Midway through the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the eponymous heroine, Fifties Jewish housewife-turned-comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) tells her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) that she’ll be spending the summer with her family at a resort in the Catskills. Susie is aghast about losing two months’ worth of potential bookings, as well as whatever momentum Midge has built up in the fickle and female-unfriendly comedy world, but Midge seems utterly unconcerned. But when an opportunity presents itself for Midge to get back on the Revlon counter at her department store day job after a recent demotion, she all but sprints the 100 miles back to Manhattan. Susie, who has temporarily moved upstate to hunt for local gigs for Midge, is not pleased.
“I thought, ‘What’s a real shit move someone like Miriam Maisel could pull?'” she snarls, explaining how she figured out her only client had skipped town without even telling her.
That Midge is so much more invested in the makeup counter at B. Altman than in furthering her stand-up ambitions is a key part of her character arc in the Emmy-winning Amazon dramedy’s second season. (It debuts Wednesday; I’ve seen five of the 10 episodes.) For a variety of reasons — including the bitterness of her estranged husband Joel (Michael Zegen) over her success at his dream job, as well as her fear of parents Abe (Tony Shalhoub) and Rose (Marin Hinkle) finding out about the filthy things she says on stage — Midge does not seem as hungry to make a name for herself as she was at the end of Season One.
And by the time of Susie’s angry phone call, it’s hard not to feel similarly exasperated by Midge’s reluctance to do the thing she’s best at — and at The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for repeating that flaw on a larger scale.
The first season found Midge stumbling ass-backwards into comedy after being abandoned by her cheating, joke-stealing, loser husband. She got on stage and told impromptu, profane stories about her own life and was instantly great at it. The greatest miracle of Brosnahan’s performance, coupled with the writing of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, is that Midge was utterly believable as a natural comic. (Lots of actors can carry a tune well enough to play singers; few can deliver a stand-up monologue with the skill and verve of the genuine article.) And her gift behind the microphone offered a way out of the trap Joel had laid by marrying her, having kids with her(*) and then stepping out on her. Here was not only a potential career but an entirely new way of thinking about herself. The show often played fast and loose with the inner workings of the profession — Midge learns that she has to craft a tight set rather than improvising every night, then winds up improvising most of the time anyway, presumably so Amazon subscribers won’t hear the same jokes again and again — yet she’s so radiant, so alive when she performs that we want success for her almost as much as she does. Mrs. Maisel the comedian is who Midge was always meant to be, even if it took a traumatic event for her to realize it.
(*) The show treats Midge’s young son Ethan and baby daughter Esther as glorified props for whom childcare is available round the clock, even if all the adult members of the family are out doing things at the same time. Most TV shows do this, but it feels particularly glaring in one about a newly-single mother who is trying an unconventional career to support the children she now has to raise on her own. And it’s even more distracting this season: In the first Catskills episode, the family is so excited to be back at the resort and catching up with old friends that they completely forget they’ve left Esther in the back seat of the car on a warm summer day for a long time — and it’s played as a joke!
Season One concluded with Midge performing a potentially career-launching set promoted by her famous friend Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), leaving the impression that we’d come right back to see how she might capitalize on that showcase. There’s some of that here and there in the new episodes, like Midge suffering the double standard of being mocked by the male comics at a bigger club, then told that she shouldn’t do the same to them. And when that happens, or when it’s simply Brosnahan and Borstein swapping the trademark, rat-a-tat patter of Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, Mrs. Maisel still purely sings. But the new season has a lot more on its mind both for Midge and for the ensemble as a whole, and it keeps getting distracted from the stand-up as much as she does.
