All is right with the world. At least while I’m sitting down. Not just sitting down, but sitting down watching THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, the Amazon Prime comedy series that began streaming Season 2 in early December. As with many things in life, I arrived late to the party. Season 1 had already wowed audiences and critics, receiving two Golden Globes (in January) and eight Emmys (in September) before I tuned in in mid-December and ended up binge-watching both seasons. Not because I had time to spare, but because they were so irresistibly good. Because they hijacked my sometimes sinking spirits and flew them as high as the Empire State Building. From that lofty perch, a woman could face whatever twists and turns the great big looming New Year might hold. To say that it’s a comedy doesn’t adequately describe all the superlative aspects of the show. To say that stand-up comedian isn’t the kind of job that’s going to change lives is simply not true. Change is the driving force of this series. Change comes to Mrs. Maisel, and when it does, it comes to every single person in her orbit.
It’s 1958 and Miriam (Midge) Maisel has every reason to love her life as a Jewish American Princess. She’s happily married to Joel; they live in a spacious, to-die-for apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, only a few floors below her parents, who are often asked to watch–or have their maid watch–her two very young children whenever she’s out and about. Joel works in an office but wants to be a stand-up comic, and the couple frequently cabs it downtown so he can perform at The Gaslight Café. Ever-supportive Midge always brings a home-cooked brisket to bribe the manager for a better time slot for Joel. The only trouble in Paradise is that Joel is not that funny, not nearly as funny (nor as beautiful and charming) as his wife. And one night after he bombs at The Gaslight, he blames Midge and tells her their marriage is over–and that he’s been having an affair with his secretary. Distraught Midge ends up at The Gaslight to collect her brisket dish, but she starts drinking and ends up on stage. Not only is her riff on the state of her marriage very funny, but the things she says and does land her in jail. They also land her a manager, Susie Myerson, a woman who works at The Gaslight and always thought Joel was a loser.
Like I LOVE LUCY, the main character in THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL is an extremely likeable, very funny young woman. (Midge is only four years out of college; Lucy is slightly older, 30-something at the start.) Both shows are set in the 1950s, but of course I LOVE LUCY was actually filmed back then, from 1951-1957 as a half-hour comedy and then for three more seasons, until 1960, as one-hour specials. The biggest difference between Lucy Ricardo and Midge Maisel is that Lucy desperately wants to break into show business as a singer, dancer, actress (whatever works!) but has no real talent, whereas Midge is content with her privileged, stay-at-home-mom life (despite her intelligence and college degree) until Joel upends her lovely world. Lucy is married to singer/bandleader Desi, which gives her some access to the club where he performs and people in the entertainment industry, but those of us who love Lucy love her for her funny failed attempts to succeed at things she’s not good at. When Joel leaves Midge and she discovers she loves doing stand-up, it’s clear she’s a natural, and we fall in love with her ability to take whatever life throws at her and make her audiences laugh. Most people would agree that Lucy still seems very funny today, but Mrs. Maisel is a trail blazer and a woman for our times. A MeToo kind of woman, but only in the sense, I can be just as funny as you guys up on stage.
Lucy’s adventures almost always involved her side-kick and best friend, Ethel Mertz, but it’s Susie Myerson who has Mrs. Maisel’s back. Not in a friendly sort of way–Susie doesn’t want that, at least not at first–but as a person who recognizes Midge’s talent and sees it as an opportunity to climb out of her miserable, hole-in-the-wall existence. Susie is laugh-out-loud funny in a crass way, and there’s great chemistry between beautifully dressed and coifed Midge and slovenly, frequently-mistaken-for-a-man Susie (played by Alex Borstein.) Both women won Emmys for their acting.
MRS. MAISEL has a much larger ensemble cast than LUCY did, and that’s one of its many joys. Midge’s parents are Abe and Rose Weissman (Tony Shalhoub; Marin Kinkle.) He’s a brilliant, tenured Columbia professor, and she’s a middle-aged version of Midge but much more serious and less spontaneous. However, she has a buried side to her–as a young woman, she studied in Paris–and Midge’s change in circumstances (unmarried) will prompt a mid-life crisis in Rose. Which will affect oh-so-serious Abe, who’s very impressed with his own brilliance. This changes him for the better, but Midge’s stand-up act will create problems for his career, although this might not be such a bad thing in the end. Or maybe it could be. At this point, we don’t know.
There’s also estranged husband Joel, who almost immediately regrets leaving Midge. Who wouldn’t? Not that he’s about to get her back. Which makes him face the fact he hates his job, so he quits. Not to pursue stand-up, he knows he’s no good. But he is good at other things, which he will discover in time. His parents are funny, too, although not intentionally so. Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollak) owns a dress manufacturing company in the Garment District. He can be very cheap, but he needs to be. He’s saddled with some lazy, cheating employees and his wife Shirley (Caroline Aaron) is his bookkeeper, and a terrible one at that.
Eventually there’s a new boyfriend for Midge, a doctor she meets at their two-month family vacation at a Jewish resort in the Catskills. Midge and Benjamin don’t ‘meet cute’ but eventually sparks do fly between them, and it’s fun to watch, not your average courtship. There are other wonderful regular characters, but I’m going to skip to two of my favorite occasionally-recurring characters. Midge meets Lenny Bruce, the real-live comic (played by Luke Kirby), when they’re both thrown in jail on the same night. They become friends and mutual admirers. Lenny is funny, smart, handsome and wounded, and his rapport with Midge is something special. So special that I kind of want them to get together (good thing he’s not in more scenes, if that’s not supposed to happen.) Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) is a rich, highly successful stand-up comic, and she’s about to give Midge a big break until Midge does something that offends her.
If you enjoy looking at pretty clothes, Midge’s outfits (and Rose’s, too) are one more reason to look forward to every episode. And some of the scenes are so beautifully choreographed that it’s reminiscent of watching a Broadway musical. Like when Midge and her mother are standing beside two racks of clothes, choosing which outfits to bring to the Catskills. Or when Joel and his best friend discuss their woes in a green-grass park at night. They’re both slightly drunk, each with a bucket of baseballs in front of him, and they toss up the balls in sync and try to bat them out of the park. And then there’s the great background music, different each episode, that takes us back to the 50s, sung by artists like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Connie Francis, Perry Como, Dinah Washington, as well as other songs that mirror the action in the scenes, sometimes sung by more contemporary artists like Barbra Streisand and David Bowie. There’s so much to love about this show.
So, while THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL begins on a sad-note turning point–two people who really do love each other break up their marriage–the deed is now done, even if it was a mistake. How are they each going to move forward? It seems like a good question to ponder for the New Year, which will present each of us with our own unique challenges. Change comes to us all, just like it does to the characters in MRS. MAISEL.
If it’s not-so-good change, are we going to say, Yikes, let’s hide under the floorboards and try to avoid any more pain. Or, are we going to say, Let’s turn this hole in the floor into a magical portal leading to a sunnier, more color-filled future.
HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!