The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

3 out of 5

Created by: Amy Sherman-Palladino 

covers season 1

How we wish this story were real.  How seat-pinningly effective is that opening episode in making us wish that we were somehow complicit in Midge’s (Rachel Brosnahan) journey beyond our being a passive viewer?  We would’ve been there, in the crowds for Mrs. Maisel, risqué stand-up in 1950s New York; we would’ve been cheering her on, pushing her past her bombed nights and on to greater heights of hilarity.

Right?  The pilot sure has us thinking so.  And the fever pitch it succeeds at sets a really high bar for the remainder of the season, which it frequently touches but doesn’t again quite make it over.

…Devoted mother and housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel does her devoted mother and housewife bit all day, every day, being the prim and proper lady for her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen) who’s doing his prim and proper thing as a financial guy, appropriately following his family’s desires.  But at night, they both joyfully conspire on a standup act for Joel, which Miriam books for him by bribing stage/bar managers with food, and her banter throughout this process makes it clear that the real comedian may bot yet have stood up.  When a pair of betrayals – Joel’s act is stolen from Newhart; Joel is, uh, cheating with his secretary – drop as a one-two punch, Midge gets sauced, wanders to The Gaslight, steals the mic, and does a bawdy, improvised, hilarious set.  And wouldn’t ya know, gets arrested.

Encouraging words from cellmate Lenny Bruce (played charmingly by Luke Kirby) give her that push to consider this newly applied skill as a vocation, and not a lark.  And so our journey begins…

…And while it’s a compelling one, with solid acting and writing all around, we never quite get back to the thrilling feeling of being part of something the opening magically induces within us.  There are various reasons for this, several of which were going to be a difficult task to deal with, and that the show admittedly does well: that this wouldn’t be an easy climb from housewife to single mom, (hopefully) self-supporting standup act is a given, and is logically the focus of our initial episodes, but the show also rightfully has our lead wavering on decisions that it would have been scriptually easier to have kept black and white.  Joel’s indiscretion is initially easy to make very cut and dry, but as we get to know the character and their relationship more, we understand the comforts that slowly draw Midge back, much to our viewerly frustration, as we want her free and flying solo.  And the Jewish family stereotypes come fast, furiously, and hilariously, but we similarly get more daylight on that to flesh the parents’ roles out into something beyond gags.

Unfortunately, this all subsequently causes an issue in which the show locks itself into a “friendly” sensibility, which goes against the cutting edge vibe of Midge’s act, and her actions to step out on her own.  By design, the show should be buried deep in gender and social issues, but it plays the self-journey and dramady cards instead.  The relationships are rewarding, but its can’t help but be something of a let down that we don’t go deeper into challenging more preconceptions, though a late cameo by Jane Lynch as another female comic gives the show grounding to continue to explore such avenues, should it so wish in its second season.

An astounding opening and rich performances by Brosnahan and Alex Borstein as her grumbling manager set us up for a show that feels well positioned to stir up some shit in the current climate daily sexual harassment reveals.  The overall quality of the show and writing remains above average, but its drive ends up aiming more toward typical hero’s journey dramatics as Mrs. Maisel climbs her way to a stage presence.  It’s absolutely still worth attention (and you won’t want to turn away from its charms), but there was something deeper and bigger the show ducked out of.  Hopefully we’ll see some developments on that in its already secured second season…