In 2017 — and half a century earlier, as depicted in the fictional Amy Sherman-Palladino series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — women are often excluded, ignored and dismissed from creative communities, and told they’re not funny enough.
In the views of too many power brokers who have ruled too many comedy scenes and auteurist arenas, women not only can’t take a joke, they are the joke. If women are allowed on stages and in writers’ rooms, too often they are still the barely tolerated tokens, accepted as long as they are not shrill — i.e., humorless. What exhausting ironies are wrapped up in that one little word. Obviously, women are not only capable of being wickedly funny, but most are skilled at employing humor as a means of survival. We often need to laugh so as not to cry.
“Mrs. Maisel” is a tale of that kind of endurance, one that contains turbulent emotions and also a thrilling sense of possibility. Its heroine experiences some raw, difficult moments, but viewers shouldn’t cue it up expecting something dark or pessimistic. If anything, the Amazon series is occasionally a little too brittle and bright. (Though a lot of the narrative takes place in subterranean coffeehouses and dingy, late ’50s comedy clubs, no one can accuse this program of being underlit.)
All in all, “Mrs. Maisel” bristles with an energetic sense of discovery, and Rachel Brosnahan is flat-out fantastic in the title role.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is about a woman in her mid-20s who realizes, after a lifetime of being told by everyone else what to do, how to conform, what to wear and what to forgive, that she has a weapon in her hands. At first, it’s a crude tool that often gets her into trouble, as she tries to harness and understand the anger and freedom that arrive in her life simultaneously. But that gift — that tool — is her wit, the one thing that allows her to joyfully stride into combat in a world that does not take her seriously.
Watching Midge Maisel’s sense of excitement build as she hones her set and studies the ways to effectively keep an audience enthralled is the central pleasure of “Mrs. Maisel,” which could be described as a stand-up comedy riff on “Mad Men” — one told entirely from a Peggy Olson’s perspective. This handsome comedy is uneven, but like Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls,” it contains gifts that will appeal to fans of verbal combat and realistic depictions of complicated friendships among whip-smart women.
That kind of relationship is still rare on television, but Sherman-Palladino and executive producer Daniel Palladino place it front and center, and in Brosnahan and Alex Borstein, they have two actors who play extremely different women and nevertheless click wonderfully on-screen.
Borstein plays Susie, a coffeehouse manager who realizes that Midge’s stand-up material is something special. Why Midge ends up taking the stage at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse and blowing up her staid life with an impromptu, bawdy routine is a scenario that should not be spoiled in advance. Suffice it to say that Sherman-Palladino’s affinity for swooping tracking shots — which are otherwise overused in this series to the point of annoyance — make Midge’s moments in the spotlight truly come alive.
There’s a sense of spontaneity in Midge’s routines that Brosnahan amplifies effortlessly. Midge never quite seems to know what’s going to come out of her mouth and how raunchy and “improper” it might be. But it’s no surprise that this educated lady in the nice coat from Saks soon has audiences hanging on her every word, even as the local authorities take issue with her language and, it seems, her very existence.
One’s enjoyment of “Mrs. Maisel” will hinge on a few factors. It’s hard to imagine anyone finding fault with Brosnahan and Borstein, both of whom make dashing off Sherman-Palladino’s dense, rapid-fire dialogue look easy.
And though Tony Shalhoub, Kevin Pollak and Marin Hinkle are deft and often entertaining as various squabbling in-laws, there’s a repetitive quality to many of the family scenes. The supporting characters are not all that well developed, especially in early episodes, and at times, their interactions may leave the viewer wondering why these people even speak to each other.
A bigger issue with “Mrs. Maisel” is the ongoing question of whether or not Midge will stay with her spouse, Joel (Michael Zegen). Joel, himself an aspiring comic, simply isn’t that interesting, thus flashbacks to their romance and to their time as a conventional Upper West Side couple often impede the narrative momentum. Brosnahan has far more chemistry with Luke Kirby, who plays Lenny Bruce. Though Kirby’s version of Bruce has a disheveled but palpable charm, and though he deploys that subversive wit well, Midge’s obsession with stand-up and her efforts to gain entrée into that world are her real focus.
As fans of “Gilmore Girls” know, plot is not really the draw with Sherman-Palladino’s shows. Each of the first four installments of “Mrs. Maisel” contains a slightly altered version of the same formula: Midge’s marriage becomes more frayed, she tries to straddle the very different worlds of young Manhattan matrons and Village weirdos, and she eventually gets onstage to shape her pain and bewilderment into something sharp, incisive and even sweet. A show set almost six decades later, HBO’s “Crashing,” does a similarly good job of showing why stand-ups endure the many indignities of the profession — because when it works, few things feel as free, as pure or as powerful.
Midge’s career is one worth following, as is her friendship with Susie. There’s a scene in the fourth episode of the two women sharing hot dogs and fries, as “Mrs. Maisel” shakes off its frenetic tendencies and simply sits with two smart women as they talk. Midge and Susie, at this point, are still not even sure if they’re friends. The acerbic Susie is not the trusting type, and Brosnahan subtly shows that Midge’s offer of friendship is as much an act of desperation as anything else. In the end, Susie is unable to resist the driving, disruptive force of nature that is Midge Maisel. I can relate.
Comedy; 8 episodes (4 reviewed); Amazon, Weds., Nov. 29. 60 min.
Cast, Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Luke Kirby, Kevin Pollak, David Paymer, Wallace Shawn.
Executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino.