The Marvelous Mrs Maisel returns, and all the world’s her stage
Thank the comedy gods for this heroine, who is such an absolute marvel that she could have been a Stan Lee creation
It’s that time of year. Amazon Prime comedy The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which came to our screens on 5 December, may be an even finer end-of-year treat than Christmas—a comparison calculated to please the persnickety Jewish characters on the show. Rachel Brosnahan returns as the recently triumphant Mrs Maisel, even though that stage name she picked is far from accurate: her character Miriam “Midge” Maisel is now divorced, having had her wedding ring handed to her, and Mr Maisel isn’t often around. Yet she chooses to be announced on stage as “Mrs Maisel”, and remains as marvellous as the title indicates. Like Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep—who was vice-president, became president and is currently neither—here is a heroine too bright to be contained, even by the title of her own show.
We start by learning where Midge gets her moxie. Miriam Hinkle, who plays her immaculately heeled mother Rose, comes into her own this season, showing off her supreme stylishness with effortless nonchalance, throwing caution to the winds and embracing change in a way that should inspire us all. This wonderful show, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, is set in New York at the end of the 1950s, but the first episode takes us also to Paris. That transition takes place with one dreamy shot, where the screen goes from the Manhattan skyline to the French capital, the Empire State building flipped on its head to take us to the Eiffel Tower. What a snow-globe of a show.
Paris of that time is made for movie romance, and the show complies. Imagine, if you will, Funny Face by way of Midnight In Paris. There is much magic afoot as the city is marinated in sun-dried tones of sepia, that exquisite fireside shade of orange lighting up Rose beautifully. Those around her, like Midge and her father, Abe, played by Tony Shalhoub, can’t speak French and are confounded by the city, but magic is headier than understanding, and as the show flits between the lovely hats of Paris and atrocious ones worn near midtown New York, it declares how woman can, at any time, choose to be the heroine of her own story.
Evidenced by Midge inadvertently and unpreparedly thrust behind a microphone after a cabaret show, this sparkling second season also reminds us how any place can become a stage when a performer is a true performer. All mics are open for those speaking stridently enough.
Here is a leading lady who knows she’s leading. I was struck by how frequently Midge Maisel praises herself—“I’m brilliant,” “I’m amazing”—and this cockiness would feel obnoxious if it weren’t so matter-of-fact, and, honestly, so well-deserved. Watching Brosnahan charm a crowd with mustard stains on her dress is a delight, and it’s even better to watch her rage against dismissive male comics. “Comedy is fuelled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment,” she says, roasting her slack-jawed and square competition as she announces therefore that “only women should be funny.”
This show features some of the finest writing on television, and while the David Mamet-style crosstalk remains as rapid, this year’s narrative seems to take its time, breathing in the details. The first five episodes of this 10-episode season have been made available for review, and while it is thus hard to rate this season alongside the flawless first, this is more than enough material to be enchanted by. The actors shine, led by a divine Hinkle and a winning Brosnahan, while Shalhoub charms us with an uncharacteristic beret and, occasionally, comical socks. That soundtrack remains smashing, particularly the rousingly chosen end-credits songs. Sherman-Palladino has designed a high-heeled show, one that makes you feel upbeat and springy—and stylish by mere association.
Visually, it’s a stunner. The first shot of the season is a bit of tracking wizardry Martin Scorsese would smirk at, going from a show window to a lady walking by, to the subterranean world of women answering phones—“basement girls”—where we find Midge Maisel picking up everyone else’s slack in her naturally invincible fashion. The show is a freshly-painted classic, and this choice of shot is appropriate; the lady’s a goodfella.
Like in life, or at the end of a good joke, the show is rarely what you’d expect. Midge hasn’t quite made it big, despite her magnificently gloved arms raised in triumph at the end of season one, and she isn’t running off to Morocco with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby just yet. The struggle of an artist is an unexpectedly uphill one: there are things painting a bowl of fruit simply does not prepare one for.
Thank the comedy gods for this heroine, who is such an absolute marvel—and has such an absolutely alliterative name—that she could have been a Stan Lee creation. She’s as super as humans get.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather. He tweets at @rajasen