“Do you really think you can go back to making Jell-O molds again?”
Within The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this question is posed by no less a luminary than Lenny Bruce, or at least actor Luke Kirby’s benevolent, sardonic impression of him. By the time he asks it, almost exactly at the halfway point of the show’s sophomore season, the viewer shares his sentiment. Mrs. Maisel, the person, is caught between her old life as a dutiful, picture-perfect Jewish housewife and her new one as a brash, groundbreaking comedian. Mrs. Maisel, the show, is too.
The Amazon show spent its spectacular freshman season clearing the titular heroine of various hurdles between her initial complacency and her new, radically adjusted self-image. Over eight episodes, her husband’s impulsive decision to leave her solidified into a mutual, lasting split. The beginner’s luck that landed Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) on a club stage in Greenwich Village ran out, forcing her to strengthen her resolve and develop a work ethic. Midge found a manager, the tough-talking Susie (Alex Borstein), and a steady day job at a makeup counter in a department store. By the finale, it seemed like Midge’s creators — the husband-wife team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino — had finally positioned her to start the arduous uphill climb to Johnny Carson’s couch.
And yet, in what ought to be a victory lap after a Peak TV-defying Emmys sweep, Maisel seems to be second-guessing its own narrative progress. Midge’s ex, Joel (Michael Zegen), remains in the picture as both part of her life and the center of his own subplots. The season includes not one but two detours to far-flung locales, the first to Paris and the second to a resort in the Catskills; they’re ripe opportunities to flex the show’s Jeff Bezos–backed budget, but not to further Midge’s fledgling comedy career. Midge herself seems of two minds, declaring she wants to be “the biggest thing out there” one moment, and bailing on Manhattan for an entire summer the next. For a privileged woman reluctant to leave the nest, wary of the unknown, and oblivious to the needs of those around her, such start-and-stop pacing makes a certain kind of sense. For a television show allotting precious minutes of screen time, not so much.
Stranger still, such stalling is pointed out with alarm by onlookers within the show. “Two months away is gonna kill our momentum,” Susie correctly observes when Midge reveals the full extent of her R&R. And yet Midge, and therefore Mrs. Maisel, departs anyway. It’s either acutely self-aware or not self-aware at all. Either way, momentum doesn’t care about self-awareness.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Maisel dragging its feet looks very different from the lethargy that plagues many, if not most, other hour-long streaming shows. For good reason, “slow” is just about the last word one would associate with Sherman-Palladino, whose Gilmore Girls provided a caffeinated, la-la-soundtracked answer to the Aaron Sorkin-branded walk-and-talk. Yet after Maisel, Sorkin and longtime director Thomas Schlamme may have to relinquish ownership over the term: The show is hardly an action series, yet the Palladinos craft bravura set pieces out of unlikely setups such as the Maisels’ move into a country house, or a scene where patriarch Abraham (Tony Shalhoub) teaches his Columbia University math class on the go. Maisel is constantly moving, whether through rapid-fire dialogue or crowd shots that are literally choreographed, with actual dancers as background players. The entertainment value and craftsmanship involved in even the most mundane of place-setting ensure that it takes a while to notice that Maisel moves in circles rather than forward. Yet even Maisel at its most sluggish has more pep in its step than almost anything else on television. When the Palladinos indulge, it’s by overstimulating the audience, not testing their patience. A period-accurate re-creation of a Lizzie Borden Broadway musical may be superfluous to the larger plot, but is it superfluous to bringing the viewer joy?
Only after looking up and taking stock of Midge’s progress does the second-guessing begin. By the time Bruce asks about the Jell-O molds, Midge has performed an impromptu set at a club in Paris, booked her first proper club gig, and is on the verge of her Borscht Belt debut. In terms of stand-up, that’s … pretty much it. Rather than delving further into the late-’50s comedy scene or introducing more fictionalized legends like Bruce, Maisel prefers to turn our attention to Joel modernizing his parents’ business, Midge’s post-Joel love life, and the fissures in her own parents’ marriage. Not all these story lines are frivolous detours; the material about Midge’s parents, in particular, echoes the Friedan-lite commentary on gender, what women do for their husbands, and what men take for granted that’s been a core part of the show from the jump. But even if there is more to the everyday lives of prosperous post-war Jews than meets the eye, it’s Midge’s unlikely trajectory that makes the extended Maisel clan unusual enough to merit an entire TV show. It’s odd to see Maisel neglect that which sets its protagonist apart from her surroundings in favor of the surroundings themselves.
Some of Maisel’s missteps feel like history repeating itself, and not just because the Palladinos are fond of writing in cameos for real-life historical figures like Jane Jacobs. Gilmore Girls die-hards know all too well that this isn’t the first time a Palladino show has allowed an undeserving, erstwhile love interest overstay his welcome. Such backsliding is both offset and underscored by Maisel learning from some of its, and its writers’, other mistakes; in a recurring motif this season, Susie candidly calls Midge out for the entitlement and selfishness that come with her wealth. At long last, Maisel is addressing the dark side of the Palladinos’ oxygen-sucking superheroines.
As frustrating as Maisel’s extended limbo can be, it’s also hard to hold against the show, because it feels like an expression of genuine internal conflict. Later in the season, Midge’s arc is made explicit, framing this chapter of her journey as an irreversible choice between the conventional, expectation-meeting life she thought she wanted and the improper, precedent-setting one she’s entered into. For someone with as many advantages as Midge, there’s a real price to pay for plunging into the grimy world of stand-up, and it’s understandable that she has trouble choosing between her two spheres, or even accepting that she has to make a choice. At the same time, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel itself seems split between the creature comforts of remaining a show about a family and embracing the full implication of following a woman who starts to outgrow hers. The good, and scary, news is that with a talent like Midge, turning away from the spotlight is only delaying the inevitable.