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Josh Reviews The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season Two!

I rather enjoyed the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but I had a smidge of hesitation entering into season two.  That first season was a wonderful concoction, fun and original, and it felt like a complete story.  Was this a story that had legs, to continue successfully into multiple further seasons?  Did I really want to continue following these characters?  I’m pleased to report that I found season two to be very enjoyable over-all, displaying an impressive amount of craft in front of and behind the camera.  The season does have some flaws, which I will discuss below, but there’s enough about this show that’s good-to-great that I enjoyed making my way through this sophomore season.

As season two begins, we see that Midge Maisel is now working as a stand-up comedian.  She seems to have skill in the craft, and she and Susie have started to scrape together a career for her.  But the two women face several challenges.  The first is Midge’s resistance to fully embracing this new path (she never considers canceling her usual summer vacation trip to the Catskills) and to being honest with her friends and family about what she’s doing.  The second is Susie’s inexperience as a manager and her persistent money problems.  The third is the walls that both women repeatedly encounter as they attempt to succeed in a man’s world in the late nineteen-fifties.

I was surprised and pleased by the degree to which this season, particularly the first few episodes, focused on Midge’s parents, Rose and Abe.  Rose in particular was mostly in the background in season one, but I was delighted by the way the season premiere allowed us into this character, exploring how trapped she felt in New York and the pull of a life on her own in Paris (where she’d enjoyed herself as a younger woman).  This was a surprising and compelling way to begin the season.  Marin Hinkle really shined as Rose in this moment in the spotlight.  I was a little bummed that, once Rose and Abe returned to New York, Rose faded back into the background somewhat.  Now that we’ve proven that Rose is a fully-realized character, I hope the show continues to explore her, and to allow her to have greater agency in the stories to come!

Tony Shaloub’s Abe was a stand-out character in season one, and season two continued to give this great character a lot to do.  Abe was still lovable and Mr. Shaloub’s comic timing and note-perfect line-delivery makes him one of the show’s comedic powerhouses.  But this season didn’t shy away from challenging Abe, as he was forced to confront martial issues and Rose’s unhappiness, his own frustration at both his teaching job at Columbia and at his prestigious and much-boasted-about job at Bell Labs, as well as his feelings of betrayal and confusion in dealing with what he discovers about the secret lives of both of his children (Midge the stand-up comic and Noah who works for the C.I.A.)… and of course his annoyance at the brash, big-talking Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollak).  The show was unafraid to push Abe into unlikable behavior in some of those moments, trusting in Mr. Shaloub’s skills to keep the audience invested in Abe and his story.  While Midge is clearly the main character of this show, I was so happy that it was her parents who were the two characters in whom I was most interested while watching season two.

I’ve been a fan of Kevin Pollak’s for many years, and I was so happy that season one gave him such a fun, plum role as Moishe Maisel.  We got a lot more of Moishe in season two, and that made me extremely happy.  Mr. Pollak is so funny, but he’s also a terrific actor, and I was pleased that season two gave Moishe as many funny moments as tender ones.  There were several terrific scenes between Moishe and his son Joel over the course of the season.  I was particularly moved by Moishe’s choice to push his son to leave the family business at the end of the season.  As happy as Moishe clearly was to have Joel working with him — and as helpful as Joel clearly was — Moishe could see that his son was meant for more than that.  For the first time in the show so far, we got to see Moishe put aside his usual attitude and self-interest to do what was best for his son, who he loved.  That was a stand-out moment in the season for me.

