A heckler remarks “women aren’t funny” near the end of Amazon’s new original series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Set in the 1958 New York City, this statement should feel archaic. As anyone who has read the news or been on an internet message board or Twitter knows, the world still harbors these preconceived notions. However, much like the titular brash, stand-up 50s heroine, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” relishes at bucking convention. Legendary show-runner Amy Sherman-Palladino hits another show out of the park and makes the most of Amazon’s platform.
Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosenan) has done everything right for a nice Jewish girl. She graduated college, with a Russian literature major no less. She met a nice guy and got married, including having a perfect wedding. Two kids later, Midge still makes it out with her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) to support his love for stand up comedy. However, this seemingly perfect life comes crashing down when Midge learns Joel steals his act from Bob Newhart. Upon bombing at a club, an embarrassed Joel confesses to an affair, leaving Midge. Drunk, dejected and alone, Midge stumbles back to the club and unloads the troubles of her night. A topless punchline, a sea of profanity and thunderous laughs later, Midge is in jail. However, she is bailed out by Susie Myers (Alex Borstein), an employee at the comedy club who wants Midge to be the next comic sensation.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is funny, don’t get me wrong. The rat-a-tat barrage of one-liners that exhausted many a Gilmore Girl shows up in full force here. The stand-up sets will make one howl with laughter. However, the reason they work so well is that they are steeped in drama. Midge feels the rug pulled out from under her and her instinct tells her to rebel rather than flee. The stand-up sets illustrate Midge’s anger and defiance. While we laugh, we gain a greater understanding of the depths of pain, fear, and anger Midge feels. Paired against the backdrop of the 1950s, this candor feels even more shocking and refreshing.
Show-runner Amy Sherman-Palladino finds herself with another hit on her hands. In many ways, “Maisel” takes Palladino into more mature and adventurous avenues than her previous hit, “Gilmore Girls.” The show doesn’t just represent a move towards streaming, which allows Palladino to play with cursing, sex, and nudity. It also adds on a period element. This doesn’t stop her from adding in her trademark pop culture references (an extended “Mrs. Miniver” gag kills). However, it challenges her to enter into a new world. Luckily, she’s more than up for the task, as she demonstrates a great interest in the setting. Later episodes find Midge refining her act and even taking the laughs to the dinner party circuit. It’s fascinating to see what the comedy world was like there, especially for a female comic.
The show is made or broken based on the casting of Mrs. Maisel. Luckily, Rachel Brosenan completely excels in the lead role. From the opening moments, she constructs a pointed, specific vision of this goal-oriented woman waiting to let loose. It’s this ambition that drives her character throughout, and what Brosenan really sinks her teeth into.
As a lead, Brosenan is only as good as her supporting cast. Luckily, she develops an incredibly specific and lived in relationship with every person she shares the screen with. Alex Borstein makes for a hilarious partner in crime as Midge’s no-nonsense wannabe manager, Susie. Apart from being hilarious, the two develop a protective nature for each other that’s conveyed in such an interesting and warm manner.
The show’s Jewish identity is intrinsic to its DNA. It’s what adds color, depth and a whole other level to the show. Midge’s relationship with her parents, brilliantly played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle, moves past traditional stereotypes. It transports the audience into this unique and lived in family dynamic. The central conflict of the show, arising from the potential dissolution of a marriage, extends farther than the couple. Midge’s parents take Midge in, almost as if she’s a teenager again, which lends itself to equal parts comedic and heartfelt moments.
The divorce subplot avoids many potential pitfalls thanks to the chemistry between Brosenan and Michael Zegen, as her ex Joel. Much of Midge’s act revolves around roasting her ex-husband. It would be too easy to paint Joel as a buffoon. Early plot points toy with that by informing us that Midge and Joel’s apartment is owned by Joel’s eccentric Father. However, he comes off more as a lost boy, never fully asked to stand on his own two feet. Zegen elicits as much compassion as one can for such a difficult character. When he and Brosenan are on screen together, sparks and barbs fly in equal measure.
“There are so many questions spinning around in my head. Why did he leave? Why wasn’t I enough?” says Midge up on the stage her first time. Midge starts the series asking these questions. However, the further she gets from her marriage, the more she asks if her life in her marriage was enough. Other recent female-centric work has either felt too on-the-nose (“Good Girls Revolt”) or sidelined the central women in favor of a more conventional male narrative (“Godless”). What Mrs. Maisel gets right is it gives its central woman an arc. It imagines her home life, her professional life, and her romantic life. She becomes a fully formed character that draws upon these myriad aspects of her life. Here’s hoping we get more sets to learn more about Mrs. Maisel’s colorful life.