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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season One

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest show created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, and produced by Ms. Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, the duo behind Gilmore Girls.  Set in New York City in 1958, the show tells the story of Midge Maisel, who discovers that she has an aptitude for stand-up comedy and sets out to try to make it in the business.

I have never seen Gilmore Girls, though from what I have read about it I suspect I would have enjoyed the writing.  I certainly quite enjoyed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Centering on a smart, strong female character, the show feels wonderfully of the moment, and while there are many reasons why the show works, Rachel Brosnahan’s spectacular performance as Miriam “Midge” Maisel is the key.  This is a great blend of character and performer.  Midge isn’t perfect.  She can be a little blind to what those around her are thinking and feeling, and she sure can talk a LOT.  But she is fiercely intelligent and admirably persistent at striving towards her goals.  She is a fascinating character, and Ms. Brosnahan easily shoulders the weight of the show.

I recently wrote about The Deuce, a show that explores the seedy underbelly of New York City in the 1970s.  Compared to that, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set a little over a decade earlier, feels like a fairy tale.  And perhaps it is, but there’s nothing wrong with that!  What I appreciate about the show is that it creates as distinct and complete a portrait of New York City as The Deuce does, albeit one that is very different.  (One example of the gulf between the two shows: I believe that mob boss Rudy Pipilo is the only major character on The Deuce who is nearly as affluent as the majority of characters on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

I was intrigued by how Jewish The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is.  Midge and the majority of the characters on the show are Jewish —even the comedians like Lenny Bruce, more on him layer — and the show takes the care to allow this Jewishness to be a major part of these characters’ lives, as of course it would be, without skewing into caricature.  There were a few mis-steps that caught my eye (many TV shows make the mistake of showing a rabbi wearing a tallit outside of prayer services, and in the pilot we see the rabbi wearing a tallit at Midge and Joel’s wedding dinner, which no rabbi would actually do), but overall I was pleased by how smoothly these Jewish elements were integrated into the fabric of the show.

After Rachel Brosnahan as Midge herself, I was most taken with the two major father figures on the show, Midge’s father Abe, played by Tony Shaloub, and Joel’s father Moishe, played by Kevin Pollak.  Let’s start with Abe: I was amused that, from all of Hollywood, they chose a non-Jewish actor to portray the very Jewish Abe Weissman, but Mr. Shaloub is so fabulous in the role that I can’t possibly complain.  I love this character: so stiff and stodgy and formal, and yet Mr. Shaloub plays his scenes with just the tiniest twinkle in his eye to show us Abe’s kind heart.  The great comedian Kevin Pollak plays Moishe as a much more outwardly comedic character, brash and chatty, but Mr. Pollak, coming at his character from the exact opposite direction as Mr. Shaloub, keeps Moishe grounded enough to allow us to see the human being inside.  (Between this and Better Things, Mr. Pollak has had a fantastic year on TV!)  Both Abe and Moishe have moments that make me laugh, and moments that make me angry at their behavior.  These are two instantly classic TV characters.

Alex Borstein, who voices Lois on Family Guy, is also a standout as Susie Myerson, an employee of the Gaslight Cafe who sees potential in Midge and decides to become her manager.  Susie is a great character.  She and Midge share a love of comedy and a tendency to say exactly what’s on their minds, but otherwise the two women are completely different from one another.  I enjoyed watching the development of their relationship and friendship over the course of the season.

Michael Zegen (who caught my eye with his small role as one of Tony’s brothers in Brooklyn) is great as Joel Maisel.  Mr. Zegen is able to allow Joel to be endearingly likable and also spinelessly despicable, often within the span of just a few minutes.  Marin Hinkel plays Midge’s mother, Rose, and Caroline Aaron plays Joel’s mother Shirley.  Both are great, and while both women are often played for laughs, Ms. Hinkel and Ms. Aaron keep them real.

I love that the show found a way to incorporate Lenny Bruce into the story.  I loved seeing him and Midge cross paths in the pilot.  I hadn’t expected to see him again after that, but I was glad that he continued to appear throughout the season.  Luke Kirby was fantastic in the role.  He certainly looked the part, but more important than that he was able to capture Lenny Bruce’s particular way of speaking (at least, from what I have seen and heard of the real Mr. Bruce’s comedy) and also his specific brand of mellow cool.  (Mr. Bruce’s life takes a tragic turn in the years after the show’s 1958 setting; I’ll be curious as to whether that will factor into the story in future seasons.)

In addition to the strong main cast, the show landed some great guest stars.  I loved seeing Wallace Shawn as a hack comedian, and Jane Lynch was perfection as a successful female comedian to whom Midge looks up. Gilbert Gottfried popped up as an MC at a comedy club, and Nate Corddry was fun as a wannabee comic with whom Midge finds herself doing skits at parties.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has some funny moments, but although this is a show about comedy, the show itself is definitely a drama.  Mrs. Maisel has a lightness that I enjoyed, but it’s populated by characters who, like so many real people, aren’t that happy in their life’s circumstances, and that gives the show a weight.  It’s also about a major crisis in a marriage, which is a serious topic as a main story-line for a show.  (I was not at all expecting Joel to walk out towards the end of the pilot episode!  I like that the show could surprise me in that way.)  So this is heavy stuff amidst the comedy-world setting.  I was impressed by the balance that the Sherman-Palladinos were able to find.

At just eight episode long, this first season zips along, and while the finale episode does bring a satisfying amount of conclusion to this initial story, it certainly leaves one wanting more, to see were the story and these characters go from here.  I am looking forward to season two!

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