The sixth episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Three opens with an impressive piece of choreography. We are looking down on a swimming pool as a group of beautiful women swim and dance together (to the tune of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain) in perfect unison, like a number out of a movie musical from the Thirties.
But something’s not quite right about it. The area around the pool is virtually empty (a rehearsal?), and even if it were packed with awestruck hotel guests, the number is designed so that many of the most impressive bits would only be visible to someone watching it the way we are: on TV, with the benefit of cameras that can film from every angle, above and below the water. Eventually, we see that the synchronized swimmers do, in fact, have an audience: Midge Maisel, who has been asleep on a pool chair and is awakened by their ruckus. She scoops up her high heels and staggers away in the harsh morning light, but not before kicking a beach ball at the swimmers, toppling a pyramid of them like so many bowling pins.
That, unfortunately, is how a lot of Season Three feels: a lot of energy and fancy footwork that often makes no sense, and that can inspire the audience to want to fire a beach ball at the screen after a while.
Much of the season follows Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) as they go on tour with dashing singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain). Susie’s attention is soon divided by her new, more famous, and more demanding client, Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch), a bawdy comic who wants to prove her dramatic bona fides by starring in a Broadway production of Miss Julie. Similarly, the season’s attentions are divided between the women at work — where Mrs. Maisel has by far been its strongest — and the large cast of characters left behind in New York.
Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband and creative partner Daniel Palladino seem determined to shield their charming heroine from conflict whenever possible. This makes the tour sequences upbeat — particularly whenever the great Sterling K. Brown turns up as Shy’s imposing manager Reggie — but dramatically inert. Midge briefly runs into trouble when her first casino gig opening for Shy bombs, and… almost immediately figures out how to do better. There’s a bit of tension between Midge and Susie over her management of Sophie — which, like a lot of Midge’s behavior, reflects worse on her than the Palladinos seem to realize (they’ve long had blind spots for their main characters’ more selfish traits, going back to Gilmore Girls) — but that’s resolved quickly, too. Susie develops a gambling problem and loses all of Midge’s tour earnings on a boxing bet, but she recovers the money by staging an insurance fire, and Midge never even finds out about it.
Still, the showbiz sequences not only put the focus on the show’s most sympathetic character in Susie, they manage to crackle with energy without seeming to sweat. Scenes on the home front, on the other hand, are distressingly sweaty. Very little that happens back in New York (or during a brief jaunt to Oklahoma for Midge’s mother Rose, played by Marin Hinkle) makes sense except as an excuse for the Palladinos to give their talented supporting players something to do. The struggle is made literal in the attempt by Midge’s father Abe (Tony Shalhoub) to find a new purpose in life after impulsively quitting his cushy job as a Columbia professor. He spends a while helping a group of hypocritically freeloading beatniks try to get a left-wing newspaper off the ground, then somehow winds up with a job as a theater critic after running into a blacklisted playwright friend (Jason Alexander) on a trip to Miami. Nothing he does remotely fits the character Shalhoub was playing when the series began. Rose, meanwhile, gives up her lucrative trust fund after feeling disrespected by her oil baron brother Oscar (Paul Adelstein), which perhaps makes sense in the moment but grows increasingly implausible as the loss of two income streams forces the family to move in with their rowdy, uncouth former in-laws Moishe (Kevin Pollak) and Shirley (Caroline Aaron). (Over and over, the show makes clear that Rose requires a certain degree of peace and creature comforts, and that she would swallow her pride and take the family money again to get them.)
The Palladinos’ trademark rat-a-tat banter doesn’t lend itself well to the binge-release model, a problem that becomes particularly acute in these domestic portions of the show. Taken in weekly isolation, a scene where Abe and Rose debate whether dead dogs galumph or canter might be clever. In close proximity to a dozen similar scenes of Midge’s parents being baffled by their surroundings, their daughter, or each other, it’s exhausting. As a result of their modest new circumstances, Abe and Rose spend much of the season rightfully grimacing at Moishe and Shirley’s loud (in every sense) behavior; you will quickly empathize.
