During intersession, my mother suggested we watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon original, written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls. It had been released several months prior, in November 2017, but it had just won two Golden Globe Awards. We reasoned that, like Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), we were both rather funny Jewish women from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (I’m joking. My mother knows she’s not funny.) With the critical acclaim and the obvious parallels, it seemed to be a good show for us.
The world that Miriam Maisel inhabits is a delight. Her 1950s New York is vivid, choreographed, and given to lucky coincidence. Despite the urban setting, the world is cohesive. Midge adores her elevator operator; she leaves her children with her neighbors. The show almost seems to portray a small town, with well demarcated uptown and downtown, where you know exactly what to expect. The show moves quickly not because the city does but because the characters do. The soundtrack is, as my mother aptly noted, music my father would like: popular standards, jazzy and giddy with scat singing and brass. And it’s a New York we know, not because we lived in it, but because it has all of the signs of the old New York that we have come to know (and maybe crave) from Mad Men, although it is a good deal more color coordinated. Breakfast at Tiffany’s also gets a shout-out from Midge’s conveniently located fire escape.
The show is also, thankfully, quite funny, and it gets funnier as it goes. (All spoilers.) By the end of the first episode, Midge’s husband has left her, and she has discovered a knack for stand-up comedy. She has also been arrested for public indecency and made friends with Lenny Bruce, Jewish American comedian most well-known for pushing the boundaries of free speech in his act, leading to numerous obscenity arrests. Throughout the season, Midge hones her act, most notably in a fantastic scene at the beginning of episode 7, where we see her fine-tune her jokes night after night, in different outfits, until the formulation and the delivery carry the right zing. Sometimes she lapses into, or perhaps indulges in, feminist motivational speeches as her act, but she starts strong, has some important hiccups for the sake of the plot, and ends with a bang, a well-received opening for Lenny Bruce and his subsequent decision to put her name on her act.
The real gems of comedy are not even in the standup. They reside in the interstitial, situational humor. Some of the characters are priceless. Midge’s manager-sidekick Susie (Alex Borstein) and her sister-in-law Astrid (Justine Lupe) are two favorites. Their portrayals are equally cartoonish and endearing. Her parents and in-laws are absurd, each in his or her own way, but all of a type: Jewish children of immigrants, self-made, conservative, and utterly idiosyncratic. The show sometimes seems like a televised play, with all the characters grouped together conveniently for important interactions. Much of the drama takes place at large dinners – family dinners, celebratory dinners, even one dinner immediately following Midge’s separation from her husband, with both sets of parents in attendance.
The one small disappointment was Midge’s relationship with Jewish humor. John Anderson wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he does not find the Jewish setting convincing, that not all the pieces add up. But what anyone will appreciate about the show is not its realism in any category. What I see is somewhat of a missed opportunity: almost none of her standup is about her Jewishness, while the funniest moments in the show are the bits of splendidly self-referential Jewish humor that is entirely situational. Her friend Lenny Bruce has, perhaps, the most iconic stand-up routine in the long tradition of codified Jewish humor. (“Louis. That’s my name in Jewish. Louis Schneider.”) It is much easier to relegate that humor to the situational, because that is where we recognize it (all of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many Woody Allen films). But there is untapped stand-up potential, which I hope will be developed next season, set to begin filming next month.
The most serious aspect of the show is Midge’s experience and development of a personal feminism. Educated in Russian literature at Bryn Mawr, Midge is left with few options when her husband leaves, so she gets a job at a makeup counter. We watch her undergo this change, and we share her enjoyment of herself and her independence. Beyond her economic independence, Midge is determined, despite the advice of fellow female comic Sophie Lennon, to be funny in her own right on stage, not dressed up or pretending. In a powerful routine, she asks, eyes flashing: “Why do women care about how people look at them, or see them? Why do we have to pretend we’re not hungry when we’re hungry?” Mrs. Maisel’s ideology is not fully developed, and there is some inconsistency in her question – she asks why her mother and Sophie care so much while she, too, is deeply concerned with whether her ankles are thinner than her calves. But we can hardly expect Midge to have reached any fully conceived conclusions. She is frustrated, impulsive, and acts on her feelings. She will likely not remove her lipstick and renounce her lifestyle, nor do we want her to. Her charm is, in large part, her steadfast commitment to well-executed femininity. The show she puts on may be show, but it is entirely hers, and that is her point.