Film & Television

Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Embarrassingly Good

As I sat down to write this, I was trying to decide how to describe Amazon’s new original series. The phrase that kept repeating in my mind was “an embarrassment of riches.” It truly is just that. The show is a feminist tale of reinvention. It’s set in 1958 New York and the costumes, sets and art direction are as precise and fascinating as Mad Men’s were to us ten years ago. The script is brisk and smart and filled with vintage cultural allusions. The star is an extraordinarily talented young woman and she’s surrounded by a world-class supporting cast.

And the comedy? Well, if you like stand-up, you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t particularly like stand-up (I confess I never have), you’ll acquire a new appreciation for it.

As I said, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an embarrassment of riches.

As the series opens, Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s life is also an embarrassment of riches, but she’s not exactly embarrassed by it. A precocious young woman, she convinced her parents to let her go to (“that goyishm school”) Bryn Mawr. She worked hard, did well, then fell for Joel Maisel. They married, and now have two children and a to-die-for classic six on the upper westside. Her beauty regimen includes curlers and cold cream (after Joel’s asleep), and she records her (proportional) measurements in a little journal every day. Her biggest thrill is planning the perfect Yom Kippur dinner for twelve “including the rabbi!” Evenings, she and Joel leave the kids with her parents (who live right upstairs) and travel down to Greenwich Village where she bribes a club owner (with brisket) to give Joel a decent slot in the open mic line-up. Joel does stand-up and Midge takes notes which they review together in the cab home.

If this all sounds exhausting, not to worry. Midge loves her life.

Until it all changes.

Joel, you see, is having an affair with his secretary, one “Penny Pan,” who probably didn’t go to Bryn Mawr (she finds the new pencil sharpener a bit of a challenge). After he flops at the comedy club one night (Midge has convinced him to use his own material rather than Bob Newhart’s), he leaves. “What did you do wrong?” Midge’s parents ask her. “Put your face on and go get him back.”

The thing is, after much tsuris — and an entire bottle of Manischewitz — Midge realizes that maybe she doesn’t want him back. (She really doesn’t.) She also realizes that maybe she’s a better comedian than he was. (She really is.) And the rest of the series follows her adventures rebuilding a life and launching a career. The result is genuinely touching and terribly funny.

Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino knows from funny. Her father was a stand-up comic of the “Borscht Belt” era. “I grew up listening to Mel Brooks and all of that Jewish rhythm,” she explains. “What I love about the Jewish community is that it was very combative and very verbal.” Her previous productions, the enormously successful Gilmore Girls as well as the fan-favorite Bunheads, leveraged rapid-fire dialogue and humor, but in a decidedly gentile setting. The Jewishness of Mrs. Maisel is central to the story and a huge part of the fun. Still, Sherman-Palladino insists that the new series isn’t a Jewish story, per se. “It’s a story about a particular girl who comes from this family. We played into the [schtick] because it’s where Midge’s humor is coming from.”

Wherever it’s coming from, it works.

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