The Cloying Fantasia of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – The New Yorker

It took two minutes of Season 2 before someone said the words: “Gosh, you’re amazing.” The speaker was one of Miriam (Midge) Maisel’s colleagues at the B. Altman switchboard, but, really, it might have been anyone: a genius painter at the Cedar Inn, who says, “It’s like Vermeer painted you! Or you swallowed a light bulb”; a Johnny Mathis-esque crooner at a telethon; Lenny Bruce; Jane Jacobs; Midge’s estranged husband, Joel, who is still stuck on her; her boyfriend, a choosy doctor who prefers Midge to the vapid gold-diggers in the Catskills; her devoted agent, Susie; or even some Parisian drag queens, who dub her Miss America. Is there anyone who doesn’t love Midge?

Me, as it happens. Last year, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was a boffo hit for Amazon and for its top-hatted creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The series swept the Emmys. It sent shivers of delight up the spines of vintage-shoppers everywhere. Lusciously art-directed, from Midge’s classic six to her kitten heels, the production landed at an ideal moment, tapping into a desperation—particularly among women—for something sweet and inspiring. No more “Handmaid’s Tale,” no more pussy-grabbing. “Mrs. Maisel” offered a bright-pink escape hatch from 2017.

I craved such an escape myself—but I was also mystified by the show’s reception, because the first season struck me as both treacly and exhausting. This was true despite its having a premise that was so far up my alley it was practically chopping onions in my kitchen: a Jewish girl does standup comedy in the late nineteen-fifties in New York, when Joan Rivers first rose to fame. And, in fact, the show’s heroine, played by Rachel Brosnahan, is—exactly like Rivers was—a college-educated rich girl in her twenties, who is forced to move back home after her marriage blows up. When Midge enters show biz, her shtick, just like Rivers’s was, is to dress for a date, in a black dress and pearls, then free-associate truths about women’s lives. As with Rivers, the radical “sick” comic Lenny Bruce is Midge’s inspiration—and, in the show, Bruce (Luke Kirby) becomes her mentor. (In real life, after Rivers once bombed, Bruce left her a note: “You’re right, they’re wrong.” She kept it in her bra, for luck.)

But “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” makes two major adjustments. First, it gives Midge kids, a baby and a toddler. It also makes her a winner. Whereas Rivers was an alienated oddball, a loner fuelled by rejection, gagging onstage at her own “ugliness,” Midge is popular and pretty. She’s skilled (and brags of her skill) at everything from sex to brisket. When Joel, a wannabe comic, cheats with his secretary, Midge gets drunk and jumps onstage, and, right away, she kills. She keeps on killing—at cocktail parties and dive bars, even at a Washington Square rally, where she awes Jane Jacobs with a speech about how women “accessorize” the world, as a multiethnic crowd cheers. “Oh, that’s good, write that down,” Jacobs tells her assistant.

Midge builds her “tight ten” routine faster than any comic ever, according to Susie (Alex Borstein), who gets teary at her client’s raw talent. (The butch Susie is so focussed on Midge’s prospects that she never gets a crush on her, or on anyone. Neither does Lenny Bruce. For a show about a woman who works blue, it’s oddly prudish.) By the finale of the first season, Midge has a dangerous enemy—Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), an older star who tells fat jokes, in a fat suit—but, as ever, she keeps killing, swatting down sexists. As the crowd roars, her louse of an ex wanders the street, moaning at her talent: “She’s good. She’s good.” The show is downright Sorkinian in its emphasis on Midge’s superiority—and more than a bit Streisandian, too, except that Midge starts and ends as a swan.

Many people found this fantasy invigorating. For me, it felt grating, and not just in terms of verisimilitude—the verbal anachronisms (“totally”), the sitcom clams (“Good talk!”), the cloying Disneyfication of Midge’s Jewish family—but in its central psychology. In “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” sexism exists. But it never gets inside Midge. Her marvellousness comes from the fact that she’s immune, a self-adoring alpha whose routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some “fucks” thrown in. Brosnahan delivers them with moxie, but they’re rarely funny. They’re also the opposite of Rivers’s act, which relied on the tension between looking pretty and calling herself a dog—provoking taboo laughs from the revelation that even this nice girl felt like a loser, desperate, unfuckable.

In “Mrs. Maisel,” Rivers’s more unsettling qualities—her vengefulness, her perception of women as competitors, her eating disorder—all get displaced onto Midge’s foe, fat-joke Sophie, who lives in an opulent French-themed apartment, like the one Rivers lived in, collects furs, and, like the real Joan, wanted to be a serious actress. It’s as if Rivers has been split into good Joan and bad Joan, because it’s too hard to make such a caustic trailblazer seem cute, to acknowledge how much her success derived from being shaped by misogyny, not from transcending it.

Believe me, when a TV hit unites women, it’s no fun to be Morales in “A Chorus Line,” feeling nothing. As with Sherman-Palladino’s earlier shows, the sometimes charming, often irritating “Gilmore Girls” and the more effectively bittersweet “Bunheads,” this is a show that is fantastical by design. Why nitpick? Why growl at Midge’s icebox parenting, which the show sees as adorable? Why kvetch about Midge’s greedy father-in-law, a portrait so coarse that it verges on anti-Semitism? Why mutter that, if the series hadn’t magically pushed Rivers’s night-club origins back into the fifties, it might have had to show her 1961 peers at the Gaslight Café, including Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, figures who are far tougher to sanitize?

So I tried to open my heart to Season 2. People grow, people change—even critics, even shows. But the season begins with a tooth-rottingly twee trip to Paris, followed by a cloying trip to the Catskills, a setting far better served by “Dirty Dancing.” It veers from one inconsistent family plot to another, with a baffling focus on Joel, who screws around but finds no one who lives up to his ex. (Despite its feminist theme, “Mrs. Maisel” has more one-line bimbos than “Entourage.”) There’s loads of ethnic shtick, from chain-smoking Frenchies to an Italian family singing “Funiculì, Funiculà.” Things perk up whenever the focus shifts to the salty, bruised Susie, a scrapper from the Rockaways—but even her plots are marred by dese-and-dose mobsters.

The show’s writers do, to be fair, give their heroine more pushback this season. When she slams male comics (rightly, because they’re pigs), she loses gigs. When she gives a filthy toast at a Catholic wedding, the bride won’t forgive her. (I cheered.) When her dad catches her using him as material, he gives her the silent treatment. Her act rarely matches her charmed life—why would Midge, so wooed and worshipped, rave about how women are experts on rejection?—but Brosnahan jolts each bit with charisma. Yet, by the finale, nothing adds up. When the season lands on a note of darkness, tied to Lenny Bruce’s routine “All Alone,” it feels unearned. Why should Midge choose art over love? Her patient, supportive boyfriend and her ex think that she’s a comic genius. Her childcare is free (and often invisible). No force keeps her from having both, other than her own unacknowledged solipsism.

There are better escape hatches. There’s also high-feminine mythmaking (as well as fashion inspo and more authentic Jewishness) available on less pretentious TV shows, among them “Broad City,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Claws,” “Younger,” “GLOW,” “Call the Midwife,” and “Jane the Virgin.” But what I’d really recommend is digging up an old copy of “This Is My Life,” the first movie that Nora Ephron directed, based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer. Julie Kavner stars as Dottie Ingels, a divorced Jewish comedian from New York, whose quest for fame leads her to ditch her kids. The movie manages to celebrate that choice without stacking the deck. It’s realistic about a sexist industry. It treats Dottie’s children as real people, who are as interesting as she is. It even manages to be funny. There’s more than one way to have it all. ♦

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