One of the best aspects of this show, and also, I think, its biggest weakness, is the main character: Midge Maisel.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Rachel Brosnahan is terrific in the role.  She’s very funny and also completely convincing in the show’s dramatic moments.  She shows us why Midge is magnetic on-stage but also allows her to maintain a certain relatable humanity.  Her mastery at delivering the rapid-fire Sherman-Palladino dialogue is extraordinary.  The problem, I think, is how Midge is written.  On the one hand, Midge is annoyingly, unbelievably perfect.  She succeeds at everything she does.  She’s the best make-up counter woman at B.Altman… and also the best of all the women manning the phone lines.  Despite many moments in season two when Midge had a reason to be flustered and bomb on-stage — going on-stage after getting drunk and eating hot dogs (and spilling mustard all over herself); or after driving many hours and being on no sleep; or after getting bumped again and again from a televised fundraiser, or after getting flustered by the sight of her father in the audience after telling a raunchy sex joke — we never see Midge do anything less than kill.  It stretches my credulity more than anything else on the show.  That we didn’t see Midge fail in ANY of those situations, even just one of them, feels unbelievable to me.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’m not sure the show quite realizes how unfathomably self-centered Midge is, constantly making everything all about herself.  I’m not complaining about a character being flawed.  I want characters to be flawed!  As I just wrote in the previous paragraph, in many ways I think Midge needs to be MORE flawed.  What I’m talking about here are the moments when I find this character to be painfully unwatchable, in a way that I don’t feel the show understands.  Take the moment in the season premiere in which Midge takes control of a Paris nightclub, going on stage uninvited to interrupt the goings-on at the theater to talk about herself.  As that sequence was structured, it felt to me that the show was trying to depict how compelling Midge’s brand of on-stage truth-telling is (which is why she’s able to capture the attention of every person in that theater, despite her speaking in a foreign language).  But to me, it was unbearable to watch Midge interrupt the show that everyone was enjoying in order to talk to them about herself.  Then there was Midge’s abhorrent speech during her friend’s wedding (in the third episode of the season, “The Punishment Room”).  The moment Midge stood up on her chair to start talking, I actually had to leave the room.  It’s true: I just couldn’t watch that train-wreck sequence.  I can’t remember EVER walking out on a scene of a TV show or movie that I was watching.  But I found it gross that Midge would turn her friend’s wedding into an opportunity for her to show off, and since I had no doubt that Midge was about to destroy the wedding (a plot twist I saw coming a mile away), I found I just didn’t have the stomach to watch.  (I relied on my wife to summarize the scene for me, once it was done.)

And so this, for me, is the show’s biggest weakness.  I have wondered since the beginning whether the title, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  I wish it was, but I don’t think it is.  And while I want to see Midge succeed — I want to see her triumph after getting abandoned by her husband, and to see her squash all of the pompous men she encounters who can’t believe that a woman can think for herself and even be funny — which means living up, unironically, to the show’s title, I also often think that Midge is just a little too pleased with herself and that the show, likewise, is just a little too pleased with her.

Other thoughts on season two:

The season had great success in mixing up the locations.  I enjoyed season one’s idyllic vision of New York City in the fifties, but I loved how much milage the show got in season two from shifting much of the first two episodes to Paris, and then the multi-episode mid-season jaunt to the Catskills.

Speaking of the Catskills — it’s a bit cliche, perhaps, that this period-piece show about wealthy New York Jewish families would depict their going to the Catskills… but there’s a REASON that’s a cliche!  It fits with the period and social-strata of these characters.  I adored the episodes set in the Catskills, and I was glad the show didn’t rush this by depicting the entire summer in one episode, but rather allowed this story to unfold over several episodes.  I was fascinated by this depiction of a world that is no more, these “summer camps” in the Catskills for Jewish families.  And I was delighted by Saul Rubinek’s portrayal of the obsequious Steiner resort director.

For a show that is so centered around Jewish characters, however, I’m puzzled that the show seems to keep making mistakes with regards to the details of certain aspects of Jewish ritual life.  Many of my facebook friends were shocked that, in the scene in which Rose tries to get the truth about Noah’s C.I.A. job out of his wife, Astrid, while she is fasting for Tisha B’Av (a Jewish fast day that falls during the summer), they were shown using a very recognizable modern Conservative movement siddur that was only published about a decade ago.  For a show that is so careful about all the other period details, this feels like something that someone should have easily caught.  (Myself, I was more mystified as to why Astrid, while fasting, would attend dinner with the rest of the family.  That scene is played for comedy, but I was thrown completely out of the moment by wondering, why the heck is a fasting woman at this meal?)

I think a more important question is about how I feel regarding the show’s depiction of its Jewish characters, most of whom are not depicted so favorably.  Moishe and Shirley are mostly played for laughs, as obnoxious and loud and self-centered… and Abe and Rose’s elite lifestyle is something that I suspect most viewers (like myself) have a hard time relating to (and might even find a little distasteful).  I laughed when the show depicted all of the Jewish worshippers rushing out of synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, desperate to get home to eat.  That’s a moment I’ve lived many times myself, so I know it’s an honest moment to use as a joke (even though it’s certainly an unfavorable depiction of these Jews, who don’t seem to care at all about the actual moral and religious underpinnings of Yom Kippur).  I was actually a little more troubled by the way the show makes fun of Astrid, who seems to be the only Jew in the entire Steiner resort who cares to observe the fast day of Tisha B’av.  I have no idea if that was accurate or not.  I wouldn’t be shocked if, at most of these Catskills resorts, no one did observe that fast day, so this might also be an honest moment to use as a joke.  Nevertheless, there was something a little unsettling to me about the way the show mocks the one Jewish character on screen who actually seems to care for Jewish ritual and tradition.

