Any discussion about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel should probably start with how good it is, so let’s do that: It is very good and fun and bouncy in the way all of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work is good and fun and bouncy. And then the discussion should probably move to how good Rachel Brosnahan is in the lead role, so let’s do that, too: She is so good, from the surprising physicality of the role to her delivery of the ratatat dialogue to the fact that she’s as believable as a rising star stand-up comic as some actual stand-up comics. She and the show won a ton of awards for the first season and I am not here to quibble about any of them.
But, at some point, once we cover all of that ground, the conversation must turn to how much Tony Shalhoub freaking rules on the show. This is that time.
Shalhoub plays Abe Weissman, Columbia mathematics professor and father of the titular Mrs. Maisel. At the beginning of the first season, he has things pretty much figured out. His daughter is married to a successful businessman from a successful family, they have given him grandchildren, he has a quiet and organized study in his spacious Manhattan apartment, and a job he craves looks like it might materialize. It’s everything a father could want in the 1950s.
Unfortunately for Abe (but fortunately for us, especially for me), most of this perfect life ends up in the toilet in short order, starting with the dissolution of his daughter’s marriage, which sets off a chain reaction. She moves back in with them, his wife falls to pieces over the whole thing, a television and crying children disrupt his precious quiet, and he is eventually bounced out of his study and around the apartment, seething with impotent rage about everything at every moment, unsure what happened or how to fix it but desperate for it all to stop so he can have his perfect little life again. Or, to sum this all up in one still image…
This should all be a bit of a high-wire act. Abe is a dinosaur and a product of an antiquated era. His ideal vision of life is a home he dominates and a wife who is quiet and has dinner on the table at the same time every night. He pushes his daughter to take back the schmuck of a husband who cheated on her with his flighty young secretary. Based on nothing but the words I’ve typed here, that guy is the show’s villain. And yet, he’s not, at all. He might even be the most charming character on the whole show. There’s an underlying sweetness to Abe, a desire to protect and make things right clanging headfirst into the realization that it’s beyond his control. His tailspin from Head of the Household to frazzled book-lugging refugee is the show’s funniest subplot and I don’t know if any of it works without Tony Shalhoub.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Tony Shalhoub has been doing this for years. Not exactly this, the domineering Jewish father becoming a neutered lunatic, but “this” meaning whooping tail on television. He was the funniest part of Wings, he was so good as Monk that I wonder if it ended up hurting his career, and he was super good in Braindead, the short-lived CBS series about alien bugs infesting the brains of politicians, which was way more fun than people realized. I used to be sad it got canceled so quickly but now, knowing that its death freed him up to be in Mrs. Maisel, I feel much better. Tony Shalhoub is the greatest. He’s like… what’s an ingredient that’s good in everything? I want to say a squeeze of lemon juice — try it! — but “Tony Shalhoub is the squeeze of lemon juice of acting” doesn’t sound like a compliment. We’ll work on this.
But for now, just watch him in Mrs. Maisel. You’ll see. The man is a dynamo, a whirlwind of precise pronunciation and powerless fury, like a once-great warrior headed into battle with a Nerf sword and no idea how it happened. It’s like he was born to play the role and deliver the lines. He doesn’t even need to be on camera to steal a scene. In the first season’s fourth episode, in the midst of the chaos of his daughter moving back in and his wife trying to fix everything, he gets barricaded in a back room by boxes. I will present the ensuing action via screencap.
It’s perfect. Everything you need to know about the character is right there. His delivery drives it home. There’s a hopeless frustration to his voice, a need to exert even this tiny bit of control, all met with eye-rolls he can’t see. The best part is that, if you’ve seen the first three episodes, you don’t even need to see him on the screen. You know exactly what he looks like back there. You can see his tortured face and simmering anger. He could be stuck in that room for all of season two, just a voice screaming out commands that no one follows, and I’d still probably advocate for an Emmy nomination.
It’s a gift, really. Tony Shalhoub has been a part of our television lives forever. He’s won awards and starred in shows and stolen others in supporting roles. He should be in everything if we can figure out a way to clone him someday. But still, now, today, decades into his career, he’s landed in a role that was perfect for him all along. And he gets to play it with a delightful little mustache. A triumph on multiple levels.