Friday, January 26, 2018

In Her Own Voice: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Alex Borstein and Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

This review contains minor spoilers for the first season of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Last March, Amazon’s Spring Pilot Season had few bright lights. (Previous seasons boasted an embarrassment of riches for the streaming channel, with many of those entries still going strong – and garnering regular Emmy nods – even years later.) But this March, there was one pilot that shone as brightly as its sparkling lead character: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Created, written, and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), the pilot episode of Mrs. Maisel introduced itself with such energy and style that I am sure I was not alone in my eager anticipation of the series. (Amazon clearly knew what it had, quickly picking up the show for two seasons.) In late November, the first full season (consisting of 8 episodes) premiered, and more than lived up to the promise of its pilot. In the midst of a film and television season awash in cynicism and bile, the arrival of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a winter television wonderland.

At the centre of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set in 1958 Manhattan, is Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, House of Cards), a 26-year-old Upper West Side Jewish housewife and mother who is thrust into the counterculture world of stand-up comedy after her husband Joel (Michael Zegen, Francis Ha) unceremoniously announces he’s been having an affair with his secretary and moves out. Brosnahan (who recently won a Golden Globe for her performance) is startlingly empathetic as the irrepressible Midge. She is quick-witted and shining with intelligence – ably mastering whatever life throws her way, whether it’s preparing the perfect brisket, throwing a child’s birthday party, or planning a 30-person Yom Kippur break-fast to wow their family’s rabbi. Once her life takes a sharp turn with Joel’s departure, she takes on the challenges of her new life with the same studious attention – with new worlds to explore and new battlefields to conquer. (After she gets her first-ever job working at a department store, she pours through the store’s manual cover to cover while traveling the subway to and from work – likely their first employee ever to do so.)

Midge’s charms mirror the charm of the series as a whole. Mrs. Maisel, like Mrs. Maisel, is many things at once: a lush period piece set at a pivotal moment in American social history (the late ‘50s-era costumes and interiors – even the grubby ones – are beautifully rendered), an intimate glimpse into the early days of modern stand-up comedy, a sharply drawn story of a woman finding her own voice in a male-dominated culture, and a hilarious dialogue-driven drawing-room comedy. It’s one of those shows that you will find yourself recommending to everyone you know – and each time for a different reason. (My eagerness to share the show has led me to watch the pilot three times.)

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to fans of Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls (2000-2007). With its rapid-fire screwball-inspired dialogue and self-possessed female characters, Mrs. Maisel shares a lot with the earlier series, but Midge’s Manhattan is not quite the picture-perfect idyll of the Gilmores’ Stars Hollow. And, as period dramas go, Mrs. Maisel definitely falls on the impressionistic side of the spectrum – there is a dreamlike quality combined with emotional realism in the new series that sometimes packs a real punch.

Rachel Brosnahan, Marin Hinkle, and Tony Shalhoub in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

All the storylines do, as the show’s title promises, revolve around the force of nature that is Miriam Maisel – but, as the short season progresses, those supporting roles take on more and more depth and weight, sometimes so subtly that I was shocked when it landed. The entire main cast – Tony Shalhoub as Miriam’s father Abe, Marin Hinkle (Speechless) as her mother Rose, Alex Borstein as her struggling manager Susie, and Zegen as her estranged husband Joel – is compelling in the pilot and the depth of their characters evolves stunningly over the season. (Borstein, who had two memorable roles on Gilmore Girls, is almost always scene-stealing as Susie.) But it was Shalhoub and Zegen who, by season’s end, surprised me the most.

As Abe – Midge’s manic, absent-minded, Columbia University math professor and possibly-genius father – Shalhoub (still most recognizable from his lead role on Monk) is a marvel. Shalhoub is (of course) hilarious, but it’s the pathos he brings to what initially seems to be a cartoonish role that is most impressive – somehow eking out a full character arc by season’s end, with dramatic consequences for his relationships with both his grown daughter and his wife of almost three decades. (And Abe’s almost childlike enthusiasm for mathematics so closely parallels Midge’s general enthusiasm for almost literally everything but math that you never doubt that, for all the differences between them, Midge is unquestionably her father’s daughter.) His worry for his daughter, and sometimes his anger at her, never calls into question the deep love that he feels.

But, on these same terms, it is Michael Zegen as the adulterous Joel who most deserves a shout-out. Joel comes on board with the storyline’s most thankless role: the unthinking jerk whose selfishness and insecurity set the whole story in motion (he seems to be basically a seven-year-itch in a black turtleneck sweater). After viewing the pilot, I would not have been taken aback (or, frankly, disappointed) to see Joel’s character sidelined completely – and so the depth of sympathy that I ultimately felt for Joel was one of the greatest surprises of the season. After his unforgiving introduction Joel is a tough sell - but by the season’s final minutes, Zegen has succeeded in making Joel not only interesting but actually sympathetic. That evolution – which we are privy to only in slight moments and subtle exchanges – is a credit to Zegen and to the compassion that the show’s writers have for all of their characters. (It’s through Joel, incidentally, that Mrs. Maisel more than superficially calls to the themes of the early, and by far best, seasons of Mad Men, reminding me more than once of the complicated and evolving feelings generated by Pete Campbell.)

Luke Kirby’s (Rectify, Take This Waltz) performance as a mid-career Lenny Bruce (who becomes a kind of absentee mentor for Midge) is also worth commenting on, if only because in anyone else’s hands, I suspect Bruce’s character would have be mere distraction – I mean, Lenny Bruce as a walk-on character? I can’t speak to how accurately Bruce’s off-stage personality is represented by the show, but Kirky has the comedian’s stage rhythms down. (I can almost guarantee that the first thing you’ll do after the final episode credits roll is find some old Lenny Bruce records.)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a joy to watch, not only because of the lightness that it brings to dark subjects (adultery, economic insecurity, sexism) but because of the darkness it brings to light things (life-long marriages, economic and job security, religious tradition). It isn’t just worth watching; it tops my “Must Watch” list of the season. And don't be shocked if, like me, you end up watching it more than once.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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