Much of the first two episodes were filmed on location in Paris, for instance, where Rose flees, much to the surprise of Abe and Midge. You can tell that Sherman-Palladino had a lot of fun directing those scenes — much of them, like a lot of the series, done in long, fluid takes to give you a dizzying but concrete sense of place and time — but as a writer she never creates enough dramatic necessity for the continental shift. There’s one memorable scene where Midge finds herself onstage at a French drag club, doing her act while an American expat translates for her, but even that’s mostly coasting on the goodwill of Brosnahan’s performance. (After a minute or two of second-hand jokes, the crowd would almost certainly start hooting for the drag queens to dance again.) Once Midge is back in New York for the second episode, the Paris interludes with Abe and Rose feel even more self-indulgent, despite how simultaneously good and ridiculous Tony Shalhoub looks in a beret. (In another episode, he wears a romper. A great sport is Tony Shalhoub.)
Still, that’s the kind of favor a successful awards magnet of a show often calls in around this point in its lifespan, and the Paris scenes all look lovely. More worrisome is the way the Palladinos find the non-showbiz characters — Joel in particular — as interesting as Midge and Susie. On Gilmore Girls, they also tended to fall a little too in love with ancillary characters, and/or to become blind to the flaws of more major players, so it’s not shocking that Joel remains prominent despite being so dull on top of his betrayal of his wife and kids. But it’s still dismaying that the show devotes so much time to him, particularly in stories utterly disconnected from Midge(*). There’s a scene during the Catskills interlude where they wind up on the dance floor together that’s clearly meant to be romantic and emotionally fraught, but it’s not because he’s so useless. On Gilmore Girls, Sherman-Palladino had a similar weakness for having Lorelai fall back in with Rory’s father Christopher, despite their relationship being so toxic. But Christopher was at least charming; Joel isn’t, yet the scales never seem to quite fall off Midge’s eyes when she looks at him.
(*) Though this at least means a lot more time for Joel’s dad Moishe, played by Kevin Pollak. Pollak’s not only a natural with the dialogue, but is a Jewish actor on a show dripping with chicken soup and matzoh balls, even as many prominent roles are played by people (including Brosnahan, Shalhoub, and new recurring guest star Zachary Levi) who can pass for Jewish but aren’t.
Rose and Abe are more sympathetic figures, meanwhile, but there’s often a sense that family subplots are there to give Hinkle and national treasure Shalhoub things to do (and maybe get Shalhoub the Emmy he didn’t win this year), rather than adding compelling shading to Midge’s world. They have funny moments because the writing is sharp and Hinkle and Shalhoub know how to play it, but it’s not until near the end of the available screeners that either of them feels like a genuine part of the story. Midge’s rationale for keeping her comedy career a secret has always been left murky at best; the wackier and more fun-loving her parents act in the new episodes, the less sense it makes that they’d flip out if they learned the truth.
The new episodes do a better job at illustrating some of the unanticipated side effects of Midge’s stand-up in her life. She curses more often in casual conversation, to the shock of those around her, and she reflexively starts slinging dirty jokes in the most inappropriate of places, like a friend’s wedding at a Catholic church. (“I’ve completely forgotten where the fucking line is,” she laments after.) So her reticence makes sense to some degree. It just minimizes the thing the show did and continues to do best. When Midge is enduring the scorn of the male comics at the new club, or when we get a montage of three different routines at three different clubs edited so that they start to feel like one big, weird monologue, Mrs. Maisel continues to feel like one of the most vibrant and vital shows around. There’s still a bounce to the scenes set outside comedy world, particularly in the visual flourishes deployed by both Palladinos when they direct: the world folding in on itself so that the tips of the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower are pointing at each other, or a hula hoop competition shot from above like an old Busby Berkeley number. (There’s always been a musicality to Sherman-Palladino’s writing, but she and Daniel shoot Mrs. Maisel as if it actually is a Fifties musical, just with banter instead of song lyrics.) The Catskills scenes are a distraction from Midge’s career, but they’re also a surreal and loving tribute to a ubiquitous part of northeastern Jewish life from this era.
But just as Midge Maisel isn’t being her best self when she’s away from the stage, so is the show that’s named after her. She needs to get back behind the mic more regularly, and soon.