The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Yeah, Midge Maisel is funny. No doubt about that. When she climbs up on stage, grabs a microphone and starts talking—about her life, her parents, her one-time husband—laughter pours forth from the audience like water from a burst dam.

But here’s the deal: It’s 1958, and women aren’t supposed to be funny. Or at least, not realistically funny. You gotta have a fake persona, a schtick, a gimmick. “You can’t go up there and be a woman,” she’s told. “You’ve got to be a thing.”

And here’s the other deal: Not everyone in Midge’s life wants to be fodder for a comedy routine. In fact, her stage name, Mrs. Maisel, is just an ironic joke itself at this point: Her husband, Joel, said she could either be a comic or his wife, but she couldn’t be both. “I just can’t be a joke,” he said.

Oh, and one last deal: Mrs. Maisel and her agent, Susie Myerson, have made some pretty bad enemies. Break a leg? Their foes are more interested in breaking kneecaps, thank you very much.

Onstage, Mrs. Maisel may be marvelous. But her life off of it, for some, wouldn’t seem funny at all.

The Comedy Works

Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel stormed into the television landscape much like Midge herself. Indeed, some might’ve thought the show’d likely to come and go with nary a whisper—dropped in the overfilled television lake with barely a ripple.

Then people saw it. And boy howdy, what a ripple it made.

The first season tore through awards season like a charging bull with a thresher attached, winning seven Emmys (including the award for Outstanding Comedy Series and, for star Rachel Brosnahan, Outstanding Lead Actress) as well as a couple of Golden Globes. In the jumbled TV landscape, the stylishly frothy Maisel, like Midge, stood out: Praise for the show has been nearly unanimous.

‘Til now.

Take This Show. Please.

Listen, far be it from me to say that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t funny. Honestly, it’s hilarious. The casting (which includes Monk’s Tony Shalhoub as Midge’s oft-clueless pops and Alex Borstein as Midge’s tough-talking agent) is spot on, and the writing is as sharp and incisive as any I’ve seen in my decade reviewing TV.

But Maisel scores a TV-MA rating (the equivalent of an R in TV-ville) for good—or should we say bad—reasons. The f-word and other profanities fly like so many tomatoes at an untalented comic. Nudity can be an issue, too. Acts of infidelity inform the show’s central tension, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

This unwanted and, frankly, unwarranted content is a cryin’ shame for a show that clearly doesn’t need to shock to make us laugh. In fact, much of what we see and hear feels not only out of character for the more staid time period it takes place in (Eisenhower’s 1950s, when Lucy and Ricky slept in twin beds), but for the show itself. Maisel is a flyweight confection, one that feels stylish and sharp and even innocent.

But it’s not just the superficial content that spoils this show. As good as it is, Maisel’s whole worldview is problematic.

Throughout the series thus far, Midge deals with a clash of worlds that she loves: That of a wife and mother and that of a stand-up comedian. She wants both, but she can’t (at least to this point) have both. So what to choose?

Midge is torn, but the show certainly isn’t: Forget the marriage, follow your career, it says. Forget sacrificing for others, pursue your own personal happiness. We see that message embodied in Midge, and in others, too. Self-realization should be, the show suggests our highest goal—and if someone gets in the way, well, too bad for them.

Writing about the show’s Season 2 premiere, Vulture’s Sarene Leeds notes that the split between Midge and husband Joel seems permanent now: “Midge is leaving Paris with a broken heart, but as she walks off alone in the final shot of the episode, we know she’s heading toward something much greater than a mediocre marriage: her destiny.” Yes, scrap that mediocre marriage for personal glory: That’s the American way.

That said, I find Midge’s talk with her mother, Rose—who ran away from her husband and to Paris—more heartening.

“The world is full of disappointments, and sometimes people let you down,” she tells Rose. “You can’t just run away. … You made a commitment to this man. He’s your husband.”

Commitment. That’s not a particularly sexy word these days. And if Midge sacrificed her career to honor the commitment she made to her husband (or if her husband sacrificed for her), it certainly wouldn’t be the stuff of a funny, Emmy-winning comedy. But I can’t help but think that in the end, unsexy sacrifice and commitment are the acts and virtues we should all really aspire to.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, like the marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is on a marvelous show in a way. But like Midge, it sacrifices a lot to get there.

Episode Reviews

Dec. 5, 2018: “Simone

Midge and her father, Abe, zip off to Paris to retrieve Rose, who left Abe in a spat of midlife crisis. Meanwhile, Midge’s agent, Susie, is grabbed by a couple of gangsters who plan to beat her up (because Midge caused some problems for their boss in the first season). But turns out, Susie comes from the same neighborhood as the goons, so they invite her over for dinner instead. “You know what?” She says. “This is the best abduction I’ve ever had.”

Midge goes to a Parisian nightclub where drag queens entertain onstage. After helping one with his gown zipper, she takes to the stage and performs an impromptu comedy routine, using the queens as comic fodder—saying men shouldn’t get all the perks of being a man and a woman. “You can’t run the world and have all the pretty underwear, too!” She sees several couples kissing on a bridge and makes a call home, hoping to reunite with her estranged husband, Joel, who tells her that she has to choose between comedy and him.

“Do you want to quit?” he asks.

“No.”

“I don’t want you to, either,” he says sadly. “You’re too good.”

Susie’s Mob-based escorts talk shop, discussing a few folks they roughed up (and how rough it got). Susie talks about how her father just up and disappeared under some mysterious circumstances. She also mentions the only clue to his fate was a thumb mailed to her family (though, she adds, when a thumb’s been through the mail, it’s hard to absolutely identify it as coming from a particular person). Her new friends offer to do a little digging, because “we know where they do a little digging.” When Abe visits Rose’s dilapidated apartment, he looks around at the other tenants and quips, “Everyone here has murdered at least three people in their lifetimes.”

We hear about a dog throwing up. When Abe calls one of the tenants in Rose’s apartment building a Nazi, Rose says she’s not: “She’s just flexible.” We see evidence of Abe and Rose’s Jewish faith in their New York apartment. People drink wine, beer and shots: Joel and his friend Archie walk out of a bar, and Archie says, “Boy, we’re getting really good at this drinking thing.” “If you’re going to do something, do it right,” Joel quips. There’s a reference to pouring “two jiggers of Schnapps” in someone’s coffee to make them go to sleep: She says that it works well on Midge’s 4-year-old son, too.

Characters say the f-word and s-word about a dozen times each. We also hear “a–,” “d–n,” “h—,” “t-ts” and “fink.” God’s name is misused eight times, including three pairings of it with “d–n.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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