Amy Sherman-Palladino, the wit behind Gilmore Girls, has created another comedy that perfectly hits the mark with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
The Amazon original series, which centers on a Jewish family in 1950s New York, draws on the hyperrealism of musicals to tell Midge Maisel’s story. At many moments, I expected the characters to break into song à la Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; whether through the pastels of the normally dank subway, the bold colors of Midge’s costuming, or even the use of non-naturalistic lighting to brighten the city streets, New York has never looked so good, and the show’s fantastic soundtrack brings music from background to foreground in the plot. In just the first few episodes we move through Manhattan with Midge to the refrains of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and watch along with her as citygoers dance on the side of the street. The music sets the tone and alerts us to the era, while its buoyant tempo acts as an anodyne for the darker aspects of the show.
Midge Maisel is married with two kids and living in an extravagant Upper West Side apartment just downstairs from her parents. Her husband Joel holds a high-powered job but maintains a dream of becoming a professional stand-up comedian, so he performs at night in the Village. We quickly see that Midge is the brains of Joel’s operation—she gets him better starting times with bribes of brisket and takes notes on how his jokes land. And when Midge’s relationship with Joel begins to unravel, she realizes she wants to become a comic in her own right, rubbing elbows with Lenny Bruce and listening to Redd Foxx. Midge’s quest is the journey of the show, pushed along at a brisk pace in a style emblematic of Sherman-Palladino’s writing style and reminiscent of early screwball comedies that often empowered women.
From the series’s opening scene, where Midge makes a speech at her own wedding, we know that the story is going to be about female empowerment. Her initial monologue also acts as narration during a series of flashbacks—letting the viewers see the distance between her words and the visuals. Through talking you can recreate the world, and Midge is quite the speaker; her sharp, quick banter assists and undermines her both on and off stage.
Midge is unwilling to yield the floor, even when she is gamely fulfilling the expected role of a good wife and mother who cooks in Pyrex because it “can go from hot to cold without cracking,” and who “keeps her face on” until after her husband is asleep. And throughout her journey, she fights against the 1950s heteronormative and patriarchal standards that urged affluent, white women to stay at home.
After all, Midge has her own dreams and thoughts, too—and it is a bartender at the Gaslight Cafe, Susie Myerson, who sees her potential and her own opportunity to fight against being “insignificant.” While people like Joel try to diminish Midge (at one point, by asking “who’s the guy?”), Susie is finding her way in the male-dominated space of comedy—and at one point even barges into an all-male club. Teamed together, the two women push each other—giving way to the types of stories we don’t often hear or see.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a Gracie Allen type taking the leading role on stage instead of remaining the sidekick to George. When two smart women walk into a bar, I’ll keep watching for the satisfying punchlines to come.