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November 28, 2017 by

Your Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Screen Shot 2017-11-28 at 3.25.54 PMAmazon announced that it has ordered up an unprecedented two seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a television drama from Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) about a young Jewish woman who finds herself becoming one of the first female comedians.

The first season airs November 29, 2017. Is it stunning and slightly problematic? Yes. Should you still watch it? Yes.

It’s the 1950’s, and Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards) has everything she’s ever wanted, or at least everything she thought she ever wanted: a seemingly nice and funny Jewish husband (Michael Zegen); two healthy, if not beautiful children (one has a forehead large enough for her to question); and an apartment on the Upper West Side spacious enough to get lost in and close enough to the home of her parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) that she can cavort downtown while they babysit. And by “they,” we mean Zelda, the maid. To top it all off, they finally got the rabbi to say yes to Yom Kippur break-fast.

But in the first episode, which aired on March 17, life forever changes for Midge. She’s been going downtown, taking vigorous notes for her husband Joel’s act (Joel is the first one to dream of comedy), only to discover that not only has he been stealing Bob Newhart’s jokes, but he is struggling to do them at all. And after bombing a set in front of his wife and friends, he decides that his life is not what he thought it would be, and tells Miriam that he is leaving her. He can’t stand to be a failure in his wife’s eyes. Oh and also, he’s been sleeping with his secretary. What a guy.

Certainly a guy Midge can tell jokes about.

And so he leaves, the night before Yom Kippur dinner—with the rabbi, no less! What will they tell him?!

To make matters worse, Joel’s father (Kevin Pollack) declares that it is he who owns their apartment and will be reclaiming it, forcing Miriam and the children to move in with her parents.

At each moment where emotions run high, Midge takes off to the Gaslight Cafe, an actual comedy club that existed in Greenwich Village (the same place her husband proved to be a hack)—and naturally, if roughly, delivers impromptu sets about her new life that not only bring the house down, but get her arrested for profanity and indecent exposure.

This is where she is discovered by Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein of Family Guy, who steals scenes out from under the rest of the cast), a tomboyish club employee who tells her that she has “it.” She also meets Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), an enchanting incarnation of the groundbreaking comedian who changed the comedy landscape—and was also repeatedly arrested for speaking his mind. These people and this world open her eyes to society’s injustices she has previously been too privileged to notice.

So therein lies the premise: A rich housewife who thought she had it all discovers she doesn’t, and now she has something to say about it.

Sounds great, right? I’d watch that. Yes, I’d love to see a woman who doesn’t realize she’s been chained down by society suddenly awaken and not only do something about it, but SAY something.

But here’s the challenge in the execution: Rich, happy people do not become stand up comedians—not stand up comedians who tell the truth about our lives.

Authentic standup—especially the kind being referenced in this era, what with the emergence of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Jean Collins giving tirades that reveal our inherent contradictions and the hypocrisy of our humanity—THAT requires a dissatisfaction with what life is. Dare we say, it requires a level of misery. (Can the Jews laugh in the face of misery? They sure can, but I digress.)

So. Former Midge is not a comedian. But once her life falls apart, stand-up Midge is born.

Which would be fantastic—if I really believed that her life was falling apart. That’s where the show falls either short or flat.

Once Joel makes his swift exist, Midge’s mother and father, Abe and Rose Weissman, fall into denial, rage, and accusations that Midge is at fault. Abe insists that she do whatever it takes to get Joel back. Rose fears her community will judge her. Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Marin Hinkle (Two and a Half Men) are seasoned, and yet their performances are strained, in part because their characters, as written, lack dimension. While their tight-lipped seriousness contrasts both Joel’s parents and Miriam’s spark (and boy, does Rachel Brosnahan shine brightly), their stiff characters do not seem lived in compared to Sherman-Palladino’s past characters, like the wealthy Emily and Richard Gilmore in Gilmore Girls. Moreover, the focus seems to be on the Weissmans’ lives falling apart, rather than Miriam’s.

But what about Miriam and her children? Surely her ability to care for her children must be dramatically altered now that she is doing stand up during late hours without a husband. But no, Miriam leaves the children with her parents, or the maid Zelda, really, and runs around town (in fabulous clothes and to excellent music; the show’s costume and sound design are impeccable). Sometimes she even runs around town with the children, whom she walks away from in Washington Square Park, and we aren’t expected to notice. She doesn’t seem confined by her children at all. She barely seems confined by living with her parents—sure they scold her like she was a child for staying out late, but that is barely a manifestation of conflict that requires doing something as new and outrageous as pursuing stand up. Does she need a job? Guess not, she’s living with her parents. So where is the impetus? What does she have to sacrifice to become a comedian? So far, nothing at all. Yes, she is single. And yes, in the 1950s, that’s a big deal. But is there no turning back? Could she find another husband, a nicer, funnier guy than Joel? Could she fall into a catatonic depression, or go on a destructive rampage? It is fascinating to see Susie take Midge through the comedy scene at various clubs. Clearly, Midge is fascinated, too. But we have yet to answer the question: What is Midge fighting for or against? Because right now, she’s not really fighting. She has an interest, like a student at school. Which is what she is—a disciple, not yet a pioneer. And though her life is cracked wide open, we don’t see the pieces flying everywhere.

Providing little context is a recurring element for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

In the first few episodes, we realize that no one went to synagogue for Yom Kippur. And break-fast was canceled. Wait, what?! What kind of Jews are these people?! Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Aside from a few “Oy’s,” and a speech by Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollack, is as good as ever) about getting 15 Jews out of Germany, we barely get a glimpse of their holy day or community at all.

Midge does not yet feel like my heroine. She doesn’t stand for much, but maybe that is still useful to the viewer. Watching and thinking about what I hope Midge is and will be forced me to think about whether or not I am upholding my own values. What truly defines a strong Jewish woman? It seems that both Midge and the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are trying to figure it out. I think, though, so am I.

One can only hope that, like a standup comedian, once the show finds its footing, its characters and voice will become clear.

Perhaps we need to be patient.

Just like comedy, timing is everything.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.