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Mrs. Maisel’s Redeeming Bravado

In its second season, critics have rightly pointed out the hit show’s weaknesses. So why is it still so watchable?

Nicole Rivelli / Amazon

In “We’re Going To the Catskills!,” the fourth episode of the second season of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s mid-century period comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we learn that Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a housewife-turned-comedienne in 1950s New York City, has won a summer bikini contest eight years in a row. Midge, played with carbonated speed by Rachel Brosnahan, is not only a champion, she’s a demolisher of records. Every year, the Maisel family spends two months at the Steiner Resort in the Catskills Mountains, and every year, Midge dominates the social scene there. She’s the ingenue everyone wants to dance with, the wife every husband wishes he had, the woman who looks just a bit better than the rest in a gingham two-piece. In other words: Midge is nearly superhuman. She is infinitely capable. She can do anything. Canonically.

This bawdy broad with a bulletproof facade, as scripted by Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, has turned out to be one of the most popular, and most controversial, television characters of the year. It is difficult to say exactly where we are on the critical parabola with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but it is safe to say we are hovering somewhere between the backlash and the backlash-to-the-backlash stage. The first season of the show, which debuted in November 2017 (after Amazon released the pilot, to a rapturous reception, earlier that year), was a bonafide smash. The show won four Emmy awards in 2018, including for Best Comedy Series and casting, as well as statues for both Brosnahan and Alex Bornstein, who plays Midge’s broke, tough-talking manager.

I will admit to being a part of this first wave of excitement for the show—I profiled Brosnahan for the New York Times Magazine last year. I was immediately drawn in by the swingy period costumes and set dressing, as colorful as a Funfetti cake, and by Brosnahan, who gave (and continues to give) as star-making a performance as I had seen in years. Her take on Midge—the snappy phrasings, the forceful pertness, the almost desperate overdose of pluck—had the irresistible hamminess of a classic comedic stage performance. She wasn’t doing television, she was doing Vaudeville. No matter where opinion tends to be on the show, critics seem to agree on Brosnahan’s sheer charm offensive—she is carrying the show, yanking the material upwards with her like a girdle.

And yet, for many, the show’s schtick, no matter how much moxie Brosnahan brings to the table, is beginning to wear thin (or never caught on in the first place). In her recent review in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum panned the series, saying that she found it equally cloying and impenetrable, like an angel food cake covered in a hard fondant shell. For her, the show is too polished by half—the character of Midge included. There’s no vulnerability there, no bending to the world as it tries to break her down, no revelatory moments of hand-wringing self doubt. Sure, Midge has her frictional moments as she ascends through the ranks of the stand-up world (though most of them are external—misogyny from comedy club owners and a swelling rivalry from another woman comic—and not caused by any fault of her own), but she seems to breeze right through them with unflappable forward momentum.

Most people who try comedy take months, if not years, to perfect their stage set. But the first time Midge ever tells a joke into a microphone, she kills. In the first season, I  experienced her sui generis success as a triumph; it wasn’t necessarily something she had earned with hard work, but she did source her punchlines from a very real font of personal suffering. When the show opens, Midge, aka Miriam Maisel, has a “perfect” life: a yawning Upper West Side apartment, a husband who wears a suit and hat to his office job, two healthy children under the age of five, and a robust social life that includes calisthenics in hot pants and putting together children’s goodie bags with her perfectly coiffed, platinum best friend (whose pastel outfits and bristly lack of humor are to be read as signs that she is a gentile). Midge has a quick wit (she delivered the toast at her own wedding, making a joke about shrimp that made the Rabbi gasp) but somehow never feels bored by preparing brisket to bring to the owners of a comedy club where her husband tells jokes (that he has plagiarized, by the way). She has a closet full of jewel-toned swing coats and cinched-waist cocktail attire that made her look like Grace Kelly playing a fashion editor.

And then, the idyll all falls apart: her husband leaves her (for his secretary), she has to move out of her apartment and back in with her parents (a math professor and a socialite, who conveniently live right upstairs), she starts to spiral. So she gets drunk on a bottle of red wine, takes the subway downtown in the rain, and hops on stage, wet and drunk, at a Greenwich Village comedy club. But when Midge gets on stage, her spiel is fresh, partly because she isn’t really doing jokes. She’s just waxing about her life, mocking the name of the secretary (it’s Penny Pan), threatening to show the audience her breasts to prove how perky they still are. But because she’s being honest, she gets laughs.

