On the rainy night before Yom Kippur, Midge Maisel stumbles onto the stage of a dinky Greenwich Village comedy club, the Gaslight Theatre, drunk off of Manischewitz wine, wearing only a frilly slip below her bell coat. Midge, emboldened by drink and rage, rants about her husband, Joel, an advertiser who moonlights as a stand-up comedian and who has just left her for his secretary, a woman confused by pencil sharpeners. Then Midge pulls down her slip to demonstrate “what he will be missing,” and gets arrested. Now she has a rap sheet, but also a new ambition: to become a stand-up comedian.
In the world of television, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a jewel-toned anomaly. Unlike the simultaneously slick and grainy fast-paced sci-fi shows or high-budget superhero series that dominate much of this season’s programming, “Mrs. Maisel” is relatively conservative when it comes to sets and plot points. But, of course, “Mrs. Maisel” is not really made for TV. It was released by Amazon as a eight-part streamable series, and the show’s cinematic presence and delicate character construction is in good company with other shows tailor-made for binge-watching. It has the same sweeping shots as “Big Little Lies,” immaculate costuming as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and commitment to color coordination as “The House of Cards.” Fans of the series, as well as some critics, have speculated that the show may do for Amazon what “The House of Cards” did for Netflix, and what “The Handmaid’s Tale” did for Hulu—bring Amazon Originals into the big league competition of its fellow streaming services.
As the reviews and critics have noted, there is reason for hope. The characters are well-dressed, and even more well-fleshed out. The humor cuts quickly and deeply, and the banter has the same buoyancy and ease as real conversation. Its presence, humour, and of course, mid-century setting bears resemblance to AMC’s iconic series, “Mad Men.” And, in some ways, “Mrs. Maisel” is an apt comparison. Joel Maisel, Midge’s corporate husband, has the same hairline and man-child mannerisms as Pete Campbell from “Mad Men,” and Midge has the same frantic energy and wit as Trudy Campbell. That is, they would parallel this “Man Men” couple if Pete moonlighted as a comedian in a moth-eaten, slightly too-tight turtleneck while Trudy bribed a café’s owner with homemade brisket served in a flowered Pyrex.
And, for reasons similar to Mad Men, “Mrs. Maisel” strikes a chord of resonance that rings especially true in a time where the ugly underbelly of abuse by entertainment moguls is finally garnering well-deserved attention. Near the end of the season, Midge procures a spot opening for Sophie Lennon, a beloved comedian known for her warmth and self-deprecating jokes that she serves with a Bronx accent, messy hair, tattered clothing, and a defeated expression. Lennon invites Midge over to her house, and, as it turns out, her whole act is a ruse. Lennon performs in fat suits and wigs, but she lives in an upscale townhouse and speaks with elocution, poise, and more than a drop of entitlement. Her on-stage character is a complete construction. “Men don’t want to laugh at you, they want to fuck you,” Sophie Lennon says to Midge as they sip tea in the “Green Room” of her exuberant townhouse. Her words are not anachronistic, and the loose inspiration for Sophie Lennon, comedian Phyllis Diller, who performed a similar act, confessed to wearing loose clothing purposely to cover her body. Midge viciously takes down Sophie Lennon’s hypocrisy in another red-faced rant at The Gaslight Café.
Her tirade earns her a spot on the blacklist of cafés and bars, and, not for the first time in the show’s series, her career is cut short. In fact, the show might sometimes frustrate its viewers with just how difficult it is for Midge, whom we know is brilliant, to secure the success she deserves. The show never strikes a sour or frightening note, but Midge’s success as a female comic is not entirely assured, and this is due in equal parts to her gender and her occasional inability to read the room.
Sexualization in the entertainment business is not something that phased itself out with bell-shaped coats and flowered Pyrex, but neither did the sort of skepticism that Midge faces when she actually steps on stage. “You can’t go up there and be a woman. You’ve got to be a thing,” Lennon reminds Midge as she sucks on a lemon. Once again, her words are neither anachronistic, nor belonging to a bygone era.
