Last week, Amazon released the eight-episode first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new series about a ’50s housewife (Rachel Brosnahan) who stumbles into a stand-up comedy career after her life falls apart. I reviewed it based on on the first four episodes, and while my overall opinion didn’t change much watching the second half, the complete season did leave me with some some questions about the show’s approach to its primary subject matter. So here goes — with full spoilers for the whole season — coming up just as soon as Aaron Copland writes my doorbell…
Again, most of what I wrote last week stands, including the force of Brosnahan’s performance and the joy of hearing her, Alex Borstein, and others deliver Sherman-Palladino’s trademark dialogue, as well as my utter lack of interest in continuing to follow Joel after he walked out on Midge. At least some of it can be justified as servicing the season-ending payoff where Joel, on the verge of getting back together with Midge for good, accidentally learns about her comedy career and is deeply wounded at both the thought that she’s using him for material, and the realization that she’s already much better at his dream job than he ever hopes of being.
But even that doesn’t hit as hard as it should because Joel is so obviously bland and weak and dull that he’s not in the least bit deserving of winning back his wife, and because the season really glosses over Midge’s thinking about keeping this a secret from her friend and family. We know she wants to keep it hidden based on the lies she tells her mother about Susie and her insistence on using a stage name (which she abandons in the season’s closing moments, in part because “Amanda Gleason” has been burned by the Sophie Lennon routine), but — perhaps because Susie is her only confidante about this part of her life, and Susie spends the bulk of the season trying not to be Midge’s friend — we never see her consider or articulate the consequences of Rose, Abe, Joel, Imogene, or anyone else she knows finding out that she gets up on stage at a club in the Village and tells dirty jokes about all of them. The first few times she does it, it’s pure drunken instinct without her thinking about the ramifications, but the more she hones the act, the more it must become clear that at some point, Amanda Gleason will be unmasked, and the subjects of her act may have strong feelings about it.
Presumably, that’s coming in season two, but it’s one of a few significant elements of Midge’s career that gets glossed over here. An eight-episode season means Maisel never overstays its welcome, but I’d have rather spent some more time in this world, not only for the energy and the dialogue, but because so much of the show is about watching Susie help Midge build an act and a career from the ground up, and we never get the full picture of it.
In the fifth episode, for instance, Midge discovers that she can’t just go up on stage every time without a plan of attack and improvise her way to comedy glory, and parts of that episode and the next few deal with her trying to develop a real act, first with the help of Wallace Shawn’s Herb Smith, then on her own. One of the season’s most satisfying sequences comes at the start of episode seven when we watch different jokes in Midge’s act evolve over several weeks until she has the kind of “tight ten” that any comic needs to start making a name for themselves. Yet that episode ends with her going back to improv by attacking Sophie Lennon in front of her manager (and getting enormous laughs and applause in the process), and the climactic routine of the season — the performance that, thanks to Lenny Bruce doing Midge a favor by introducing her at the Gaslight, will either salvage her career from the wreckage she made of it by going after Sophie, or doom her to the B. Altman makeup counter forever — is also not the tight ten, but something she seems to come up with on the spot, inspired by the reconciliation sex she just had with Joel.
Obviously, this is meant to be part of Midge’s gift, along with her charm and energy and distinct point of view. But the middle episodes spend a good amount of time insisting that she can’t just go up and wing it every night, no matter how ingratiating her smile is nor how many curse words she tosses around, and then that idea gets tossed aside towards the end, perhaps because the Palladinos didn’t want the audience hearing the same jokes over and over again.
It’s a tricky balance between making your show about a comedian as entertaining as possible even as you’re following that comedian through the inevitable ups-and-downs at the start of her career. I can’t blame the creative team for erring on the side of giving their magnetic leading lady a much new and lively material as possible, but Mrs. Maisel at times promises things it then has no interest in delivering.
What did everybody else think of season one? Did it live up to your expectations from both that pilot and from your general Gilmore Girls love?
What did everybody else think?