Audiences aren’t used to hearing a woman speak openly about anything, let alone about infidelity. Of course, her looks (radiant, slender, excessively symmetrical) add to the potency of what she is saying: a beautiful woman breaks down. It doesn’t feel at all threatening to the crowd, just amusing. Even as she is hauled off to jail for baring her breasts—where she is bailed out by her new pal Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby)—it is seen as a lovable turn which she plays for laughs, even as she’s being dragged out of the club. She clearly doesn’t fear the police, or any other consequences that might come her way as a result of being publicly transgressive. Midge’s fears are more localized: that her social circle might judge the meltdown of her marriage, that her parents might disapprove of her extracurricular fascination with performing, or that she might have to—gasp—get a day job (which she does, selling lipsticks at a department store).

In season two, Midge’s blistering ascent through the comedy ranks (and through any obstacle she encounters) continues more or less unabated. We rarely see her children, who stay with her parents every night while she goes out to smoky clubs (her parents have no idea; they think she’s dating). She plotzes for the first single man she is set up with, a strapping doctor (Zachary Levi) whose mother meets Midge’s mother, Rose, in a Catskills beauty salon. He, in turn, is immediately smitten in return; even though she is a divorcee, Midge is still the most desirable bachelorette in town.

Susie, her manager remains the only character to put Midge in her place; when Midge says she needs to leave for two months to take a vacation, thereby slowing Susie’s ability to book her into clubs, Susie offers a reality check. She questions Midge’s privilege, telling her that while she might enjoy gallivanting in the mountains, the sacrifices required to become a professional comedian are extreme, and the stakes for Susie are high. She is living in a dump, and finds herself in danger after Midge outs a very successful rival during her act. Midge is a hobbyist, at least at first, and Susie desperately needs her to become a professional.

In that moment, when Susie explodes, I realized why the show had begun to wear a bit thin for me. It wasn’t because I disliked Midge’s forceful moxie; if anything, the way Brosnahan plays the character as almost sociopathically confident felt citrus-fresh. When I interviewed her, one observation Brosnahan made about the character was that she was “so not a feminist,” by which I think she meant that Midge has never really had to develop a working politics. Who needs an actionable theory of women’s rights when you are woman for which everything comes easily? She is one of those mid-century women who stumbles backwards into feminism, rather than rushes in headlong, because she hasn’t really had the need for it.

And yet, I found this all fascinating, rather than frustrating. Midge’s character exists at a fulcrum point for women in entertainment; some women got to sail through, while others were consistently held back. What Amy Sherman-Palladino wanted to do—and has done throughout her entire television career, first with Gilmore Girls and then with Bunheads—is tell the story of a woman who slices through difficult plotlines like butter simply because she outwits others, as if the only thing standing between a girl and her dream is the right one-liner, and not, say, systemic discrimination. This is Sherman-Palladino’s worldview, possibly because it has been her world. She has written her way to the top of the industry, bon mot by rapid bon mot. It worked for her; so it must work for Midge.

I still find the show riveting as a study of one woman’s sheer chutzpah, of the sort of bravado that most women are supposed to hide away from the world. But what I really started to lose steam with this season, more than just the content, was the aesthetics of the show. I loved the fanciful clothes, the coiffed hair, the exuberant set dressings that look like a spread out of Flair magazine. I wrote a whole article about how much I loved the wardrobe to the point where I’d started cosplaying. And yet, I began to realize that the reason I loved the visuals so much was that I had been starved for an explosion of strong hued whimsy and New York nostalgia on television, and I had let my hunger for the sights (The floral smock dresses! The campy excess of Katrina Lenk’s fortune teller caftans! And the swing coats! Oh, the swing coats.) overwhelm my appetite for character development. And the sights are still something to behold. The mood board for the show is like Wes Anderson run through a Billy Wilder filter, or Tim Burton channeling Douglas Sirk. The visuals are wacky, bold, inspired; a feast for tired eyes.

In many ways, I can see how this is enough. What’s wrong with loving a show that is simply delicious to look at, carried by an actress who is doing the most, set to a soundtrack of lilty jazz and torch songs? It’s been a hard year, and here is a bonbon on a plate. And yet, I want Midge’s journey to feel a little less sweet moving forward. I hope in season three, even if the clothes get more drab, the challenges for Midge are more colorful.