Mild spoilers included.
It’s been said that we’re in a Golden Age of Television. Maybe, but there’s more evidence that we’ve actually entered the Golden Age of the First Act.
In the past few years, several promising, character-oriented net shows have taken disastrous turns in follow-up seasons. The perfect example is “Mozart in the Jungle,” with its near-luminous first season (possibly the best series season ever to grace the net), which was followed by a plunge into goofy irrelevancy in season two, and then ended with the absolute abyss of season three.
Another is the wonderful, quirky 1980s nostalgia-fest “Red Oaks,” set in a mostly Jewish golf and tennis club in New York. Season one is great, season two is akin to watching a parade balloon deflate, and season three is basically an extended raspberry to the audience as the remaining hot air escapes.
In a refreshing twist, the second season of the excellent Amazon Prime television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” manages to build on and exceed the quality of the first season—and it does so by avoiding many of the political pitfalls the first season fell into. Unfortunately, the season two finale portends a depressingly predictable season three that will likely mark the artistic end of this delightful show.
Looking for a New Life
The story follows Miriam “Midge” Maisel, an upper-middle-class Jewish housewife and mother of two living in New York in 1959, who ventures below 14th Street once too often and catches the standup comedy bug after delivering an inspired open mic performance at a Beatnik club in the West Village. The booker at the club becomes Midge’s manager, and both women set out to take on professional comedy.
Meanwhile, Midge’s marriage falls apart, and she gets a job at the department store B. Altman’s to make ends meet and establish her independence. Her comedy act goes nowhere until she runs into a fictionalized version of Lenny Bruce (nicely depicted by Luke Kirby). Both end up in jail one night for uttering a forbidden phrase on stage and strike up a friendship. Bruce mentors Midge and helps her get some initial gigs.
Ah, the gigs. That was the problem with season one. They were bad. And anachronistic. And stupidly political. Mercifully, this season we see fewer of Mrs. Maisel’s jokes—that is, the writing staff’s awkward attempts at standup—and the show is immensely better for it. In fact, for much of season two, show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her writers dance a quick-step to avoid descending into social satire, political commentary dressed up in false history, and the inevitable ruin that overwhelms once-great shows with historical settings like “Mad Men” once they go didactic.
Escaping New York helps, and the writing staff uses all manner of ploys to move the show setting away from the city for season two. It’s as if Sherman-Palladino knows she will inexorably be pressured by the leviathan that is the entertainment industry Zeitgeist into making the show a progressive political propaganda tool— which she must know will kill it.
The Tone Is a Bit Uneven, the Cast Stellar
This dodging and weaving to avoid politics may explain the problem in tone the show evinces this season. We start the season in Paris, then briefly return to New York before going on vacation for two episodes set at an archetypal Jewish family resort in the Catskills. Then Midge and Suzie take to the road, where they grow closer, but also get on one another’s nerves big time. Midge returns to New York City for the last few episodes—and “Mrs. Maisel” promptly loses much of its charm.
But it’s a great first six shows in season two. You have to feel sorry for poor Rachel Brosnahan, who is beautiful, measured, and nearly flawless in bringing Midge Maisel to life. If this were any other show, her performance would be the dazzling centerpiece of the production. Here Brosnahan is surrounded by a cast that is so good, so pitch-perfect, that she often fades into the scenery.
The interactions between Tony Shalhoub, who plays Midge’s Columbia math professor father, Abe Weissman, and Marin Hinkle, whose portrayal of Midge’s nervous, resplendent mother, Rose, are dead-on perfect. It’s a study in how excellent actors can make character interaction into a character in itself. And when all four of the veteran actors on the show are together—Shalhoub, Hinkle, Kevin Pollack, and Caroline Aaron, who play Midge’s estranged husband’s father and mother—it’s like watching four instruments meld into an intricate quartet.
The Biggest Show-Stealer of All
As she was in season one, the biggest show-stealer of all is Alex Borstein, who plays Midge’s manager, Suzie Myerson. Hers is the kind of performance where you momentarily wonder how they got the “real” Suzie to be on the show. Sherman-Palladino has written an inspired part for her. Yet it isn’t just Suzie’s actions, but her reactions, that convince us. There is not a moment when Borstein fails to inhabit the character from head to toe.
