The way the Amazon Prime streaming service works, the network airs a number of pilots in the spring and lets subscribers vote for those they’d like to see picked up to series in the fall. The response to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” earlier this year was so overwhelmingly positive the studio committed to two seasons’ worth of programs, the first time it ever did that.
That pilot episode (which officially debuted last Wednesday, November 29) was to my mind near perfect. Unfortunately, the following episodes — the network made the first four of eight available to critics — included a number of irritating distractions that took substantial gild off the lily. More on them, later. Meanwhile:
Miriam (Midge) Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is smart, funny and, most important, very, very naive. In short: she’s the perfect late-1950s wife/mom/cook/servant. She lives in a classic six on Riverside Drive, and lets her husband Joel (Michael Zagen) make all the decisions.
They have a seemingly loving relationship, and together hit the Jewish procreation jackpot, a son and daughter (in that order). But what Joel really wants is to be a comic.
His always supportive wife happily picks him up at work, carrying a brisket she’s prepared to bribe the Greenwich Village club owner for a better time slot. She also takes notes on what works and what doesn’t.
Not that he really needs them. He’s a smash. His routine about a phone call between Abe Lincoln and his press agent is a smash. Unfortunately, it got bigger laughs, as Midge learns, when Bob Newhart, who wrote the routine, does it on the “Ed Sullivan show.”
Her discovery is the first crack in their relationship. The schism opens further when Joel bombs in front of friends. He comes home that night, reveals he’s been having an affair with his secretary and announces that he’s leaving.
Midge, a bottle of Manischewitz in hand, returns to the club and in a hilarious drunken rant about marriage, fidelity, and good breasts, brings down the house, gets herself arrested, and placed in the same squad car as Lenny Bruce. Her riotous stream-of-conscious “act” impresses Susie Myerson (an as-always brilliant Alex Borstein), the assistant club manager, who takes Midge under her wing. She convinces Midge that she has the makings of a top-rank comic.
Over the next few episodes, Susie, now her manager, schools Midge in the world of comedy, taking her to dives and top shelf night clubs, explaining nuances of timing and delivery. The rest of the series mostly follows Midge and Susie as they claw their way (spoiler alert) to success.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has a lot going for it, starting with its relatively faithful attention to detail: old buses and Checker cabs and tiny TVs. It isn’t perfectly recreated, but it’s close enough, and the producers can rest safe in the knowledge that most of the people who will watch it are either too young to remember that era or so old that they likely already forgot it. (And before you say speak for yourself, rest assured I am. Now where was I? Oh yes, I remember.)
But more than the physical accouterments of the time, the show is relatively realistic about the way society worked then. Divorce was shameful, so a woman might be told, as Midge was, “You cannot survive without a husband. Find him and make him come home.”
Brosnahan’s and Borstein’s performances are brilliant. Midge is demure, genteel, privileged. Susie is profane, wears men’s clothing, and is often mistaken for a man. A yin and yang that together are far greater than the sum of their parts. It is impossible not to get vested in their journey toward Johnny Carson.
It is a journey eased by crisp dialogue. The show was created and largely written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the force behind “Gilmore Girls” and “Bunheads,” so it has the snappiest, most thoughtful, and often funniest dialogue this side of Aaron Sorkin.
It is so tightly woven, so dependent upon the actors’ pitch-perfect time, it is difficult to reproduce in print, but I have no shame. Here are sections of the supposedly devastating scene where Midge learns Joel is leaving:
Joel: I have to go. I have to leave. I have to leave you.
Midge: That’s my suitcase.
Joel: It is?
Midge: You’re gonna leave me with my suitcase? Joel, tomorrow is Yom Kippur.
Joel: I’m not happy.
Midge: Nobody’s happy. It’s Yom Kippur.
Or later when Joel kvetches about a rabbinical sermon: The rabbi got more laughs in five minutes than I did in five months.
Midge: You’re jealous of the rabbi? He was in Buchenwald. Throw him a bone.
It wasn’t all jokes. At one point Susie admits: “I don’t mind being alone. I just don’t want to be insignificant.”
So, what’s not to like? I think it important that when you’re reading a book or watching a film, you have to stay in the moment. Here there were too many distractions. So instead of paying full attention to the film, I wondered how Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub), Midge’s dad, could afford to live three floors above his daughter in a Riverside Drive building with a doorman and elevator operator and also have a maid on a math professor’s salary.
I wondered why the Ed Sullivan Show was on when it wasn’t Sunday.
I wondered why Midge bought lamb chops for the Orthodox rabbi to eat at the break-fast from a non-kosher butcher.
More to the point, I was generally unhappy with the way the Jews were portrayed, as hypocrites who pay extra for the best seats in the synagogue but don’t bother to attend High Holy Day services, going to work instead. And hosting a break-fast when they don’t fast. The older women were scatterbrained, and Joel’s father, Moishe, was a particularly obnoxious loudmouth who owned the apartment Midge and Joel lived in and took it back when they separated, throwing his own grandchildren onto the street. According to Wikipedia, Amy describes herself as raised “Jewish. Sort of.” Amy, did you have to name the SOB Moishe? Don’t we get enough of that from Larry David?
The truth is that despite everything negative I’ve written (and there was more) I put aside assignments to binge watch the series and can’t wait for the last four episodes of the season to become available.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” comes thisclose to being the best new series of the 2017-18 season.