg rolls.”
Played with ebullient warmth by Rachel Brosnahan, Midge is the main draw of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon’s new hourlong comedy series created by Gilmore Girls goddess Amy Sherman-Palladino. Visually stunning and unapologetically Jewish, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tracks its title hero’s journey from bright-eyed newlywed to disillusioned standup comedian making her way through the coffeehouses and nightclubs of New York City circa 1958, propriety be damned. She’s the shrimp in the egg roll.
Midge is the latest in Sherman-Palladino’s pantheon of spunky, mouthy brunettes navigating spaces where they don’t quite belong. In Gilmore Girls, she was Lorelai (Lauren Graham), the young single mother who left her parent’s mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, for the humble charms of tiny Stars Hollow; in the tragically short-lived Bunheads, she was Sutton Foster’s Michelle, a Las Vegas showgirl who winds up teaching kids at a dance studio in an idyllic coastal California town. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel breaks with Sherman-Palladino’s fetish for small-town WASP life; the action is confined to the big city, among a cast of characters who aren’t just any old neurotic Jews — they’re Upper West Side Jews living in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Of course, it’s her husband who sets Midge’s unlikely career in motion. The action begins four years after that ill-fated wedding toast. Now, Midge is a housewife and mother of two young children, with a closet full of fabulous outfits in rich jewel tones, ecstatic at the prospect of finally hosting the rabbi for dinner on Yom Kippur. There’s not a hint of ennui in her; although her husband works on Madison Avenue, she’s not Betty Draper sucking on a cigarette and gazing wistfully out the window of her classic six. She’s bubbly, and a little dirty, too — in a flashback scene, she initiates sex with Joel in the bathroom of a downtown diner — and she happily slips into a pair of pedal pushers to accompany her husband to the newly opened (and now legendary) Gaslight Café in the West Village. Joel fancies himself a struggling comedian, and she brings along a Pyrex full of brisket to bribe the booker to give him a good time slot. What a woman.
The first hint of tension between Midge and Joel arrives during his routine at the Gaslight, when Midge notices the butch bartender, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), rolling her eyes. (“Only in the village,” Joel remarks when they pass Susie, who’s dressed in suspenders and a page boy cap — like they’re on safari and she’s a giraffe.) As it turns out, Midge is responsible for Joel’s best material, culled from jokes she jots down in a notebook. And, as Midge soon discovers, Joel gets his best material from Bob Newhart.
In any case, by the end of the pilot, Joel has left Midge for his secretary, and Midge has stumbled, drunk on kosher wine and wearing only a frilly nightgown under her coat, to the Gaslight to pick up her Pyrex. Instead, she wanders onstage and delivers an epic rant that ends with her flashing the audience and landing in a jail cell on counts of moral turpitude. When Susie bails her out, she reveals her plan to usher Midge to stardom.
A show about a woman recalibrating her identity as a wife and mother and realizing she has something to say is almost perfectly timed to this moment, when the comedy industry, for one, is reckoning with the revelation that some of its most cherished male stars have used their power to harass, attack, and undermine women. Mrs. Maisel sees Midge’s hermetically sealed world of plush Upper West Side apartments — Midge’s suite is in the same building as her parents’, where she grew up — opening up to the wider world of the downtown scene.
That world perfectly suits Sherman-Palladino’s voice. A discerning Gilmore Girls acolyte will notice plenty of recycled gags from that show, like a character putting the phone down while the person on the other end blabs on, then picking it up again just in time to respond, without missing a beat. Sherman-Palladino has always had a 1930s-screwball-comedy rhythm to her writing, particularly her whip-smart female characters; here, the combination of Midge’s frequent standup routines and the unabashed Jewish verbosity of her ever-fretful parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) gives the writers plenty to work with, and the dialogue plays like jazz, intricate yet wanton.
So much of the show is about presentation, the inherent and ridiculous theatricality of being a woman in the 1950s. It makes an implicit argument why such a woman might make for a natural performer and a natural comic. The pilot includes a funny but heartbreaking scene in which Midge slips out of bed after Joel has fallen asleep; she heads to the bathroom to scrub off her makeup, smear cold cream on her face, and set her hair. Then, she fixes the window blind so a sliver of light will wake her up in the morning, when she slips back out of bed to “put on her face” before climbing back in and pretending she woke up like this.
While Mrs. Maisel has a near-perfect pilot, the following three episodes feel a bit baggy; there’s a little too much focus on Midge’s parents, at least this early in the series, which suffers from a common prestige-TV syndrome wherein every episode is roughly ten minutes too long. I haven’t quite figured out if the show’s inclusion of Lenny Bruce (an adorable Luke Kirby) is charming or distracting.
For all its rah-rah feminist messaging, you can sense that the show was conceived pre–Donald Trump, pre–Harvey Weinstein, pre–Louis C.K.; although it tracks a storyline of Susie trying to break through the boy’s club of comedy managers, its star is wealthy, white, and undeniably sexy, and we’re treated to the sight of her bare tits before the pilot’s up.
Still, now is an appropriate time for a show about a woman who has been raised to believe her value lies primarily in the way she looks coming to the realization that there is value — cultural, financial, personal — in the way she speaks. But the recent, and apparently ceaseless, revelations about the way male power operates in the entertainment industry also cast the show in a melancholy light. Now, we’re witnessing all the reasons a comic like Midge couldn’t have existed, or if she did, how her ambition would be limited despite her limitless talent. We’re reminded every day of the specific, and brutal, truths about why any one or two or twenty talented women could hardly go up against a system stacked, casually yet firmly, against them.
But that’s kind of what makes Mrs. Maisel wonderful, too — it might be a fantasy, but it’s a good one. And there’s always the hope, not as distant as it used to feel, that a thousand little clinks will maybe, finally, make the glass shatter.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel streams on Amazon Prime starting November 29.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 27, 2017