Updated: Mar 21, 2022
When I first saw advertisements for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it flew past my radar. I suspect that I was mostly turned off by the title as it seemed strangely formal to reference the main character by her husband’s name, thereby subjugating her identity. This, tied to the obviously 1950s era, was enough for me to ignore the show as it first gained traction. To be honest, I’m not sure why I started watching it—either because the first season won so many awards or because I finally had access to Amazon Prime (which might have been the true reason why it took me so long to jump on the Mrs. Maisel band wagon). Had I known it was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the woman behind Gilmore Girls, I probably would have worked harder on getting access to the show. That said, once I did start watching, I was hooked from the first episode.
The show centers on the character of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), who is introduced to us as the perfect 1950s, upper-class, Jewish housewife. She is able to negotiate the Upper West Side of Manhattan like a pro, using her charm to finagle the best brisket from the butcher while landing her synagogue’s rabi for the Sabbath meal despite some earlier setbacks in their relationship. When her husband, Joel (Michael Zegan), who is set on becoming a stand-up comedian, needs help landing a spot at an open mic night, she brings the club’s proprietor food. Midge is charming. She is well dressed. She is intelligent. She understands her role as housewife and mother. In this, she believes she has the world by its tail. Until that world starts crashing down. Toward the end of the first episode, Joel informs Midge that he’s been cheating on her and leaves her for his mistress. This is when Mrs. Maisel’s transformation commences.
If anything, the heart of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one woman’s journey toward autonomy. For Midge, it is the realization that she has comedic ambitions of her own. Considering that the year of her artistic awakening is 1958, she has chosen a very difficult road: her parents would not approve (if they knew), breaking into the business impacts childcare (she has two young children), Joel perceives it as direct competition, and the gatekeepers to the comedic stage dismiss her or ignore her due to her gender. If it weren’t for her agent, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), who is the first to spot Midge’s talent and encourage her to pursue stand-up comedy, Midge wouldn’t have a chance. Of course, Susie faces her own challenges as she has no agenting connections other than a mentor from a while back, she has little means and little funds, and she has no experience as an agent. On top of that, she’s very good at rubbing people the wrong way. As different as their social backgrounds are (Susie has lived on the verge of poverty for most her life while Midge has lived a life of privilege), their bond grows tighter and messier with each season.
The issue of Midge’s gender is a big one as female comedians have traditionally been viewed as “not funny,” which would have been an even larger hurdle in 1958. Although there are glimpses of women who have made it as comics in Midge’s world—Sophie Lennon, played by Jane Lynch, figures prominently—there is a sense that these women have to compromise in order to succeed, which is not foreign to female comics of a certain age. In the HBO show, Hacks, Jean Smart plays an aging comic who has been stuck in the rut of regurgitating the same routine for years until a new, young writer (Ava) shows up and tells her that she’s capable of more. For Smart’s character, Deborah Vance, her routine embraces the long running rumor that she burned down her ex-husband’s house when he left her for her younger sister roughly 35 years prior. As much as she tries to control the narrative by cashing in on her reputation as “crazy,” she has ultimately sacrificed her dignity as a woman by allowing her comedy to circle around a very old and harmful gendered stereotype. For Deborah, the trip to the top was a constant fight, especially as her career began in the early 1980s when women weren’t given as many opportunities to succeed. In the second episode of the series, she chastises Ava, saying, “You think this is hard? You got plucked off the Internet at what, 20? You just got lucky... You have to scratch and claw, and it never...ends. And it doesn't get better. It just gets harder. Don't complain to me that I'm making your life hard. You don't even know what that means” (Hacks). Though she is quite successful in terms of monetary wealth, there is a sense that Deborah Vance has lost out on the chance to say something meaningful about herself and her life. That she has lost the chance to showcase a real voice.
This need for a real voice, this understanding that comedy can transcend the punchline and meaningfully contribute to the world’s dialogue is best exemplified by the Tasmanian comic, Hannah Gadsby. When Gadsby recently won a Peabody Award for her comedy show, “Nannette”, male comedians (particularly Joe Rogan) were quick to jump on the tired stereotype by arguing that Gadsby wasn’t funny. If you’ve seen “Nannette,” you might see his point in that Gadsby’s show doesn’t generate many laughs, nor did she intend it to do so. However, the sparse number of punchlines does not diminish from her performance—it enhances a deeply raw and vulnerable insight into both Gadsby’s personal struggles and her assessment of the problems with the world as a whole. What she has created in that performance is a powerful reflection on the stories we tell about women, the abuse she experienced growing up as a lesbian in Tasmania, art in general (she has a background in art history), and how being a comedian locked her into a world where she could not heal from her own life experiences. As Gadsby explains, “Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma. I didn’t come out to my grandmother last year because I’m still ashamed of who I am. Not intellectually, but right here [points to heart], I still have shame. You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly” (“Nannette”). Gadsby uses her comedy to take the edge off the darkness of her personal history, lightening the moment just when things get too real, too intense. It is a delicate balance that she executes with finesse. Her style is not “female.” Her style is Gadsby’s. To pigeonhole her by her gender diminishes her accomplishments. Yet this is precisely what many female comics have traditionally faced.
