Rachel Brosnahan brings to vivid life a 1950s-era housewife who has it all in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino has a new TV series, and it’s about a comedian; but I repeat myself.
The characters of all Sherman-Palladino’s series (“Gilmore Girls,” “Bunheads”) are amateur comic savants, quick-witted, their bon mots rattling like ice in a cocktail shaker. So it only makes sense that one of them — a 1950s Manhattan housewife, in the charming “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” released Wednesday on Amazon — would eventually turn pro.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) has it all, at least as 1958 defines “it all”: An Upper West Side apartment big enough to house a Macy’s parade float. A husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), a businessman and aspiring comic with whom she spends nights out in hepcat Greenwich Village. Well-to-do parents, living in the same building, the better to watch her two adorable kids on said nights out.
Midge tears through life like an efficient tornado. She sees perfection as her job, be it throwing the perfect Yom Kippur break-the-fast dinner, stage-managing Joel’s comedy dreams (down to bribing the club booker with homemade brisket) or maintaining her figure — which she has measured, systematically, every day for 10 years.
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But the wages of perfection, it turns out, is bupkis. When Joel realizes his talent doesn’t match his ambition, he blames Midge and leaves her for his secretary. (His dalliances, it turns out, are as unoriginal as his act.) She finds herself, despondent and drunk, grabbing the mic on the stage of the Gaslight Café and unburdening herself with a bitter, risqué monologue.
She kills. Midge, it turns out, can do what Joel did better, in heels and bearing a brisket.
And Brosnahan brings her alive from the opening minutes, a vivacious set-piece in which she gives the toast at her own wedding.
Like “Gilmore Girls,” with its snow-globe idyll of Stars Hollow, “Mrs. Maisel” takes place in a state of mind. Here, it’s a stylized Neverland New York City, from its upscale uptown Jewish life to set-dressed downtown Bohemianism. The colors pop, the hats are spectacular, even a ladies’ calisthenics class (complete with springy chest expanders) turns into a kind of comic ballet.
Not for nothing, Midge’s stand-up is actually funny, though more in a raw, conversational way than a setup-and-joke way. Writing credible comedy within a comedy can be the downfall of this kind of show, as Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” recently proved.
Sherman-Palladino spreads the character largesse around. Midge finds an unlikely advocate in Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), a rough-edged comedy manager who sees in her the next Mort Sahl. Midge’s father, Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub), is an amusingly huffy patriarch outraged by Joel’s betrayal of his daughter.
Joel, meanwhile, emerges as more weak and lost than despicable; he’s a heel, but an Achilles one. The light opera of bickering between Abe and Joel’s father, Moishe (Kevin Pollak), is worth the cover charge alone. In word and deed, “Mrs. Maisel” is expansive and expressive. It talks with its hands.
The early episodes — Amazon sent four for review — fall into something of a rut, finding ways to reprise the pilot’s climax by landing Midge in front of a microphone to deliver an unplanned monologue. (In one case, she does stand-up at a Jane Jacobs rally in Washington Square Park.) But the dynamic suggests a longer arc: can Midge channel her unpredictable eruptions of talent into a polished act — and thus, an alternative to her not-so-perfect-after-all life — without losing the passion that drives her?
Midge is like a sardonic Hulk; she gets hurt, she gets angry and her superpower bursts forth. Now, she has to learn to control it.
Seen in this light, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not simply a period piece. It’s a superhero story. Only this time, the protagonist’s object is not to save the world but to find a place in it: to stand up for herself by doing stand-up for herself.