Amazon’s Amy Sherman-Palladino series is one of TV’s best shows — but also one of its most complacent.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one of the best shows on television, perched right next to one that’s content to settle for “pretty good” so long as it remains thoroughly pleasant. I can’t decide if I love it for its lavish, careful reconstruction of a bygone era, or if that love only underlines my own blinkered perspective.
The series’ second season is perhaps best embodied by a scene in its fourth episode. Having arrived in the Catskills for the summer, Midge Maisel (the endlessly ebullient Rachel Brosnahan) and her parents, Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle), move into the home they’ll be living in for the next two months.
Daniel Palladino, who wrote and directed the episode, keeps the camera outside the house, from across the street, where it can take in everything that happens as resort employees swarm the Weissman car and trailer to help them move their things into the little cabin. It’s a kind of slamming-door farce staged from outside the place where all the doors are slamming. At one point, Shalhoub emerges from an upstairs doorway to take in the morning air, while below him, workers bustle and buzz. It’s a clever, unique trifle of a shot, as light and airy and fun to watch as anything on TV.
But it’s also a shot that made me wonder if Mrs. Maisel’s indulgence in its reconstruction of 1959 New York — a reconstruction that deliberately sands off the vast majority of that era’s rough edges — has a point and purpose beyond existing as the world’s most elaborately beautiful doodad. The entirety of the season’s fourth episode is, in essence, simply meant to escape to the Catskills, to make you feel what it was like to be a Jewish family making its annual pilgrimage to a resort there in the ’50s. It’s beautiful and loving and just a little interminable.
Yet this is not a complaint, not exactly. If the streaming revolution is going to reduce every show to a plotless ramble through an alternate world, why not this one? Why not ship off to the Catskills for a few episodes? And then visit Paris for a few more? Or, put another way, does a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel need to be anything more than warm and entertaining?
Mrs. Maisel’s second season repeats a lot of the first season, but with higher production values
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is so evidently the work of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino that the closing credits listing her name in each episode function almost as an acknowledgment of the obvious.
Sherman-Palladino, one of TV’s most distinctive writers and directors, is still perhaps best known for her seven-season WB/CW series Gilmore Girls. (She left the show after its sixth season ended in 2006 but returned for a short follow-up Netflix miniseries in 2016.) Between Gilmore and Mrs. Maisel, she made the wonderful one-season ABC Family series Bunheads and a variety of pilots that were passed on by networks.
Suddenly, with Mrs. Maisel, she’s at the center of the TV conversation — as she should be — winning Emmys and becoming the single most important producer at Amazon, whose streaming service is perpetually in turmoil yet can smooth over many of its problems thanks to the success of this one show, which at least anecdotally seems to have caught on with audiences as well as critics and awards voters.
Riding high on all that praise, season two essentially affords Sherman-Palladino the chance to make the most Amy Sherman-Palladino show of all time. There are whole scenes that exist solely because they’re beautiful, including a handful of gorgeous dance sequences set in Paris, complete with mist rolling in off the Seine and the streetlights glowing in the fog.
She rarely drops out of wide shots that are as meticulously designed and framed as anything Wes Anderson has come up with, and she’s fond of long tracking shots that follow characters through busy, bustling environments. (When she does leave the wide shots behind, it’s typically for disappointing shot/reverse-shot conversation scenes that make me wish she’d find a way to shoot people sitting down as vibrantly as she shoots people in motion.) Long sections of every episode play out as elaborate farce, giving those wide shots the feeling of theater, of watching great actors get their hooks into a big, funny comedic catastrophe.
And the show is thrillingly and specifically Jewish. If you’re not Jewish — and no, I’m not — the show opens a window into not just a very particular religious culture but a very specific time period in that culture. Mrs. Maisel is the kind of series that will simply sit back and feature a large section of a Yom Kippur service. Sure, there are jokes interspersed, but the scene is a loving evocation of a specific place, time, and culture.
But all this obscures, ever so slightly, just how little story or tension exists within the show. Whenever Midge gets up on the standup comedy stage, her scenes are electrifying. Brosnahan is never better than when she’s tearing through this material, and Sherman-Palladino is terrific at finding new ways to tell stories about Midge both succeeding and bombing (and sometimes bombing by succeeding, in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t particularly want to hear her lacerating takes on the men who will always regard her as a cutesy-faced sideshow).
But also, the zip and tension that the standup scenes provide are absent in many of the show’s other plot lines. On the plus side, season two delves into the ways the Weissman marriage has frayed over their decades of being together, giving both Shalhoub and Hinkle meaty material to play around with while not going to the too-easy place of having them wonder if they should stay married or anything like that.
