Review: ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Takes Its Time, as Fast as It Can
Posted December 4, 2018 3:32 p.m. EST
The high-class problem for a series that had an impressive first season is how to keep that momentum into the second. This is one problem that Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — the first streaming series to win the best comedy Emmy — does not have.
This show is nothing but momentum. It jabbers, it twirls, its heels click across the room. It would love to stay and chat but it’s gotta get somewhere.
The show’s delightful, exhausting spirit is turbocharged by the dialogue of the creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and embodied by its protagonist, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan), an uptown Manhattan housewife who launches a secret career as a comedian after her marriage falls apart. Brosnahan, infectiously brassy and confident, takes the scripts’ energy, torques it, and sends it careening like a top.
But also like a top, the first half of the new season, arriving in full Wednesday, covers a lot of ground while spinning back, narratively, to where it’s already been.
The first season ended with Midge giving a triumphant, confessional standup set at a downtown club. Season 2 kicks off, however, by pausing her career trajectory and jetting off to Paris. There’s a plot reason: Midge and her anxious father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), are chasing after Midge’s mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle). But also, come on: It’s Paris! “Maisel” gives the city the vivid “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” treatment, much as the show made over Manhattan as a kind of department-store-window fantasy of itself.
A few episodes later, the action relocates to the Catskills resort where Midge’s family summers. (Like you’re going to make a show about a Jewish comic in the ‘50s and not go to the Catskills.) Here, the borscht belt is the picture of glamour, the service balletic, the guests greeted with scarlet glasses of tomato juice, each with a perfectly angled celery stalk.
The art direction reflects the show’s sensibility. The series’ personal conflicts are well-grounded, but the details — the upscale Jewish New York milieu, the fashions, the repartee — are idealized. (As is parenthood; single mom Midge benefits from a wealth of convenient child care.) “Mrs. Maisel” takes place less in the 1950s than in a 2018 idea of a 1950s movie’s idea of the 1950s.
Fortunately, “Mrs. Maisel” details its characters as precisely as its scenery. Alex Borstein owns the screen as Midge’s wrecking-ball manager, Susie; Shalhoub finds both comedy and depth in the scatterbrained academic Abe. Midge’s ex, Joel (Michael Zegen), becomes more interesting as he tries to build a life without Midge, while Zachary Levi (“Chuck”), as a new love interest, adapts to the show’s conversational pace as if nimbly leaping on a moving train.
Scene by scene, the new season is a stunner. If you can enjoy it in the moment — and roll with the occasional linguistic anachronism — this season is a welcome mid-Hanukkah present.
But Midge’s larger arc often seems stalled. The season repeats many of the conflicts of the first — just how over Midge’s marriage really is, just how willing she is to change her comfortable life. There is a lot of movement here, but not necessarily a lot of progress.
There is still comedy; as in Season 1, most episodes manage to get Midge on stage for a standup set. (In Paris, that takes place in a drag club, with a French patron providing machine-gun translation.) But even as she fights to get placed in the prestigious, male-dominated Midtown comedy clubs, you get the sense that this is still half a hobby for her; she seems more concerned about getting back on the makeup counter at her department-store day job.
It’s not clear how much of this is Midge not being committed to a future as a comedian — which would mean coming clean to her family and maybe losing that art-directed good life — and how much is the series itself not knowing how to move on with her story, because it enjoys the status quo (a common second-season issue). This in turn makes it hard to know just what the stakes are: How badly does Midge need to be a comic?
Some of the season’s best early scenes come when Susie presses this point with her whirligig client. When Midge announces that she’s vacationing in the Catskills for two months, missing a summer’s worth of gigs, Susie is aghast.
For Susie, the comedy biz isn’t a lark; it’s the difference between paying the bills and being on the street, and the contrast between her and her privileged client is the splash of cold water this show sometimes needs. When Midge describes a day at her summer resort, Susie asks, “What are you, the lost Gabor sister?”
Amazon showed critics five episodes out of 10, and by the season’s midpoint, it seems as if Midge may be at a juncture where she has to decide how serious she is. In the fifth episode, she sits down with her friend and consigliere, Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), who asks her, “Do you really think you can go back to making Jell-O molds again?”
God, let’s hope not. Though I’m sure the Jell-O molds would look fantastic.