In “Mad Men,” we saw 1960s New York City primarily from a man’s point of view. While the show featured the polish and sleek look of its era, it also showed us the grotesque and the damaged, the ugly imperfections underneath that façade of beauty.
With Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” we get to see the same New York City, this time through a woman’s eyes. And with Sherman-Palladino (creator of “Gilmore Girls” and “Bunheads”) at the helm, the vision is much more pink and sparkly.
Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), otherwise known as “Midge,” is the mother of two, wife of a supposedly successful businessman, and daughter of an eccentric math professor and gloriously meddlesome mother. Midge grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a sparkling apartment on the Upper West Side. After marriage, she settled into an apartment just a few floors below her parents. She loves hosting parties, going on dates with her husband, and sharing gossip with friends and her mother. Her life appears seamlessly successful, full of witty banter and flirty friendships with everyone from the doorman to the local butcher. Midge isn’t a colorless and lonely Betty Draper, wasting away at home while her husband engages in important business and colorful affairs. She trots briskly from one meeting to another—always immaculately dressed, heels clacking, eyes bright. She’s in control, and she loves her life.
But when Midge’s husband Joel (Michael Zegen) unexpectedly announces that he’s been having an affair with his secretary and wants to leave her, the perfect rhythms of her life fall apart. After downing a bottle of kosher wine, Midge stumbles into a bar and spills out her troubles in a riotous (and scandalous) impromptu comedy act. Thus begins a new career—and a new life—for Midge.
The show’s biggest weakness lies at this crucial crux. Midge is sunny, sharp, and beautiful. She makes the perfect brisket, supports her husband in his work, sails through life effortlessly. He obviously adores her in the show’s many flashbacks to their early marriage and dating relationship. So why does Joel’s affair start in the first place? As Joel himself notes, he married the perfect woman. Why leave her for a witless secretary? This question is never fully answered, although Sherman-Palladino attempts an explanation. Midge’s hilarious father Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) says that Joel was weak from the beginning—but as the show progresses, we see at least moments of kindness and character in Midge’s wayward husband. The entire breakup ends up feeling like a staged contrivance: the push Midge needs to emerge from her comfortable upper-class life, to descend into the bowels of New York City’s comedy world, and to bare her life’s story (and thus her funny comedic self) to a world of strangers beyond her doorman and butcher.
We never doubt, throughout the series’ eight episodes, that Midge will be fine on her own. She has a fierce self-sufficiency that persists despite all difficulties. Instead, the tension at the show’s core is whether Midge can square her growing comedic ambition with her desire to maintain her Upper West Side life. Her wealthy parents could hardly understand the appeal of her standup comedy acts, the crude humor and liberation of Midge’s new lifestyle. Thus, Midge attempts a precarious and secretive balancing act—one that makes her mother increasingly suspicious and saddened.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”—much like Netflix’s original productions—features a myriad of uncensored scenes. We see some flashes of nudity, hear lots of crude sexual humor, and are subjected to more F-words than I could count (along with other language). While many critics have heralded it as the next obsession of “Gilmore Girl” fanatics, I hardly think the show will appeal to the same audience: while the one has marathoned on ABC Family for ages, the other couldn’t appear even on cable television without some censorship. Such is the license afforded to shows in our online streaming era. And while “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” would probably be just fine without the extremities of language and coarseness, it seems to fit the contrarian ethos Sherman-Palladino is going for in this sparkly-yet-dirty period piece.
Which raises another important caveat: Sherman-Palladino is not shooting for perfect historical accuracy here. It’s doubtful a woman (or even a man, perhaps) could have stood up in the 1960s, given a performance so vulgar and uncensored, and still have received riotous applause. But Sherman-Palladino has never dealt in realism. That, more often than not, is her appeal. The show is, as Anna Silman put it for The Cut, a sort of post-breakup fantasy: “it’s the ultimate fantasy of ‘winning the breakup’: the idea that the most traumatic thing in one’s life might also turn out to be the most fruitful.”
Because Midge is so easy to love, we don’t begrudge her the fantastical success she receives. She’s is a fascinating protagonist, after all: she never apologizes for her privilege or for her femininity. As Sherman-Palladino put it in an interview with E News, Midge “sort of revels in her femininity and is proud of it and while not defined by it, it is a giant portion of who she is.” Her uncouth comedic critiques of motherhood and unfaithful husbands are countercultural (as is her dirty mouth)—but Midge doesn’t desert her children or family responsibilities, and she doesn’t set her makeup and heels aside. She keeps on attempting to be both comic and society woman, despite the disparity between her parents’ polished life and her irreverent comedic persona. In both these worlds, despite their differences, Midge excels: she is immaculately pristine, forges friendships with random strangers, and makes everybody laugh.
The show features stellar performances from Rachel Brosnahan, sidekick Alex Borstein, and best friend Bailey De Young. My favorite character, however, was Midge’s curmudgeonly father Abe: his coupling of mathematical principles and emotional breakdown during a Columbia University class was one of the few moments when I laughed out loud. I also must mention that Jane Jacobs makes a surprising appearance midway through the show—while short, her scene is also rather delightful.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is irreverent enough to occasion some pause. It’s pretty enough—in its costuming, shooting, and scenery—to appeal to a less artsy audience. It’s questioning enough (of the 60s, housewife culture, and custom) to appeal to feminist and critic alike. But perhaps most importantly, it’s unique enough to warrant conversation and critique for the next several months—and maybe even a few awards along the way.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.