Culture Canvas: The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, a period drama created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, is a critically-acclaimed series that has won a bunch of awards since its premiere, including several Golden Globes and Emmys.
It was a friend (who only watches series with Jewish characters) who introduced me to Mrs Maisel. We had just finished watching Fauda; I had refused to watch Shtisel, and Seinfeld wasn't quite doing it for me.
And so, we plunged right into the marvellous life of the equally marvellous Mrs Maisel, played by the gorgeous Rachel Brosnahan. For the uninitiated, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is a period drama created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, that tells the story of a Jewish housewife—Miriam "Midge" Maisel—who becomes a standup comedian. The critically-acclaimed series, loosely based on the lives of other female comedians of the era (Joan Rivers, in particular) won a bunch of awards since its premiere on March 17, 2017, including several Golden Globes and Emmys.
Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, one of my favourite writers ever, has been very critical about the series right from the start. I'm not saying she was completely wrong in her assessment of the series: her dismay at "the verbal anachronisms ("totally"), the sitcom clams ("Good talk!"), the cloying Disneyfication of Midge's Jewish family," is perhaps warranted. As is her claim that the portrayal of Midge's greedy father-in-law is "so coarse that it verges on anti-Semitism." (Yes, Nussbaum is Jewish too.)
But I'm not sure whether her issue with Midge being only a partial representation of comedian Joan Rivers is justified. Sure, Midge is annoyingly vanilla when compared to Rivers, whose "more unsettling qualities—her vengefulness, her perception of women as competitors, her eating disorder—all get displaced onto Midge's foe, fat-joke Sophie, who lives in an opulent French-themed apartment, like the one Rivers lived in, collects furs, and, like the real Joan, wanted to be a serious actress."
But this isn't, in all fairness, a biopic of Joan Rivers. It tells the story of Miriam Maisel, and Sherman-Palladino is undoubtedly allowed to do whatever she likes with her creation: Pygmalion's Galatea, after all, is not universal perfection but his version of it.
I really did like the first season for the pacing, the beautiful clothes, and the snappy dialogue. Also, the narrative arc was well crafted, and the conflict at the heart of the story, well presented. And I loved the New York scenes, especially the ones shot at my alma mater, Columbia University. Another plus? Tony Shalhoub's crotchety, high-strung Abe Weissman, Miriam's father, and Alex Borstein's salty, butch Susie Myerson.
The first season of Mrs Masiel tries to capture a particular moment in Jewish history, which was a tumultuous one in many ways. World War II had just ended, and the Jewish people (at least those left after the Holocaust) were struggling to integrate into the cultural fabric of America (already challenging in the McCarthy era). In The Essential Lenny Bruce, a book containing the collected routines of this pathbreaking Jewish comedian (Bruce is a character in Mrs Maisel) he alludes to this past, and not very subtly either. "Up to about six or seven years ago, there was such a difference between Christians and Jews, that—maybe you did know—but forget about it!" he says wryly in one routine.
Mrs Maisel, too, for all its lightness, does make references to this history. (These jokes are funny, but I'm still undecided on them. They feel too flippant, considering the circumstances.) Take Moishe Masiel who continually brags about rescuing 13 Jews from Germany, something that annoys Abe considerably. "He brought them here and stuck them in his factory! Is he paying these poor people? Are there toilets for them? I've seen their faces! I can't be sure of this, but one of them has a look like, "I should've taken my chances back in Germany.” Or when Miriam Maisel tells her husband, a wannabe stand up comedian who is upset that the rabbi got more laughs over his "stupid Sodom and Gomorrah joke" than he did in five months, not to be jealous of the man. "He was in Buchenwald, throw him a bone," she says.
Overall, the entire show is intensely Jewish, lots of inside jokes about the culture that could go unnoticed if you aren't from it. (And aren't lucky enough, as I was, to have a man wearing shorts that unceremoniously proclaimed "I'm Jewish…" next to you, explaining the intricacies of it.) Cultural references aside, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel works because it is chock-full of what I think of as Jewish humour. It's ironical, subversive, sarcastic, and neurotic, with incredible wordplay. And it manages-- I'm not sure how-- to be both self-deprecatory and self-congratulatory.
(Also, and this is a side note, but I couldn't resist; I wasn't surprised to read that some of the greatest American comedians of this era were Jewish. "It has to do with 'outsiderness,' being the observer. There's a critical nature Jews have, and you have to have that to be a comedian," said the late Gerald Nachman, former San Francisco Chronicle entertainment writer and author of the book, Seriously Funny.)
The idea of otherness that lingers at the very edges of Mrs Maisel, in the first season, gives it gravitas and heft. The second season is less evocative but is still watchable. Midge, who evolves considerably in the first season, gets on your nerves a bit during the second--she is so smug and self-satisfied, I liked her better when she was insecure. And the Paris scenes were beautiful but felt redundant. But I still watched it, because I still cared about Midge, loved Abe and Susie, and could still marvel at how Joel, who is a loser and not a great-looking one at that, still manages to get the girls. And it has these real gems like this one. "Comedy is fueled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment, by abandonment and humiliation. Now, who the hell does that describe more than women? Judging by those standards, only women should be funny."
By season three, however, something changed. A lot is happening: Joel and Midge's divorce is through; Abe has quit Columbia, and Rose is more assertive, but they're also homeless; Susie has decided to represent Sophie Lennon (obviously Midge isn't pleased). Joel, unsuccessful as ever, flits around, still in love with the wife he cheated on. Plenty of drama, but no real central conflict. And I was bored halfway into the second episode.
By the end of the third, I was done; the visual beauty of the series--and it does have some beautiful shots--couldn't make up for the weak narrative, lazy writing, and decidedly underdeveloped characters. I went back to Nussbaum for solace, reread her essay, and found myself agreeing with her a lot more, especially these lines. "Her marvellousness comes from the fact that she's immune, a self-adoring alpha whose routines feel like feminist TED talks, with some "fucks" thrown in. Brosnahan delivers them with moxie, but they're rarely funny."
True enough. Also, I just didn't like Midge anymore. She was still the same insouciant child-woman: uninvolved mother, spoilt daughter, annoying client, fickle friend. Her spunkiness bordered on brashness and her need for beautiful clothes felt puerile and self-indulgent when you consider her family was going through an economic crisis.
Like Jordan Baker of The Great Gatsby, "I hate careless people," always have. Negligence, in many ways, is as damaging as downright malignance, in my opinion. And Midge continued to be careless, to swish through life in her stunning swing dresses and perfectly coiffed hair, leaving other people to pick up her children and clean up her messes.
*"Not good" in Yiddish.