It’s 1954, and the titular Miriam “Midge” Maisel is indeed looking marvelous in a wedding dress. Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), the actress portraying her, smirks. Her curls are parted perfectly, like a hair model Betty Draper would lust over, and her tea-length white gown facilitates an especially jaunty twirl. She grabs a microphone, beams at her guests, and…does a stand-up act.
“Who gives a toast at her own wedding?” she nyuks. She launches into a mini-biography: lovely parents, lovely Jewish upbringing, lovely rabble-rousing as a plucky undergrad, all leading up to meeting the lovely man she is about to marry now. She’s always been a girl who plans, she says. “At 6, I decided Russian literature would be my major. At 12, I found my signature haircut. At 13, I announced I was going to Bryn Mawr College.”
She has the perfect husband and, when we fast-forward four years into the future, the perfect children—well, her daughter’s forehead is concerningly large—the perfect “classic six” apartment on the Upper West Side, and she, of course, is the perfect wife.
She’s the kind of wife who sneaks in her beauty regimen while her husband is asleep, wears cute pillbox hats while cooking, and bribes managers at downtown bars with home-cooked brisket so that they’ll give her husband, a businessman with aspirations of being a comedian, a better time slot.
The latter task is one she performs dutifully, even though it’s abundantly clear that she’s the funny one. And, because this is a TV show, you know that eventually you’re going to see her rise and become the breakout comedy act.
Midge is transfixing. She’s precocious and mischievous and kind and self-pleased. The broad’s got real moxie, as they might have said then. It’s all, again, so damn charming. So charming, in fact, that it becomes unnerving. A sense of doom envelops you: Will it last? Do you want it to last? Wouldn’t be irritating if it didn’t? Never has chipperness been so suspenseful.
Again, this is a TV show, and this is Amy Sherman-Palladino. Midge’s idyllic life, like Leave It to Beaver with more kvetching, comes crashing down.
Wounded after bombing a stand-up set in front of his friends, Midge’s husband leaves her for his secretary, and right before the rabbi was coming for Yom Kippur, too! Fans of Sherman-Palladino need a Lorelai Gilmore or a Michelle Simms (shout out to fans of Bunheads!) to root for, a fast-talking, endearing tornado of strong, independent feminine energy, a wise-cracking fighter who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. We certainly get that with Midge, plus some crack comic timing.
Truth be told, the last thing TV needs is another comedy about comedy. Crashing, Dying Up Here, White Famous, Nobodies, and Lady Dynamite already take care of that, to varying degrees of success. What it does arguably need, though, is a show about comedy that seems to, at least to a degree, have fun with it.
Does that reflect real life, and the conversation so routinely had about the root of comedy being real pain? No, though Mrs. Maisel does tackle that. But it is refreshing to track the rise of a budding comedian in a period piece this winking, with this much spunk, swathed with this much unapologetically feminine (and, sure, Jewish) energy.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will likely get most of its sampling from Gilmore Girls fans desperate for more of its creator’s machine-gun dialogue and whiplash banter. Mrs. Maisel, if you can believe it, actually dials up the speed of all that, which will alienate those who hated that about Gilmore Girls, all the while sending the series’ biggest fans into a swoon.
But regardless of your feelings on the world of Stars Hollow, it’s at the very least intriguing to be watching a show about stand-up that is hyper-caffeinated instead of stoned.
Still, if there was one creative problem that plagued Gilmore Girls—and one that certainly haunted the recent Netflix revival—it’s the thing that was also its greatest attribute: a tough-to-nail-down tone, one that veered so nimbly (though sometimes awkwardly) from comedy to drama that it was entered in both Emmys categories over the course of its run.
There’s an irresistible whimsy to Mrs. Maisel’s pilot, a sort of gee-golly-ness that adds a nostalgic bounce to Midge’s wide-eyed strolls through this cartoonish version of New York. The pleasantness doesn’t come from her naiveté, but from a shrewdness. The whimsy coils as the hour goes on, eventually launching Midge like a spring into its rousing finale: a drunk, free-wheeling stand-up set, evoking Joan Rivers, performed soaking wet in a nightgown.
Brosnahan’s performance, especially in these scenes, is a tour de force. She’s superlative in every synonym you can drum up. Midge’s first stand-up set is a triumph of rage and heartbreak, a deft balance of comic naturalism and shtick. These moments are when the handful of episodes that we screened come alive, which makes it all the more maddening that they become sparser as the series goes on.
Sherman-Palladino sort of takes the snow globe she built the quirky-quaint world of Stars Hollow in and gives it a hearty shake, letting its snowflakes fall as Maisel’s own cast of peculiar supporting characters.
Tony Shalhoub as Midge’s father, Marin Hinkle as her mother, and especially Alex Borstein as Susie, the bar manager intent on turning Midge into a comedy star, are all entertaining in their own right, but the series falters when it redirects its attention from Midge and the oh-so-captivating Brosnahan to them.
The biggest drip of them all is Midge’s husband, Joel (Michael Zegan), whose presence lingers far longer than he’s welcome, poisoning the otherwise effervescent gin fizz of a TV show.
The timing of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on its own is also interesting. It’s the first major release from Amazon Studios since the streaming service found itself in the harsh spotlight of the industry’s comeuppance when it comes to the behavior of its powerful men.
Not only were planned series backed by Harvey Weinstein scrapped, but its executive, Roy Price, resigned in disgrace after being accused of sexually harassing The Man in the High Castle executive producer Isa Hackett. The star of Transparent and arguably the most visible and celebrated actor from an Amazon series, Jeffrey Tambor, also elected to quit his show after being accused of harassment from a co-star and his assistant.
And all of this came after the creator of Good Girls Revolt, one of the few female-centric series Amazon had produced by that time and also one of the few to be canceled, revealed a misogynistic culture behind the scenes that foretold her series might have been doomed from the start.
In some ways, then, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t just a charming new series, but the opening salvo in Amazon’s redemption course. It’s a mission that can at times be as exhausting as the series itself. Relentless gumption takes its toll, as does a series that, in at least the episodes we’ve seen, seems to be constantly trying to figure itself out—just as our marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But when it twinkles, it shines almost blindingly bright.