Suzie is a woman who has been hurt as a child, and probably abused. It is to Sherman-Palladino’s credit that we never find out what happened— and hopefully we never will. Suzie is a true victim. The last thing she wants to do is wallow in victimhood. She wants to forget about it and get past it. Yet there is still a frightened little girl inside the grown, growling woman who is cowed by, say, mobsters who intend to rough her up, and bullies who make motions like they’re going to smack her. She cringes. She bounces back. She lets them have it, knowing the consequences might be bad.
There’s a wonderful sequence where Suzie slowly talks a couple of mob goons out of possibly breaking her legs or beating her up by appealing to their common roots on the outer borough waterfront and, later, by charming one of the goon’s children and complimenting his wife’s cooking. Her steadfast belief in Midge’s comic genius is inspiring throughout the series. Because the actual jokes in the show are at best mediocre, we come to admire Midge mostly through Suzie’s savvy eye, made believable by Borstein’s portrayal of a woman who is damaged goods in ways, but whom we come to trust is competent at judging talent in others.
The relationship between Midge and Suzie, which produced the best scenes in season one, grows more complex and a bit darker this season. Both have viewed the other mainly as the answer to personal hopes and dreams. But after spending a great deal of time together they realize, sometimes unhappily, that neither is going to sit still and serve as a means to the other’s ends.
What’s Wrong from Season One Remains
The problems of the show remain from season one. Midge’s two young children are props and plot McGuffins for the most part. They show up when convenient for a story point, but otherwise disappear, leaving us wondering who the heck is taking care of them half the time. Maybe this is for the best. It’s hard to imagine a modern show portraying motherhood and enjoying a career as mutually beneficial endeavors.
I suppose we should be thankful that yet another show doesn’t descend into the stereotypical feminist agony of a woman torn between a career and her children. Unfortunately, judging from the finale, season three is going to go there. The anachronistic political jibes are often lurking and implied, and surface gracelessly in the shows on which Sherman-Palladino doesn’t have the writer credit.
But the big issue in season two is the wildly modulating tone of the show. Sherman-Palladino can’t seem to decide if she’s presenting a gritty, realistic comedy, a romantic quip-fest, or a stylized, over-the-top romp. Generally television series will do a couple of off-concept shows a season to provide a break from the usual fare (sometimes more for the creators and actors than the audience). “Mrs. Maisel” often lurches into off-concept scenes and sequences within individual shows, yanking us out of the standard comedy-drama and into wacky or syrupy moments without build-up or preparation.
We saw some of this choppiness in Sherman-Palladino’s most famous creation, “Gilmore Girls,” but “Mrs. Maisel” takes it to giddy new heights. Characters suddenly break into rapid-fire wise guy routines and choreographed zaniness, such as an episode teaser that has Suzie shuffling around a diner trying to land Midge a gig, or, in the next-to-final episode, Midge leaping into a totally unbelievable and not particularly funny ad lib with the callers at a charity telethon for arthritis. Are we in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” “Desk Set,” or “Singing in the Rain”? All three at once, it seems.
Why the Unevenness?
Why? One explanation is that the artist in Sherman-Palladino dreads what is expected of her next. The viewer can practically feel Sherman-Palladino holding back on letting the story progress to its next obvious paint-by-numbers destination. If only the Ghost of Storytelling Future could appear and absolve her of the responsibility to be boring. “Can the sixties nostalgia for season three, sister. It isn’t really true, anyway. Abe does not have to become a radical Columbia professor. Midge does not have to get any more political than ‘Laugh-in.’ Don’t teach us a thing. Just keep entertaining us, like you have been.”
There’s also no reason in the world Midge can’t be married and be a professional comic. Real show biz people get married and have kids all the time. And Suzie doesn’t even have to come out as a lesbian. She’s far more interesting as an oddity from Planet Brooklyn. Imagine we don’t even suffer through an entire episode of Kennedy assassination kitsch. It’s easy if you try.
Yeah, right. All signs from the final episode point to the probability that we are about to be told what to think in season three. But maybe not. Sherman-Palladino pulled a second ten-show run of whimsy, drama, and philosophic intrigue out of her hat. Maybe she can do it again.
Like Suzie, however, I’m a victim of much abuse, only mine is aesthetic. I suspect this is as marvelous as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is going to get. Enjoy it before the in-show expiration date arrives— which I suspect will be toward the end of November 1963.