“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” might have been a critical favorite when it debuted on Amazon Prime last winter. But it's a show you might have heard of and not yet seen. Now that it's swept the 2018 Primetime Emmy Awards in comedy -- taking a total of eight wins, including best comedy, lead actress (Rachel Brosnahan), supporting actress (Alex Borstein) and best writing and directing -- it's time wider audiences catch on. Here's a primer of the eight-episode freshman season now streaming on Amazon Prime.
I love this latest from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”), about Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Brosnahan) — mother of two, married to Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) — who launches a new life and career, as a stand-up comedian, with a tough, savvy manager, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), by her side. Joel is the late-‘50s man in the gray flannel suit by day, but by night he’s also an aspiring comic. Only problem, he’s a lousy one, and also a lousy husband, who dumps Midge for his secretary. The first season ended with what seemed like a reconciliation, which was probably (or likely) short-lived. He walks out of the Village’s Gaslight Cafe in the midst of her withering act about the moment his mistress confronted her in the department store where she worked.
Of Midge, think Joan Rivers — Sherman-Palladino obviously did — but the producers had other models, too. Sophie Tucker (“Last of the Red Hot Mamas”) was a proto-stand-up, followed later by Belle Barth, Betty Walker, Totie Fields, Jean Carroll. They were Jewish-American comedians who were tough, occasionally (or frequently) profane and sure didn’t care much for uxorious pursuits. No glass ceiling or husband got in their way. They wouldn’t have dared. Brosnahan’s Midge is at the outset of who she’s destined to become, and as such, is the perfect Sherman-Palladino prototype: Tough, fragile, smart and fully alive to everything and everyone around her.
“Mrs. Maisel” is a tribute to this lost world, to their lost world, much as “Mad Men” was to the lost and dubious art of the three-martini hard sell. It’s about women wresting control of their lives from a society that wasn’t about ceding control but consolidating it. What’s on screen, front and center, is Midge’s attempt to start a new life — and future — amid the repression of the era. The show finds humor, a little pathos, and a lot of audacity in the attempt.
The series itself is a genre bender and genre blender, effective as both comedy or drama, also comedy and drama. Moreover, it’s a skillful mix of period details with thoroughly modern ones, notably Brosnahan’s performance that pushes Midge right up to the moment, specifically our moment, of empowered and powerful women on TV and in the broader culture who forge their own identities and destinies. Both show and star also succeed because neither focus on the stage comedy embedded within the show. Live stage comedy is hard enough, vastly harder in a late ‘50s period setting that can render it both dated and bland.
Meanwhile, kudos also to the Borstein, the veteran voice actor — Lois Griffin on “Family Guy” — and writer (“Family Guy,” “MADtv”) who gives “Maisel” a sharper edge and much sharper bite.