“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Lives Up to Its Name

Posted on December 06, 2017

It’s funny. We talked about this show a couple of times, first in a post about its star, Rachel Brosnahan, making the promotional rounds, and then we spent a couple of minutes of a recent podcast gushing about it; both times promising to have a “real” review soon. Well, after a couple of rough starts, this is it – and we found it harder to write than we would have thought.  Not because it’s a complex show that requires hours of examination and interpretation. No, it’s because it’s the exact opposite of that and yet it manages to leave you so stimulated that you naturally just want to talk about it. And when you wind up talking about it, you start with the first two words of this paragraph. There’s more to it, of course. But at its heart, this mostly gentle show is simply very entertaining, to the point that it seems to almost resist analysis. Like a good joke, we suppose.

The basics: Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is light, frothy period family drama that occasionally wanders downtown to make blowjob jokes. From the creative team who gave you Gilmore Girls (Amy Sherman-Palladino and husband Daniel Palladino), it boasts much of the same (fast-talking, dysfunctional family, heart-of-gold, preciously sentimental, mother-daughter-arguing) DNA, while taking a major left turn, not only downtown, not only into the heart of Jewish-American family life, but also all the way back to 1958, giving us the best-looking period drama on television since Mad Men.

Although calling it a “drama” seems a little misguided. While it’s packed to the rafters with heartbreak, betrayal, secrets, lies, affairs, and the breakdown of not one, but two families, the whole thing is so brightly colored, deftly acted and lightly paced that none of it actually registers as “dramatic” until certain story points come to a head. In retrospect, this is both a good and bad thing about the show.

In fact, before we meander our way through this review and start noting the weak parts of the show or the parts that didn’t quite work for us, let’s put this out right now: we LOVED this show. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, biting, and absolutely BEAUTIFUL to look at, while at the same time diving deep on one of the most fascinating times and places for mid-20th Century American culture: the Greenwich Village stand-up comedy scene of the late ‘5os and early ’60s. Rachel Brosnahan is not just marvelous as the title character, she’s fabulous and funny to boot. Modeled in a very broad and vague way on Joan Rivers, she’s a young, pretty, funny, whip-smart Jewish wife and mother from a well-to-do family who finds herself drawn to the seedy basement clubs of downtown, where she befriends Lenny Bruce and inevitably finds herself on stage, working through all the drama and disappointments of her life and marriage through jokes. As she discovers that she has a savant-like talent for it, she spends more and more of her time away from her family, pursuing excellence and success like nothing else she’s ever attempted, unsure as to why, but drawn like a moth to a spotlight; a moth compelled to make ball-tickling jokes about her loser husband and sex jokes about her proper and respectable parents to a small crowd of occasionally appreciative strangers. It is, in the parlance of standup, a KILLER setup.

It’s also very much in the Sherman-Palladino mode, which means, for us at least, bingeing was only a limited option. We say this without criticism, but there’s only so much time we can spend in a hyper-real, over-saturated, rapid-talking version of the world before we find ourselves checking the exits. There’s a point at which you reach sensory overload – and this is a series that occasionally indulges deeply in the idea of overloading your senses. There’s a department store Christmas party scene that’s so over-the-top in heightened reality that it actually has women spinning like slightly deranged ballerinas for no reason, except probably to see the hyperactivity of Gentiles celebrating Christmas through the eyes of a sarcastic, funny Jew. We can see why it’s so over the top, but too much of that and ol’ T Lo needs to take a break.

Besides, while it may sound like a criticism in 2017, it actually isn’t a bad thing that a series isn’t burn-your-way-through bingeable.  Because it’s such a sensory delight (including a mid-Century soundtrack of mostly Broadway tunes that is LIKE BUTTAH) The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel should be doled out and savored. It’s only eight episodes, which is all the more reason to take it slow. The series has been renewed for a second season but the ending of the first is going to leave you wanting more.

In addition, Alex Borstein is hilarious and doing some of her best work as Suzy, but she was representative of the show’s biggest problem. It sets certain things up and then spends the rest of the time backing away from them. A modern audience member without much knowledge of such things might not understand that Suzy is dressed like every butch lesbian of that time and place. There was something of a uniform.  But aside from a few mild references to her as Midge’s boyfriend and one biting “you’re barking up the wrong tree” to a flirtatious man, there’s no reason for anyone to come away with an understanding of who Suzy apparently really is. Granted, the story isn’t centered around her, but she’s only a step or two away from the actual center of the story. It’s not that we think her sexual side needed to be explained or explored, but it felt very 1997, the way the show got so coy about it.

There’s a tendency to glide lightly past the realities of the time and even of people’s emotional arcs and responses. We never truly explore why Midge is so addicted to stand-up. Although the circumstances and stresses of her life are presented as the reason, it strikes us as a facile one. Nor do we ever get an inkling as to why she’s not telling a soul about what she’s doing. We never get inside Midge’s head. It’s not that we need answers so much as we need some indication that there are questions being asked, if that makes any sense. Midge seems strangely divorced from her own life and decisions, even as she vehemently defends and pursues many of them. Yes, she has good reasons to want to escape downtown and tell blowjob jokes and she has even better reasons to keep those activities a secret. There’s so little tension depicted, when her life really should be one massive migraine of tension. Instead, Midge bounces through scene after scene, cracking wise and being perky, until the story asks her not to; just as the show depicts a loving and supporting set of parents who seem blithely un-stressed about the dissolution of their daughter’s whole life – until the story asks them to become stressed about it and fall apart.

Still, we don’t offer these critiques as reasons not to see it – unless they’re the kinds of issues with TV shows that really drive you nuts. But if you love fantastically witty dialogue, bawdily funny stand-up, insanely gorgeous period costume design, a shockingly well-rendered cinematic version of late ’50s Manhattan, and a warmly hilarious look at a smart, funny, interesting family who has no idea there’s something of a genius in their midst (albeit one whose field of study would bring shame upon them), then we can’t recommend this show enough. It’s great fun and light drama with pretty clothes. If you didn’t have one already, you now have your take-me-away-from-it-all holiday stress-relieving entertainment. But pace yourself. Watch it over several viewings. It’s just about the perfect Hanukkah binge.

 

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