“It’s a terrible, terrible job. It should not exist — like cancer, and God.”
This is Lenny Bruce at the end of the first episode of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. What job is the legendary, boundary-breaking comedian saying should not exist?
Comedy, of course.
It’s a profession designed to elicit laughter, but also one that can involve a lot of pain for the people who perform it, who use phrases like “dying” and “killing” to describe failure and success onstage, and who often agree with this fictionalized Lenny (played here by Luke Kirby) that if there was literally anything else in the world they could be doing and feel fulfilled, they would. But there isn’t anything else, so they get up in front of the mic because they feel like they have no other choice.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), the title character of the new series (it debuts Wednesday; I’ve seen the first four episodes) never expected to become one of those people who couldn’t do anything else. It is 1958, she has a nice Jewish husband named Joel (Michael Zegen), two kids, a swank Central Park apartment in the same building as her parents (Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle), and a small army of friends and neighbors who can’t resist her charm and boundless energy. She knows the stand-up world, but only because Joel likes to perform at a club in the Village after a long day in the suit-and-tie job he hates the same way Lenny Bruce hates comedy. Getting up on stage herself isn’t something Midge ever would considered as part of the meticulous course she’d charted for her life, but then one thing leads to another, Midge ends up behind the mic, and realizes two things:
She’s really good at this — much better than Joel ever dreamed of being.
And she needs this outlet, just as much as Lenny and all the other men in the field do.
She’s been a comedian her entire life — the series begins with her addressing the guests at her wedding reception as a joke-riddled confessional monologue — but didn’t realize it until after she’d built a life that seems diametrically opposed to making a go of it in the field.
TV doesn’t exactly need another show about what it takes to succeed in the comedy business. 2017 alone has given us HBO’s Crashing, Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here and White Famous, and TV Land’s Nobodies. Mrs. Maisel has a unique period setting (though it’s only about 15 years earlier than I’m Dying Up Here, that’s several generations apart in terms of the evolution of the form) to set it apart, but the main asset it has is the writing of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the mind behind Gilmore Girls.
Sherman-Palladino has once again given us a fast-talking, slender brunette heroine (albeit one who obsesses over maintaining her physique in a way Lorelai Gilmore never bothered to) who can turn the world on with her smile and multi-task her way through every challenge life throws at her. (It helps that her mother and/or her housekeeper pick up most of the childcare slack.) And in Brosnahan (House of Cards, Manhattan), she’s found another actress who, like Lauren Graham and Sutton Foster (RIP, Bunheads) before her, can spit out the dialogue of Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel at the machine gun pace necessary to make it work. That’s half the battle right there, particularly if you’re a Sherman-Palladino acolyte who — like a Sorkin or Milch or Rhimes acolyte — enjoy the clever things her characters say, and the rhythms at which they say them (like a scene where Midge’s best friend Imogene, played by Bunheads alum Bailey De Young, keeps finding excuses to say the name “Dr. Spock” again and again) so much that each project’s flaws barely register.
In this case, the chief problem is Joel, who is such an obvious loser, and anchor to Midge’s hopes and dreams, that the show would be better off casting him aside almost instantly. Instead, he lingers in her life even after he shows his true colors, which feels emotionally real but dramatically unsatisfying, and the longer my mini-binge(*) went on, the more frustrated I grew from his ongoing presence.
(*) Even though the Palladinos did a Gilmore reunion for Netflix last year, they still haven’t entirely gotten the hang of writing with the binge in mind. The second episode begins by replaying the last few minutes of the first one, then does that old network “repeat the pilot 3-4 times for the benefit of viewers tuning in late” trick where Midge runs away from the decision she made in the pilot so she can make it again. DVRs and On Demand already made that device irrelevant, and in a streaming show, it just feels like needless throat-clearing.
Brosnahan is delightful, though, and her performance and the Palladinos’ writing manage to avoid The Studio 60 Problem and create the illusion that Midge really is good at comedy — so good that jaded club bartender Susie (Alex Borstein) sounds believable when she insists Midge could become a huge star. (Even if the butch, blue-collar Susie otherwise doesn’t understand her, she admits, “I find you fascinating. You’re like a super-coiffed science experiment.”) There aren’t many real-life models for this character — though at times, Mrs. Maisel feels like a heavily-fictionalized Joan Rivers biography — but when Midge is at the mic riffing about the effort she put into getting the rabbi to come to her Yom Kippur dinner, or comparing a problem with her in-laws to the story of Cain and Abel, she seems every bit The Next Big Thing that the story promises.
As directors, the Palladinos also take great pleasure showing off this pre-Mad Men vision of Manhattan they’ve recreated, often deploying long takes without cuts to better immerse you in Midge’s world. (There’s even a sequence where Susie sneaks Midge into the Copa via the kitchen, though it doesn’t turn into a full Goodfellas homage.) And where Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life only occasionally took advantage of the relaxed content restrictions of the streaming world, Mrs. Maisel plays blue early and often, whether it’s Midge getting in trouble for cursing on stage or Susie going on at length about a memorable part of Midge’s anatomy.
Where Midge is an anomaly in her newly-chosen field, the show named for her isn’t hugely necessary in a world with so many other comedies (or, in this case, hour-long dramedies) about comedians. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells its story with verve and wit and warmth, and it digs deep enough into Midge’s psyche so that we can understand just how well she understands the dilemma that she and Lenny Bruce share. This is not a profession that anyone finds suitable for a woman like herself. But there is nothing else she can possibly do that fulfills her in the same way.