The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ended with Rachel Brosnahans Miriam Maisel—call her Midge—basking in the glory of a successful stand-up set, her apparent entrée into the world of New York comedys big leagues. The period piece from Amazon Studios tells the story of how a Jewish wife and mother conceivably could have broken into the comedy-club scene, situating an unlikely comic virtuoso in the middle of an upper-crust Jewish family on the Upper West Side. And as Midge learns in the first season, her milieu has provided her with a lot of material.
So its a bit surprising, and disorienting, when the first episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisels second season sees its leads sojourn, almost immediately, to Paris. Rose (Marin Hinkle), Midge's mother, has finally thrown in the towel on her marriage to Abe (Tony Shalhoub), and seals the deal by hopping the pond to ensconce herself in a pretty French flat—complete with a grousing landlady and un petit chien, named Simone. Or is it surprising? Amy Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed the shows first two episodes, clearly adores being in Paris—or, at least, in her squeaky-clean, romanticized version of Paris, which is crowded with well-lit brasseries, locals wearing berets, and salt-of-the-earth peasants selling cheese out of their wagons. Theres nary a tourist (or immigrant) in sight—save these nattering Weissmans, of course.
Midge, for her part, wanders into a drag cabaret and, as is her wont, starts compulsively confessing into the microphone. This time around, Midge starts by complaining about her parents. Then her thoughts take a darker turn—wandering through what the audience saw at the end of Season 1, when her possibly-soon-to-be-ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) spotted her in the midst of her comedy routine and fled, horrified by his estranged wifes tight five.
Theres a problem with all this confessing, though. Its in English, and the audience is, as we have established, very, vairy French. Fortunately for Midge, theres an interpreter in the house; unfortunately for the cabaret crowd, the translator lets Midge keep the microphone. And unfortunately for us, the audience at home, Sherman-Palladino layers Midges English act on top of and underneath the French translation. Midges monologue is so buried in the gimmick that you might miss its import entirely; I certainly did, the first time I watched it. By the end, Midge has informed the audience that her marriage is really and truly over, but amidst all the confusion, it was hard to hear.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisels first season excelled at creating an enchanting, heightened fairy tale out of New York City in the late 50s—primarily because creators Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, her husband, fashioned contradictory Midge as its lead. Life for Midge was a fairy tale, until it went off the rails; her husband left her for the secretary, she was forced to move back in with her parents, and she fell in love with the decidedly unromantic world of stand-up comedy. In Season 2, Midge is still a heroine for the ages, a woman who doesnt quite fit in her world but steadfastly refuses to admit that. Its onstage in front of an audience, that the shows title character feels empowered to express herself. Moments like these remain the shows trump card: Brosnahan is as reliable as clockwork, and the energy she brings to her character goes delightfully haywire whenever Midge is onstage, under the lights, facing down her own fears.
But as the whole of Season 2 demonstrates, the show cannot keep up with Midge. This time around, the story seems motivated less by the characters forward propulsion than by hastily sketching how to get from one fabulous set piece to the next; I am certain you can skip the first nine episodes of the season without missing a step on any of the characters personal journeys, or any major conflicts. As that extended Paris vacation proves, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel now barely has room for Midges stand-up dreams; its crowded instead with her parents marriage, her former husbands apartment anxiety, her former in-laws financial woes, and Midges fixed quest to ascend, once more, to the esteemed privilege of saleslady at the B. Altman makeup counter. And good Lord, theres so much Joel. (He left her! What is this, the Marvelous Mister Maisel? Thanks, Ill be here all night, try the veal.)
True, there is still joy in this mile-a-minute, well-heeled confection of unreal. The sets are gorgeous, the performances are excellent, and the details make for a splendid time machine. But after Season 1, I expected the show to move forward—to depict a woman increasingly frustrated with the strictures of the world she's grown up in. Instead, throughout Season 2, Midge appears to be more firmly committed than ever to being a perfect midcentury icon—while also, somehow, fully committing to her pesky stand-up hobby. This is to say that the bulk of Season 2 is an evasive maneuver—a strangely out-of-character one for Midge, who's about as indirect as an oncoming freight train.
Really, its the show thats avoiding conflict or difficulty. Sherman-Palladinos Gilmore Girls presented a sunny world where the only hiccups were heartbreaks; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisels second season doesnt even have the stomach for parental disappointment. Rather than delving into difficulty, Maisel reconstructs a Jewish summer getaway in the Catskills and B. Altmans retro telephone switchboard and fabricates—for purposes not entirely realized—the art world of the early 60s in one interminable late-season episode. These are lovely, fascinating little slices of life, but they are also distractions.
Look, theres something to be said for evasion. Staring life in the face is not easy, and though Midges is practically padded with cash, her manager Susies (Alex Borstein) certainly isnt—and the less said about Midges coworkers, the Catskills resort employees, the factory workers, or any of the other poor saps who dont live in a pre-war co-op uptown, the better. But The Marvelous Mrs. Maisels second season spins through the late 50s and early 60s like a distracted kid in a toy store.
The show makes a great game of all this whirling about: its banter whizzes back and forth at double time; the editing emphasizes the droll, inviting laughs at the chaos of all these neuroses. Atmosphere is wonderful, and Maisel has it in spades. Yet its not enough on its own to make a show worth watching—even when Brosnahans the star.
No amount of set dressing can quite cover up the fact that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has little story to tell this time around—and even less interest in actually telling it. How is it that two seasons in, for example, no one—including Susie—has addressed the fact that Susies masculine clothing, Village address, and leather accessories make her seem an awful lot like a butch lesbian? Certainly, others are always mistaking her for a man, but thats not the same thing as engaging meaningfully with how she presents. Is it really that the seemingly important detail of her identity has never come up, or is it that the show prefers the hijinks of not-knowing to the grit—the drama—of facing facts?
Stand-up comedy is the ritual act of melding humor to the absolutely pathetic; its a nervy art that requires facing ones fears without flinching. Midge Maisel can, and does, face down her doubts. In Season 2 she performs in Midtown clubs and Pennsylvania dive bars; with Susies assistance, she even finagles her way onto television for a few short minutes. Shes fearless. Unfortunately for her, shes stuck in a show that quails at the first sign of trouble. The second season premieres naked pathos still haunts me: heres Midge describing this awful moment, and theres The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, barely able to listen to her while she speaks.
It feels as if the show is putting its fingers in your ears and screaming “la la la” (in French, so perhaps “là là là”?) while its main character attempts to communicate—in a foreign language in a strange land—that her lonely little Jewish-American heart has broken in two.
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