Almost by default, the best part of the home front scenes this season involves Midge’s ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen), who tended to be the biggest drag on the first two years. The season periodically hints at the Midge/Joel reconciliation we all know is coming before the series ends, but it never quite happens — not even after they drunkenly get remarried when he stops by the Vegas leg of the tour. Instead, Joel is largely siloed in a subplot about starting his own nightclub in Chinatown, where he begins dating Mei (Stephanie Hsu), the mysterious but charming local fixer who knows much more about what’s happening in the building than Joel does. Zegen seems more comfortable opposite Hsu (who’s a natural at the Palladino dialogue) than he does with Brosnahan, and there’s also not the ugly romantic history that Joel and Midge share. His scenes now being showbiz-adjacent also makes it easier to work in Midge, like when she performs an impromptu set during the club’s opening night.
Plotting has never been Sherman-Palladino’s first, or fifth, or maybe even twentieth concern in writing her shows. But even by her usual standards, Maisel Season Three feels incoherent. Big ideas — Joel and Midge remarry! Rose resents Midge’s career! — are introduced and then largely ignored. Gilmore Girls alum Liza Weil pops up as a member of Shy’s touring band, and it seems she will be showing Midge a different side of being a woman in the business, but nothing ever comes of it. Midge has a conversation with ex-fiancé Benjamin (Zachary Levi) about abruptly breaking off their engagement (a season after she should have), but it leads nowhere, because Midge is a static character who grows a bit as a performer but not as a human. The series keeps tiptoeing up to a real Midge/Rose argument, then backing away: Rose is blackout drunk when she finally sees one of her daughter’s comedy sets, and then Midge has to cancel the next night’s set to help Shy deal with a personal crisis. The season briefly acknowledges the complications that a closeted black musician like Shy would face at the start of the Sixties. But even that turns out to just be a plot device to give Midge a professional difficulty to navigate. (She alludes too strongly to Shy’s sexual orientation while opening for him at the Apollo, then gets fired from the tour’s European leg as a result.)
The moments when Maisel works — Midge on stage, Susie learning how to speak up for herself, the two of them trading insults as they scramble from job to job — are delightful enough to overwhelm the series’ many tics and useless subplots. It’s getting harder, though, not to think of how much better the show would be if it tossed aside a large chunk of the supporting cast.
Still, even this frustrating season had one absolutely perfect sequence — the one leading up to Midge being asleep in the pool chair. Late in the fifth episode, Midge’s mentor Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) invites her to hang out with him for a night in Miami. He has her crash his appearance on a thinly-disguised version of Playboy’s Penthouse, where they pretend to be either spouses or siblings (or possibly both), to the consternation of the show’s Hugh Hefner-ish host. Then he takes her out to a Cuban nightclub for dinner and dancing, before they wind up at the seaside motel where he’s been living. Lenny invites Midge into his room. She stops at the door, asks him for his opinion of her act (“I thought it was sensational,” he says), then opts to take a cab home rather than taking their relationship to a different place. Lenny is gracious in defeat, joking that maybe something will happen between them “before I’m dead,” and Midge heads off smiling.
At some point, the show needed to acknowledge the scorching chemistry between Brosnahan and Kirby. There were just a few problems getting in the way. First is that Lenny Bruce is a very real and tragic figure whose death comes only a few years after his fictionalized self makes that joke in his motel room doorway. The second is that the series obviously sees Midge and Joel as endgame, even though he’s a lox. The third is that Lenny makes Midge’s career possible, so her sleeping with him risks casting her professional rise in an unsavory light. The scene smartly takes place after Midge is established enough in the comedy world that she no longer needs Lenny’s help, and it admits that the two are great together without letting them do anything about it. It’s just a taste — a delicious taste — but all that we ever should have gotten.
Lenny and Midge’s stop at the nightclub features another of the season’s many musical numbers — and another choreographed in a way that would only make sense to the TV viewer. (The club is laid out so that maybe two patrons would be able to see the singer and his dancers most of the time.) Both Palladinos have become assured directors over the years — for all the praise their dialogue gets, Maisel is better directed than it is written — and it’s clear how much they love staging these elaborate sequences. It seems as if Sherman-Palladino wants to make a full-on musical, and for now is shoehorning that desire into a show where characters can only burst into song if they’re performing onstage. But she’d be great at doing a more traditional kind, as the genre tends to gloss over plot and character-logic questions that she and her husband don’t care much about. Midge frequently points out that she can’t sing, but going 100-percent musical might help cover for the many ways that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is increasingly off-key.