But on the negative side, there’s a whole lot of Joel (Michael Zegen), Midge’s ex-husband, who left her in the series’ pilot and precipitated her unlikely comedy career. It’s never clear why Joel is still so present in the story, beyond the oft-teased reconciliation between him and Midge (which would, to be fair, be well within the screwball roots of the show). And his plots are a snooze, frequently sapping the show of its momentum.
Also a momentum sapper: Many, many, many of the conflicts, especially those stemming from Midge’s family not knowing about her standup career, are repeats from season one that are steadily deflating as the season begins, but which the show prolongs simply to keep them around. There are only so many stories that can be told about Midge’s comedy career getting off the ground, and Mrs. Maisel is already scraping up against the number of ways she can fail but still succeed without utterly destroying the show’s narrative.
Now, Sherman-Palladino and her husband and closest collaborator Palladino have never particularly cared about narrative convention so much as they have about crafting elaborate alternate worlds for viewers to move into. I have no problem with this — I would very much enjoy living in Mrs. Maisel’s Technicolor wonderland — but there are so many times in season two (of which I’ve seen seven of the 10 episodes) where I wonder just what the series is nostalgic for.
Mrs. Maisel sells a worry-free version of 1959. That’s cool, but also, is it?
In one of season two’s most ridiculous scenes, Midge and her new love interest Benjamin (Zachary Levi, an actor I have literally never understood until this season of television, which makes him the debonair romantic hero he apparently always was) visit a little cafe that’s swarming with ’50s counterculture figures, from Jane Jacobs to Declan Howell. It’s a little like those scenes in the movie Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson winds up in the ’20s and just immediately starts hanging out with F. Scott Fitzgerald and friends.
To her credit, I think Sherman-Palladino knows the scene is a bit of a goof, and that Midge would be less interested in the truly iconoclastic things her fellow cafe patrons are saying than in the idea that hanging out with them makes her a bit of a scandalous rebel.
There is some part of Mrs. Maisel that understands that Midge can embark on a standup career on a whim because she’s a child of wealth and privilege, and Sherman-Palladino has always understood that screwball comedy is most effective when it simultaneously presents a funhouse mirror reflection of the American class system. (Gilmore Girls was particularly good at understanding how money can make one completely oblivious to the concerns of anybody who doesn’t have it.)
And yet these scenes can’t help but clash with the show’s swooning nostalgia. Mrs. Maisel is at once in love with 1959 New York and hoping to critique it, and the show rarely manages that tightrope walk as well as it might.
After all, Midge’s standup career would be so scandalous to her family that she tries to keep it a secret, while her manager Susie (Alex Borstein, pitch-perfect) exists in a space wholly outside of ’50s-prescribed female gender roles. But Mrs. Maisel relies on those exact gender roles to make its screwball comedy go. It is always trying to eat its cake and have it too, and then order even more cake.
Mrs. Maisel does manage the tightrope walk an astonishing amount of the time, especially in the standup scenes, which bristle with vituperation at a whole industry that would assume men are funnier than women as a way to excuse unfunny men. But it’s also a show that can never quite see past its own blinders on anything that doesn’t relate to a 1950s battle of the sexes. It knows issues around race and class exist. It even knows that issues around religion exist. But it never knows what to do with them, because it needs them to remain off camera, so that it might construct a more perfect, candy-coated world.
And, again, I wouldn’t mind living in that candy-coated world, despite its obliviousness. But I want to live there because I would be Joel or Midge, somebody who has everything they need and can fail over and over and over again in the pursuit of something as silly as a dream. It is deeply unfair to criticize Mrs. Maisel for what it is not, because what it is is so fanciful and fun.
The series becoming a harangue about how the ’50s were bad, actually, would be at odds with everything else it’s trying to do, and sometimes it’s fun to imagine being so rich that you can just give up your life and run to Paris for months at a time. There is a certain amount of escapism in thinking about a life where your problems are mostly about finding a way to carve out the most comfortable position possible in your established rung of the social order. What’s more, the kind of farcical screwball comedy that makes Mrs. Maisel work is reliant on an established social order.
Yet constantly in season two, the show itself seems on the verge of understanding the problems inherent in never questioning your rung, of saying, “Actually, some of this wasn’t all that great,” but it always stops itself just in time to bite into another elaborately constructed confection. It can’t stop itself from indulging, but it knows it shouldn’t, maybe, like an overstuffed binge viewer. You’ll watch and watch and watch, then maybe wonder why you feel a little bit sick in the end.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is streaming on Amazon.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff