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Despite Its Wokeness, ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Shows How Comedy Is Deeply Conservative


I got talked into watching “Gilmore Girls” years after it ended and developed a love-hate relationship with the series from the start. “Gilmore Girls” turns almost entirely on one kind of dialog: faux snappy bright-girl talk from the madcap comedies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Every “Gilmore Girls” character sounds exactly alike. But the dialog is fun.

The show lost the gab when its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, left the series in 2006. The final season was a disaster as a result. Sherman-Palladino came back to write the Netflix revival mini-series last year, and promptly put out something even worse.

She’d clearly lost her ability to care about her characters, and practically dismantled her own legacy with the reunion show. The lead character’s daughter, Rory, is betrayed and ruined with a loathsome subplot. Fast-talking lead character Lorelai Gilmore comes off like a random bot generator spewing dialog that sounds like parody snatches from the show’s better years.

Sherman-Palladino lost her mojo is what I thought. I don’t know if the new Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a trunk script she churned out before she forgot how to write and then misplaced, or is a sign of a Sherman-Palladino mini-renaissance, but, almost despite its own striving for heaven knows what, “Mrs. Maisel” is pretty okay. And for television, that’s great.

The ‘Mrs. Maisel’ Setup

The series follows upper-middle-class, Upper West Side Jewish-American comedienne wannabe Midge Maisel as she begins her career as a stand-up. When we open in 1958, Midge is married with two young children. She and her husband Joel live in one of those high-ceilinged Upper West Side apartments that even old money married to old money can no longer afford.

Rachel Brosnahan plays Miriam “Midge” Maisel in the series, who seems the model upper-middle-class Jewish girl in every way. She’s the daughter of Abe Weissman, a professor of mathematics at Columbia University played by the great Tony Shalhoub, and she’s married to Joel (Michael Zegan), an upper-level manager at a plastics manufacturing company. Joel is the passive-aggressive son of loudmouthed, money-grubbing garment king Moishe Maisel, portrayed to teeth-grinding perfection by Kevin Pollack.

The standouts among this cast of standouts are supporting actors Marin Hinkle and Alex Borstein. Hinkle inhabits her role as Rose Weissman, Midge’s upper-class Jewish mom. We simply believe every gesture, every blink of the eye, and especially every turn of phrase in the dialog. It helps that she has excellent material to work with, but Hinkle is good in this.

The best of the bunch is Alex Borstein, who also sinks into her role of Susie Meyerson, Midge’s agent, as if born to the part. Susie is a Greenwich Village character through-and-through. She’s perhaps a lesbian (in a great decision by Sherman-Palladino, we find out only what we need to know for story purposes about Susie, who is otherwise tight-lipped about her past). Even as Borstein conjures Susie from red-and-black striped shirts, dungarees, and a Beatnik captain’s hat, her comic timing remains impeccable, and her one-liners—she has the best lines in the show—seem positively off-the-cuff, and even more devastating as a result.

Enter the Standup Bits

Midge and Joel frequent the Gaslight, a Village bar where Joel does open-mike performances as a stand-up. One night after Joel gets flustered and bombs, Midge discovers that not only is he stealing his entire routine from a Bob Newhart bit, he’s also unhappy in their marriage, and has been cheating on Midge with his secretary.

Midge is devastated, particularly about the Newhart rip-off, but handles it by turning to stand-up herself. She’s good. Susie, who has been around the block a few times, knows talent when she sees it. She encourages Midge to go professional with Susie as her manager.

As with all successful Sherman-Palladino projects, the fun is in the way she plays with kitsch, taking us to the edge and often, unfortunately, right to the heart of melodramatic cream-cake, then artfully pulling back, giving us an off-kilter and imaginative view of the same situation—rescuing us from the very schmaltz she has tossed us in. It’s as if the poker-playing dogs in the painting start spouting Shakespeare. It’s funny.

With Midge and Susie, Sherman-Palladino ducks in and out of stereotypes. She did it with the small-town setting in “Gilmore Girls.” With “Mrs. Maisel,” it’s all in the clothes and makeup. Midge is beautifully draped, coiffed, and manicured to a glamour-puss sheen (it doesn’t hurt that Brosnahan is stunningly beautiful), while Susie is got up like a female Bob Denver, but with pointy, 1950s underwire bras that deliver the missiles. When either characters play against type, the clothes are there to provide the counterpoint.

It’s All Fun and Games Until We Get to Midge’s Act

Midge is a foulmouthed, knowing comedienne, but she’s dressed like a rich West Side housefrau, which makes her even more surreal and weirdly funny. Susie is a standard tough-talking bartender in the West Village, but under that tugboat cap she harbors a hidden ambition to become a successful talent agent.

Midge begins working on her act in earnest. In the course of a performance, she gets arrested for indecency. In jail, she runs into Lenny Bruce (well-played by Luke Kirby), who becomes her friend and a bit of a mentor and guiding angel. Meanwhile at home, Midge rejects Joel’s weak-willed stab at reconciliation, takes the kids, and moves back in with her parents (who have no idea about her night gigs at the Gaslight). After her father refuses to let her have a television in her room, she takes a job as a makeup girl at B. Altman’s department store to have her own income.

Midge is fighting to meld her desire to learn the ropes and become a professional performer with her comic style, which supposedly leans more toward jazzy Lenny Bruce stream of consciousness than Jack Benny one-liners. Thank God there are not any actual attempts to pastiche a Lenny Bruce number (at least not yet). But that does lead us to the great weakness of the show: Midge’s act.

It stinks. It stinks when it’s one-liners. It stinks when it starts preaching modern Hollywood feminism. It stinks when it doesn’t. In fact, in the one utter misfire episode, Wallace Shawn plays a bottom-feeding comedy writer Midge hires to write jokes for her when she temporarily loses confidence in her material. Although played as groaners, the couple we hear actually are better than Sherman-Palladino’s usual fare.

Sherman-Palladino flubs a basic rule cub fiction writers and dramatists usually learn early on in their careers: when writing a character who’s supposed to be some kind of genius at something, never bring onstage what they’re good at unless you happen to be a genius at it yourself. If you do and you mess it up, which you will, you’ll lose the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Sherman-Palladino is said to have started out in stand-up comedy. All I can say is that it’s a good thing she switched over and found her calling as a comedic dramatist, or she might be starving now.

Then We Get to the Soul-Killing Flaw

The nearly soul-killing flaw of the series is when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” stops in mid-stride of being marvelous to reflect on its own societal importance. Midge is a groundbreaking performer! Look at us saying that!

Show business and comedy has been filled with women—brilliant women, amazing women—for literally hundreds of years.

This completely takes us out of the moment, but the real problem is that it’s total baloney. Show business and comedy has been filled with women—brilliant women, amazing women—for literally hundreds of years. It doesn’t take the slightest bit of head scratching to come up with dozens and dozens of top-rank names to prove it.

Did these women do comedy like Lenny Bruce? No, but that isn’t because women weren’t allowed to. Nobody was doing Lenny Bruce until Bruce pinched his act from Joe Ancis, who stole it from some jazz musicians in the 1930s.

The whole women’s issue and social justice angle of the series is laugh-killing nonsense and works against everything else that’s great. Further, what’s being said about it in the marketing and promotion makes one want to vomit. It certainly put me off from watching it until I realized that Sherman-Palladino was the creator and main writer, so decided to give it a shot.

In fact, “Mrs. Maisel” proves the exact opposite of the idea that women like Midge were oppressed in 1950s New York. In almost every way, Midge is the one wielding the power. She’s educated. She’s beautiful. She’s stylish. She’s funny. She’s an ace working girl when she tries her hand at it. She’s the kind of woman that men see coming and stand back from in awe. There’s nothing she can’t do, and do well, if she puts her mind to it, and any resistance is flimsy and easily disposed when it does manifest.

Midge’s Own Worst Enemy Isn’t Society

Furthermore, Midge has got a great family. Her father is a well-respected professor at Columbia. Her mother loves Midge to pieces, despite not understanding her. She’s also available to babysit at a moment’s notice. It’s actually Midge’s sister-in-law, the shiksa convert to Judaism who looks up to Midge like a puppy, who is the pathetic and oppressed woman in this milieu.

In “Mrs. Maisel,” Midge’s main antagonist is herself, notably her budding artistic nature that causes her subconscious to occasionally buck like a bronc and get her in trouble.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of a young artist, a comedienne, coming of age and coming into her own. In the process, Midge finds that art doesn’t have much to do with serving up social justice or becoming an agent of change.

As Midge discovers by banging her head a few times against the brick wall of failure, the art of comedy is fundamentally conservative in nature. The artist has to use what she finds around herself to build. Her art arises from personal circumstance and individual creativity.

The best material is built on the oldest foundations, on experiences that can be found in any time and at any place—even in that supposedly benighted Dark Age of cigarettes, push-up bras, and high heels that we call the 1950s.

Correction. This article originally misstated the actor and character name of Joel Maisel’s father.