In 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens penned a controversial Vanity Fair article entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Without a satirical edge, he argues that this phenomena has to do with a variety of factors, including the unyielding cheerfulness of the female sex as well as its members’ tendency to dumb down their intelligence for the opposite sex. He acknowledges that there are funny female comedians, although most of them are “dykish, Jewish, hefty or a combination of the two.” Still, he maintains, they are, for the most part, not funny, and neither are women. We can write the Christopher Hitchens piece off as an aberration, maybe. And, since 2007, the field of comedy has shifted. Indeed, his argument that female comedians are somehow genetically and socially programed to be less amusing bears less credibility in a world where female comedians thrive. Amy Poehler, Mindy Kailing, Tina Fey, and Amy Schumer are funny, and they have the awards, ratings, and bank account balances to prove it.
Even so, we have returned to Hitchens’ piece time and time again, and many see legitimacy in his argument, despite the number of female comedians with specials on Netflix. Why, then, are women still considered less amusing then men? The answer could look something like this: female comedians may be funny, but women, usually, are not. When a woman is allowed to have a microphone on stage, or given a show that’s has an upbeat, plucky theme song denoting it as a comedy show, a skeptical viewer is prepped to anticipate laughs. However, one of the big successes of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the way in which Midge’s life off-stage is just as funny as her life on-stage—or even, I’d argue, more funny. And her mother and her manager-cum-best-friend, Suzie, are just as dynamic and witty as Midge herself.
And it is certainly worth discussing that “Mrs. Maisel” is also unique in its treatment of Jewish protagonists, especially some living directly after WWII. It is a rarity to see almost exclusively Jewish lives portrayed on screen, and even more rare to see a Jewish family that is complex, realistic, and generally happy, and portrayed in a way that doesn’t rely on the stereotypes of the overbearing Jewish mother. Any piece of media about Jews during the ‘40s or ‘50s is typically bound to be wrapped up in WWII and their genocide.
This is not to say that The Holocaust is of no concern to American Jewry, nor is it to say that the Holocaust does not come up; it is and it does, often in jokes that somehow manage to land gracefully and inoffensively. However, it is to say that Hitler’s mustachioed face does not lurk ominously behind the shoulders of the Midge and her family. Midge’s sister in law, a non-Jew who is desperate to earn the affection of her brother’s parents gushes about how great the couple’s tenth trip to Israel was and produces a giant mezuzah that Midge comments, “looks like it ate the other mezuzahs.” Before Midge is given jail time for her indecent exposure incident, she gets so fed up with the judge’s sexist language that she releases a tirade against him that ends with “and Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs were framed.” The next shot is of her sitting in jail.
Multiple stints in jail, however, do not damper Midge’s spirits, and the show’s tone is unfailingly upbeat, though not saccharine. In an interview with Refinery29, the show’s creator, Sherman-Palladino, says that “the story I really wanted to do was the story of a woman in the ’50s who didn’t hate her life.” Despite Joel’s infidelity, Midge’s frustration in trying to succeed in an industry where the odds are stacked very much against her, and occasional spats with her parents, Midge doesn’t face the cards she has been dealt with a grim, self-deprecating determination, nor does she hate her life. Instead, Midge never loses confidence, never apologizes, and channels her anger into comedy, and accrues more success on her first try on stage than her joke-stealing, faux-beatnik husband could ever muster. The show’s victorious perception of femininity—in all of the main female characters—is a welcome one. The unapologetic confidence of Midge and exuberant attitude of the show can be summed up in the first song off of its soundtrack, “A Wonderful Day Like Today”: “I defy any cloud to appear in the sky, dare any raindrop to pop in my eye.”
“Mrs. Maisel” walked away with two awards at the Emmys, one going to the shows front woman Rachel Brosnan, the other awarded to the show for best comedy or musical. It has an impressive 4.9 stars on Amazon, and the sort of traction it is getting online mirrors that of more popular, established shows. Amazon has, of course, guaranteed “Mrs. Maisel” a second season. While the show’s ultimate popularity is still to be decided, its future, for now, is assured.