Amy Sherman-Palladino’s TV creations have always evoked a romantically vintage feel, like the beloved cozy world of Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow or the idyllic California dance setting of Bunheads. In her new Amazon series, Sherman-Palladino embraces nostalgia wholeheartedly, diving into a rose-colored mid-century period piece. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she moves past her insular small-town frames; those previous efforts are like the summer stock set pieces to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Broadway run. The new show is on a much larger scale—New York—and its protagonist Midge Maisel’s simple at-first-glance story quickly expands into its ambitious setting.
The protagonist herself expands as well. Continuing Sherman-Palladino’s penchant for fast-talking, strong-minded female leads, Rachel Brosnahan commands attention almost instantly as Midge—as she’s intended to—making a toast at her own wedding, describing her storybook past with new husband, Joel (Michael Zegen). Two kids and an Upper West Side apartment soon follow, but just when Midge thinks she has everything she ever wanted, her husband leaves her for his secretary. Adrift, she heads to the smoky club where he was trying to break into the comedy scene by “borrowing” Bob Newhart routines and drunkenly commandeers the stage. Midge shows more star quality in her debut performance than her open-mic-haunting husband ever has, and grizzled club manager Susie (Alex Borstein) climbs on board to help Midge transform from upper-middle-class Jewish housewife to comedy-circuit phenom.
That trajectory is far from linear, however, and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s main flaw is its fairly aimless ambling and timeline plotting. Joel leaves in episode one, but the next two episodes occur in an erosion-like fashion over the next couple of days. There’s an aborted break-the-fast dinner after Yom Kippur, and an immediate family make-up meal with Midge’s and Joel’s parents (played, respectively and entertainingly, by Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub, and Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron). The estranged couple’s relationship hovers around the antagonistic level, and their parents try to deal with the upheavals in their family life.
Susie’s plan to make Midge famous isn’t exactly clear, past a few typewritten business cards. Lenny Bruce (an appealingly scruffy Luke Kirby) weaves in and out of Midge’s comedy encounters like a well-worn mentor; Midge somehow finds the time to bail him out of jail the morning after Joel splits, and she winds up in jail herself (wearing an entirely different ensemble from the evening before). Not that Palladino’s previous efforts were breakneck thrillers by any means, but their momentums were stronger overall than Mrs. Maisel’s occasionally faltering speed, bolstered as they were by having more than one main character.
This main character is so engaging, though, that it’s easy to look past the glacial pace. Midge’s quick Lorelai Gilmore-style wisecracks obviously indicate that she’s a natural for the stage. Even better, the show points to the roots of the character’s stand-up material: strange, new behavior by her 3-year-old son; an offhand comment from her stern father. Anyone who’s ever mined everyday life for comedy will be able to relate, with Midge’s various inspirations offering valuable glimpses at the creative process.
Brosnahan is surrounded by a cast as strong as she is. Shalhoub is wonderfully dry as her restrained, academic father, juxtaposed by Pollak, on the other side of the spectrum, as her effusive father-in-law. Even Joel, played effectively by Zegen, garners more sympathy than he probably should. Alex Borstein—who played Sookie in the unaired Gilmore Girls pilot before recurring as surly harpist Drella and eccentric stylist Miss Celine—is probably best known for her work on MADtv and Family Guy; she comes into her own here, as the sardonic Susie, who is quickly won over by Midge’s sheer force of will and je ne sais quoi. Fellow Palladino vet Bailey De Young (née “Blonde Bunhead Bailey Buntain”) is on hand as Imogene, Midge’s best friend from her past life of domestic bliss.
Beyond the stellar cast, Mrs. Maisel works amazingly well as a period piece. Seemingly no detail is left untouched, down to the tiny cups in the kitchen cabinets, pink Pyrex cookware, overflowing ashtrays at the club, and various showy pieces of bric-a-brac. In Stars Hollow, Sherman-Palladino had such a small canvas that it’s truly impressive to see her attack this ambitious undertaking, painting a magical, colorful portrait of Manhattan circa 1958, from Riverside Drive to Greenwich Village—from the cars and the coats to the washerwomen dumping buckets out on the sidewalk. The candy-hued palettes alone are breathtaking, and if we may be perplexed by Midge’s multiple dresses and matching purses, hats, and gloves (like Lorelai, she never seems to repeat an outfit), at least we can be dazzled by them.
Through it all, Sherman-Palladino masters every setting, from an outdoor rally in the park to a night of club-hopping with Midge and Susie, as each venue makes a giant leap forward in style. Midge’s early cab ride downtown evokes an idealized movie musical as the scenery outside the cab grows more vivid; a fitness class populated by wives in pastels and divorcées in black provides the backdrop to some winningly frantic banter (and physical comedy) between Brosnahan and De Young. Sherman-Palladino also pulls off some truly impressive camerawork; while she’s always been a fan of the long shot, here the episode in which Joel leaves employs several circular flashbacks, as Midge moves seamlessly back and forth between her romance-drenched past and her forlorn present in the same scene.
Midge’s journey still seems a bit haphazard, and it’s hard to believe that as a Bryn Mawr grad she was this sheltered in her upbringing. When she enters a music store, it yields the same level of astonishment and revelation as when she wanders into a Jane Jacobs-led protest. But it’s refreshing to see a story of a woman being liberated at least a decade before the women’s movement existed. Like Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway before her (this show’s meticulous attention to postwar detail, to say nothing of Joel’s corporate office, conjures up lots of Mad Men echoes), Midge is refusing to let the fact that she’s a woman mean that she will lead an insignificant life, even though the path she was set on from birth has altered overnight. Her humorous moxie gives us a winning, funny heroine to root for within an exquisite landscape. But it’s not just Midge’s tale that’s inspirational in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; it’s also the story of her creator, Sherman-Palladino: Both women have a lot to teach us about how much can be possible if we strive without limits.
Episodic reviews by Arielle Bernstein will run every other day.