As for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, much of the first season focuses on Midge’s exploration of her own comedic style as she attempts and fails at jokes, experiments with dress (she tends to lean towards formal attire), and determines how she wishes to identify herself professionally. Her comedic style (which was modeled after Joan Rivers) is intended as a sort of stream of consciousness insight to her thoughts, which requires heroic acting on the part of Brosnahan, who delivers long passages breathlessly and without pause. This is also Midge’s signature as a performer and much more difficult to deliver than the traditional: setup + punchline. In the end, Midge settles on calling herself “Mrs. Maisel” with each nightly sign off—thus solidifying her comedic identity. At first, this decision seems a nod to the persona she has created onstage: a “classy” woman who understands what it’s like to be a housewife and is willing to share the dirt regarding the good and bad of being a housewife, including the inclusion of blue comedy when the mood hits her. However, what we begin to see as the series unfolds is that this moniker symbolizes the tension between Midge’s professional aspirations, the woman she once was, and any hopes she might have for future relationships.
As she becomes known more and more as the comedian, Mrs. Maisel; as this name becomes further ingrained into who she wishes to be professionally, it has the potential to impact any future relationships, which I suspect weighed heavily into this creative decision on the part of the writers. Even as Midge and Joel navigate the fallout of their marriage (with surprisingly good rapport), her professional name keeps her connected to him in a way that would impact future romantic prospects, for what man, especially during the 1950s/early 1960s, would want his wife to keep the name of her ex-husband? Thus far in the series, we haven’t seen Midge come to this realization—that succeeding in her career binds her to Joel. However, we have seen her choose her career over a second chance at marriage, thus reinforcing the tension between her desire for traditional relationships (she’s still hopeful in season 4) and her desire to truly have a career. The fact that she’s been able to navigate both to any extent is a testament to the support of the people around her: Joel eventually comes around to the idea that Midge has talent, her parents eventually grow to accept her career (at times), and her in-laws seem simply happy to be part of the team. This is a necessary support system as she begins going on the road in that all three factions are willing to help out with childcare.
Beyond the tension of her name, Midge is fairly modern in her approach to the people around her. As much as she has a traditional 1950s upper class background, she has no qualms about associating with people of various races or backgrounds—be they musicians, strippers, or thugs. To her, the only truly inferior people are the comedians without talent who are constantly getting more stage time than she does because they are male. This emphasis on talent is tied to her belief that comedy is and can be an artform, which is another theme explored throughout the series. In season two, she encounters a painter named Declan Howell (Rufus Sewel) who has given up everything in pursuit of his art, so he tells her: “If you want to do something great, if you want to take it as far as it will go, you can’t have everything. You lose family, a sense of home. But then [he gestures toward his painting], look at what exists” (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). Through her interaction with Declan, Midge grows to understand that she will eventually need to sacrifice something in her pursuit of a career even as she tries valiantly to keep all the important pieces of her life together. Strangely, the one piece that doesn’t seem to fit is marriage (as mentioned previously). And the notion that a woman in the early 1960s would choose career over marriage is absolutely modern in how it’s addressed. Most importantly, we see in Midge a deep perseverance that is tied to a belief in her own talent, intense determination, and hope that she will defy Declan’s prophecy and somehow “have it all."
Combined with the stellar writing, acting, and storylines, it is this hope that makes the show worth watching, especially when there is so much going on in the world today that makes it hard to believe in a brighter future. With its cinematography, wardrobe, and sets, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is somehow able to create a bridge between nostalgia and modern-day themes. Viewing it is like sinking into a technicolor fairy tale version of the early 1960s where big issues like the threat of nuclear war seem distant and faint. In its place, we get to escape into the lives of people who struggle but somehow always come out ahead, evolving along the way. When the fifth season is released (I’m assuming early 2023), Midge Maisel’s journey will be complete. No matter how her journey ends, it is a story that is well worth the ride.