In the fourth episode of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, comedy scene veteran Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) invites aspiring stand-up Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, suitably marvelous) on a tour of New York’s clubs: an oddball ventriloquist, at a spot patrons refer to as “The Shithole”; a smooth operator at a swanky, “mainstream” establishment; Red Skelton at the Copa, seen through the kitchen door’s porthole window. The most important moment of the night, though—the one that explains why Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Eisenhower-era portrait of a comic pioneer falls short of its finest elements—comes at the end, as Susie and Midge chow down on burgers and fries at a dingy counter. The problem with Maisel, the middling drama, is that it’s at cross-purposes with Maisel, the sparkling comedy: The supporting characters are Midge’s material, not flesh-and-blood figures in their own right. As Susie says, dismissing Midge’s need to confide, “Both of our futures depend on you making jokes about your weird life.”
In stand-up, of course, this is exactly the point: to reduce the boiling liquid of one’s personal experience until it’s so perfectly concentrated it becomes universal. And boy, does Midge’s act sing. The pilot episode climaxes with her first public performance, which she delivers in an eggshell-blue slip and pink housecoat after her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), leaves her—it’s as fantastical as a musical sequence, or perhaps a dream, down to the fact that it begins with Midge muttering to herself. As she (and the luminous Brosnahan) gain steam, Midge’s raw, fast-talking fury becomes a performance; she steers into the emotional skid and catches each laugh before it careens off the precipice. She’s a natural because her comedy is, and yet Sherman-Palladino’s direction—treating the act as a showstopper, separated from life by the glare of the spotlight—maintains the border, permeable though it may be. As comedy, and on the subject of comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has the feeling of a star turn, at once vulnerable and self-aware. Unfortunately, Midge’s act—at cocktail parties, in court, giving the toast at her own wedding—is only a sliver of the whole, the rest of which appears flat by comparison. The series’ success turns out to be at the heart of its failure: It’s akin to a Hollywood musical that relies mostly on dialogue, or Bunheads without the backbone.
By this I mean that Maisel’s connective tissue isn’t strong enough to sustain the audience in between sets—most episodes function as the lounge singers and beatnik poets at the Gaslight do, filling time until Midge hits the stage. The series is no more interested in its heroine’s “weird life” than Susie is, which is to say it’s all fodder: As Paste’s Amy Amatangelo notes in her review, Midge’s children are at best an afterthought, at worst a plot hole (her infant daughter must’ve fallen into the lamb curry, because she’s AWOL by midseason); her parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) are neurotics of the sort you might hear described in a Borscht Belt summer; Joel, a failed stand-up himself, is in the midst of the same midlife crisis that confronts half the men on television. As in Sherman-Palladino’s mannered (though often charming!) Gilmore Girls, the only figures in Maisel to approximate characters, not caricatures, are its two female protagonists, and to say even that is giving Susie (despite Borstein’s efforts) a pass. The series, as the title promises, belongs to Midge Maisel, trailing her from her Upper West Side apartment to her parents’ place, from the Gaslight to the Copa, from bursting onto the scene to clawing her way back. But it also lacks the courage of its convictions: Maisel yearns to be Brosnahan’s one-woman show, a mordantly funny eight-part monologue, then pads each hour with the sort of humor Midge herself calls “pedestrian.”
It’s not that Sherman-Palladino’s incapable of streamlining the action, or of goosing it up. In fact, Midge’s “tight ten,” wherever it happens to tumble out of her, is the ideal vessel for her creator’s firecracker writing. There’s a precision to Midge’s sets (which are also, tellingly, set pieces) that so outstrips the rest of the series they’d work as a supercut; these scenes’ lacerating, often self-deprecating affect, reminiscent of early Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller, is as carefully honed as the domestic drama is flaccid. I meant it when I compared Midge’s performances to musical numbers, in structure if not in tone—in the season’s best sequence, she assumes emcee duties from Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) and drops a half-stoned, wholly captivating comic explosion on an unsuspecting audience, all lit like she’s Sally Bowles imagining her big break. When Midge is on stage, she’s more alive, more honest, more in tune with her trials and triumphs as a daughter, wife, sister, mother— woman—than she is in her own living room. “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother?” she asks, in the course of disemboweling Dr. Spock. “What if I picked the wrong profession? If you’re afraid of blood, you don’t become a surgeon. If you’re afraid to fly, you don’t join Pan Am.”
She kills, of course—kills so unexpectedly, so thrillingly, so dangerously close to the cliff’s edge of defeat that Maisel, for a moment, becomes a showstopper, a prima donna hitting her high note or a trapeze artist suspended in air—but even when she bombs—as she does excruciatingly, repeatedly, in the season’s fifth episode—her act remains mesmerizing. Because the series’ most penetrating insight is not that Midge’s life informs her work. It’s that Midge’s work, the work of any artist, is to transform her life into a “tight ten,” a performance, an act; to construct, tear down, and rebuild her on-stage persona until it appears natural, as seamless as Sutton Foster performing Kander and Ebb. Even when she’s “off book,” as in the stemwinder that caps the penultimate episode, she’s still playing a role, using a pseudonym, close to but not quite herself. Disappointing, then, that Maisel should struggle to embrace its own wisdom, which Midge comes to the hard way: No amount of skill or material can replace preparation, the care that goes into the closing number or standout set. If Sherman-Palladino ever manages to capture the magic of Midge standing under the spotlight and smuggle it into the surrounding drama, Amazon’s latest will be one of the best shows on television. Until then, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel might heed Susie’s caution, which stems from her belief that Midge possesses the talent, though not yet the patience, to be the next Lenny Bruce: “Everybody bombs.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.