For the most part, there’s enough that works about the depiction of the Jewish characters on this show that I continue to enjoy it, even though I can understand why some don’t.  The show gets closer to this line than I’d like.

Moving on…

Alex Borstein was given the role of a lifetime in Susie, and I was so happy to see her continue to get tons of fun stuff to do in season two.  The sight gag of her walking around the Steiner resort carrying a plunger never stopped being funny.  I like that the show showed us how hard a time Susie was having, trying to succeed at being Midge’s manager, while also showing us Susie’s skills at making friends (I loved how beloved she became at Steiner among all the workers, and I also loved how easily she was able to sway the two hit-men into becoming friends with her in the season premiere) and her dogged persistence.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Joel in season one, since it was his insecurity at his failure as a stand-up, while Midge succeeded, that was the root cause of his ending their marriage.  Season two worked hard to make Joel a little more likable, giving him moments of being a good guy for Midge (like when he stands up for her at the welcome event at the Catskills, or when he punches out the comedy club manager who’d refused to pay her and had locked Susie in a closet).  Still, I rolled my eyes at Joel’s drunken laments about just wanting to be forgiven.  I think the problem here connects back to what I wrote above about the show’s making Midge too perfect.  Since the failure of the marriage is depicted as being 99% Joel’s fault, I do find it hard to forgive him for that (and to therefore care about him), whereas had the show been more even in depicting Midge’s responsibility for not being able to make the marriage work, I might be more open to caring about Joel.  (None of this, by the way, is a criticism of Michael Zegen’s performance — I think he does terrific work as Joel.)

I was happy to see Jane Lynch return as Sophie Lennon.  Although I saw it coming a mile away, I liked the idea in the finale of Sophie’s trying to hire Susie.  I am interested to see where that goes in season three.

One of my favorite supporting characters in season one was Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, and I was so happy that he popped up a number of times in season two.  I love the depiction of the mutual respect that he and Midge have for one another.  I loved the gentle friendship we saw between the two when Midge brought Benjamin to see Lenny perform (I laughed hard when Lenny mouthed “he’s gorgeous” to Midge).  It’s a clever idea to weave Lenny Bruce into the story of the show.  It brings an undercurrent of sadness to the proceedings, because we know that Lenny’s life is going to end tragically.  We got a taste of that at the end of the season, when Midge encountered a broke, unhappy Lenny at a bar.  I am curious to see how deeply the show will dive into this as the story progresses in future seasons.

Speaking of Benjamin, I quite enjoyed Zachary Levi’s work as Benjamin, a great new character introduced this year.  I really enjoyed the way the season depicted the slow flowering of his and Midge’s relationship.  I enjoyed the chemistry between Mr. Levi and Ms. Brosnahan.  My biggest complaint with the season finale was that Benjamin didn’t get a final scene with Midge.  I’m not sure I agree with Midge’s sudden decision that if she’s going to pursue a stand-up carrier seriously that she is going to always be alone, but I can understand why she feels this way.  But I wasn’t so certain that Benjamin, who as we’d seen all season was an unusual man with a mind of his own, wouldn’t support Midge’s decision to leave the country for a multi-month tour.  And even if he wouldn’t, from a story-telling perspective, I was surprised that Benjamin got dumped off-screen.  I’d been convinced to buy into this relationship, and for it to end so quickly and suddenly (and off-screen) didn’t sit so well with me.  I hope we’ll see him again.

Other than that, though, I was satisfied by the end of the season.  I was happy that, while the door is open for many future stories and I am eager to see what’s next, the season came to a nicely satisfying ending.  As I have written about before, in this age of streaming shows in which we might have to wait a year or more between seasons, I don’t have much patience for season-ending cliffhangers.  I want each season to feel like it’s reached a satisfying conclusion, and Mrs. Maisel achieved that.

This is an interesting and unique show.  It’s a bit outside of the types of shows I usually watch, and there are a few aspects of the show that don’t quite work for me.  But despite that, I am very happy to have seen the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I’m impressed at what a well-made show this is.  In today’s world more than ever, it’s a delight to see a show with a strong, successful female character at its center… and as anti-Semitism rises around the globe, it’s a pleasure to see a show that is unabashedly about an ensemble of mostly Jewish characters.  I am interested to see where this series, and these characters, go next in season three.

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