Over the past couple of weeks, I have been seduced and converted by the glory that is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It is (forgive me) quite marvellous. I shouldn’t be too surprised – it is, after all, an Amy Sherman-Palladino production, and it shares a lot of features of Gilmore Girls. Fast-paced witty dialogue is festooned across the eight-episode first season, and all but one episode in the bunch is written and directed by Sherman-Palladino or husband Daniel Palladino. It is obvious throughout the run that the two are singing from the same hymn book and have a very clear idea of the characters and tone of the series.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel centres around Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) rise to stand-up comedienne in late-1950s New York. The first episode begins with a flashback to Midge’s wedding to college boyfriend Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen), with whom she seems madly in love. We see scenes of Midge aiming to keep her husband happy by waiting until he goes to sleep before putting on face cream and putting her hair into curlers, as well as waking up early to put on make up to look perfect for when his alarm goes off. Joel is a businessman at a plastics company, but has aspirations of being a stand-up comic. He performs at The Gaslight Café, though Midge appears to do the vast majority of the work for him. She takes notes on his sets and the reactions of the audience, as well as bribing the manager of the Gaslight with briskets for a favourable slot. When Midge hears a famous comic on the TV saying precisely the same set as Joel, she is shocked and outraged that somebody would have stolen his set. As it transpires, Joel has been using other comics’ material to start out. Midge’s confusion at this revelation leads to an especially bad performance at The Gaslight from Joel in front of Midge and his friends. After this set, Joel walks out on his marriage with Midge, revealing that he has been having an affair with his secretary. A drunk Midge winds up at The Gaslight and delivers an impromptu set, revealing an innate talent for comedy. This is noticed by Gaslight employee Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), who is delightfully acerbic and no-nonsense, and insists upon becoming Midge’s manager.
The rest of the series involves Midge moving in with her parents (Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub), gaining her own job, and working upon her stand-up set.
I was so impressed throughout the series as to the ingenious structure of each episode. It is difficult enough to provide material within an episode that is worthy of then being comedically reflected upon by the main character at the end of the episode as part of their set. This requires not only an understanding of what makes a good stand up comedy routine, but also what is a believable character experience within the show. Furthermore, this must be a believable character experience for the time period. Now this does allow to some extent some more modern ideas to fly with more hilarity for a period audience. For example, Midge’s reflections on a parenting book are especially astute and fairly common nowadays, though the period setting (and skilful delivery) carry the humour in some cases. There is rarely so much pressure on a TV show to be funny, yet this entire show rests not just upon the situations to be funny, but specifically for what Midge says during those sets to be funny. Lots of this comes from the writing, but it would be nothing without the comic genius of Rachel Brosnahan, who carries the whole series.
Sherman-Palladino also clearly knows how to craft characters who are larger than life and peculiar and yet entirely believable. They are not so quirky that they are other worldly, but strange enough to be a decent foil for our protagonist and to provide hilarious quips within her own comedy set. The relationship shown between Midge’s parents Rose and Abe is terribly passive aggressive, and Rose’s histrionics over Midge’s divorce are priceless. Each scene seems packed with dialogue and movements so it’s always difficult to keep up and you find yourself baffled and amused simultaneously, but it seems so much more human and natural as a result. The familiar and witty way the characters respond and interact with each other is precisely how close friends and families interact in real life, and it is great to see such amusing dynamics on screen, even if these exchanges are sometimes frosty and awkward.
It was also great to see within a comedy that this does not sacrifice the three-dimensional aspect of the characters. It would be easy to make Midge the comedic divorcee, who ranted about her husband running off with his dumb secretary while her mother hysterically flaps over her shoulder to encourage them to get back together. Behind those exteriors, we see the vulnerabilities of all of the characters. At first I was worried that Midge was being far too blasé over her divorce, but it isn’t until episode 6 that she properly breaks down over Joel leaving her. It makes it all the more satisfying to see her progression through the series finale in terms of how independent she has made herself, in seemingly stark contrast to her mother. At the beginning of the series, Midge was almost a double of her mother. She would spend the day cooking and caring for her husband, keep the house spotless and keep herself looking presentable. In key scenes, we see Midge’s mother following exactly the same routine we saw Midge complete in the first episode, which helps us not only understand Midge, but feel great sympathy for her mother, who has felt this pressure on how to behave and present herself for almost a lifetime.
I am entirely behind the trend, but I look forward to watching season 2 and being equally thrilled with it.
- I sort of wish that Joel would disappear? I guess I get why he hasn’t, but his presence irritates me.
- Midge’s children are essentially punchlines throughout the show. I feel like I frequently forget they exist. Which is probably why I haven’t mentioned them in this review whatsoever.
- Jane Lynch’s supporting role is brilliant, but Midge’s impromptu comedy instinct firmly shoots her career in the face in that episode.
- The great thing about Alex Borstein’s character being so stoic and gruff is that when she shows genuine visceral emotion, it destroys your soul. You have been warned.
- After episode 3’s stoned ramblings of Midge as she introduces a jazz group, in what must be the most bafflingly hilarious scene in the show, I would like an entire episode of high Midge Maisel, please and thank you.