The first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” crashed onto Amazon Prime’s shores much like its heroine crashed her first comedy stage. Cruising on a cocktail of ebullience and determination, “Maisel” broke through the otherwise grim boys’ club of Amazon’s original programming to deliver a vision entirely Amy Sherman-Palladino’s own, with all the chatty wit and aggressive quirkiness that implies. Rachel Brosnahan’s deft performance as the titular housewife turned comic ensured that a star was born, while stalwarts like Alex Borstein (as Midge’s blunt manager) and Tony Shalhoub (as Midge’s perpetually moaning father) played backup with skillful ease.
Sherman-Palladino, with producing partner Daniel Palladino, has cultivated a singular aesthetic that can prove divisive. From “Gilmore Girls” to “Maisel,” their protagonists are zealous, headstrong women who often reveal a startling obliviousness to anyone outside their orbit (or tax bracket). Their scripts are astonishingly dense with dialogue, throwing actors headlong into tongue-twisting banter that can snowball into a kind of frantic mania if given enough room. But in Season 1, “Maisel” succeeded by rooting these go-to attributes in place and genre. Never has the Sherman-Palladino brand made as much sense as it does in the form of a 1950s screwball comedy of errors starring neurotic Upper West Siders talking 10 miles a minute.
To say that the new season doubles down on everything the first did is an understatement. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a concentrated version of itself in Season 2, thanks to the addition of an obviously inflated budget, more elaborate locations and two extra episodes (bringing the season total to 10). That much is immediately apparent in the ambitious premiere (“Simone”), which begins with a complex tracking shot revealing Midge’s new day job as a call operator in an upscale department store. Sherman-Palladino, who directs this and several other episodes, meticulously stages every movement of every frame, the extras weaving in and out of each other’s way as a slapstick dance (an impressive vision that unfurls in just about every large set-piece in the “Maisel” world).
Then, Midge and her father have to embark on an unexpected trip to Paris to search for her mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle). Shot on location and supplemented with typically gorgeous set design and costume detail, “Maisel’s” time in Paris announces the second season’s broader scope and gives it an immediate jolt of renewed energy. Plus, after a season of watching Midge and Abe (Shalhoub) be in their element while Rose struggled to find a relevant place alongside them, “Simone” proves a refreshing change of pace. Much to Midge and Abe’s dismay, Rose’s Parisian life reverses their family dynamic completely as she dares to discover what she wants rather than how she can help others succeed. It’s a welcome joy to watch Hinkle, long the most underestimated member of this formidable cast, tackle much meatier material in the front half of the second season than she did in the entirety of the first.
And to the show’s credit, that doesn’t just hold true for Hinkle this time around. Yes, Brosnahan’s Midge is still the clear driving force, especially as her comedy career earns her more fans in spite of the many blowhard male gatekeepers who won’t believe that a pretty housewife could also be funny. But Season 2 of “Maisel” doesn’t rely nearly as much on her character to carry the series as Season 1 did. Having firmly established Midge’s personality and story arc, “Maisel” now has room to give Hinkle, Shalhoub and Borstein more standout moments and specific personal choices to untangle so that their characters are no longer solely working] in service of her. (Well, except for Susie, who is literally working in service of Midge even when Midge doesn’t deserve it, but her stubborn bite keeps her from getting wholly steamrolled.)
Even Joel (Michael Zegen), Midge’s estranged husband with a gift for putting a damper on even the fizziest of moments, finds a surprisingly self-aware new gear in the second season by acknowledging a painful dual truth: Midge is more self-assured than he ever was, and that’s why he can’t be by her side as she ascends the comedy ladder he once so desperately wanted to climb. Accordingly, he and Midge step back in the first half of the season from trying to reconcile romantically. Still, as Midge tells him in a smart and hard conversation in the premiere, they still have kids (even if both are prone to forgetting that fact in service of whatever misadventure they’re chasing that episode), and will have to remain at least cordial for the rest of their lives. Their resulting efforts eventually lead to a low-key, affectionate familiarity that comes as such a relief that it would be a real shame if the remaining episodes end up reneging on it.
Joel and Midge falling back into old patterns would be doubly disappointing because this season also introduces a formidable new love interest for Midge who almost immediately has more chemistry with her. Benjamin (played with wry gravitas by Zachary Levi) is, at least in theory, exactly the kind of strapping, eligible doctor her mother always wanted her to marry. When they meet at a Catskills resort that their families make an annual tradition of visiting (which we see in a pair of zany episodes seemingly built to discern the “Maisel” skeptical from the faithful), Benjamin reveals himself to be a willful misanthrope with little patience for all the traditions Midge holds dear. But per his mother, he’s also holding out hope for a “weird” girl — and by 1950s Upper West Side standards, that’s Midge with a bullet. Within minutes, Brosnahan and Levi’s sparkling chemistry proves the power of an opposites-attract romance, positioning Benjamin as the reluctantly melting Mr. Darcy to Midge’s strong-willed Lizzie Bennet.
For anyone on the fence about “Maisel,” Season 2’s commitment to going bigger in just about every area — including Midge’s continuing habit of using any audience available to her as personal therapists — might put them off for good. But for all who were initially charmed by “Maisel’s” confectionary world, its return means the return of everything they loved the first time around, with a cherry on top.
Comedy, 60 mins. Premieres Wednesday, December 5 on Amazon Prime.
Crew: Executive producers: Amy Sherman-Palladino, Daniel Palladino, Sheila R. Lawrence.
Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Zachary Levi, Caroline Aaron, Kevin Pollack.