I didn’t like Mad Men. The production was amazing, but Don Draper is an irredeemable scumbag. But I love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon’s take on the ’60s NYC period piece. It has all the style and history, and people I actually enjoy watching. If you want some amazing visual flair, dialogue, and character development, you should check it out.
The pilot for Mrs. Maisel sets up Miriam and Joel Maisel, two wealthy Manhattanites in the 60s. They’re in their early 30s, with two kids, a luxurious apartment, and apparently the perfect life. Joel works as a mid-level executive for a manufacturing company but aspires to be a stand-up comedian, spending most of his free time trying to break into the bottom rung of the comedy scene at the Gaslight nightclub. Miriam is a socialite and homemaker who supports Joel with the help of her well-to-do parents. She’s revealed to be whip-smart and talented but more than a little sheltered by her upper-crust life.
Things get complicated when Joel bombs his big comedy routine and his confidence breaks. In a moment of frustration, he confesses to Miriam that he’s been sleeping with his secretary, and he intends to leave her and the children. Miriam, her perfectly constructed life shattered, goes on a bender and walks onto the stage at the Gaslight. Months of meticulous work on Joel’s routine combine with her perspective-warping crisis, and she absolutely slays the audience with an impromptu standup show. Thus, an unlikely comedy star is born.
It’s About Comedy, But It’s Not a Comedy
On the surface, Mrs. Maisel is all about comedy, specifically the craft and industry of standup comedy in the 1960s. Miriam (“Midge” to her friends) is an outsider in every way: someone with almost no performing experience, a wealthy educated woman who couldn’t find the underground comedy scene with a map, and, well, a woman, in an industry dominated and controlled by men. That last point is part of what attracts her strong-willed streetwise manager Susie Myerson, who’s been around the block enough times to navigate them through the industry.
But while it’s a show about comedy, calling the show itself a comedy doesn’t tell the whole story. The characters we see are dealing with huge shifts in their lives, from Miriam and Joel, to both of their parents, to the various professionals jostled around as Midge breaks into standup. The presentation feels theatrical, in the sense that the dialogue deliveries are very much like an old play. Things get dramatic, often with very little warning, and the cast pulls it off with grace and agility.
Rachel Brosnahan’s portrayal of Miriam as a fearless quick-witted comedienne is obviously the draw here. Midge Maisel is played as a sort of Katherine Hepburn heroine, if she had a much dirtier mouth and mind. And while it’s great to see Miriam succeed, it’s just as interesting to see her fail: Her overconfidence and shortsightedness often causes disasters for the people around her, and on occasional and devastating occasions, for herself. (Miriam’s not much of a mother, though she might deck you if you told her that.)
Midge’s journey forces her to learn about the parts of the world she never had to think of as a Manhattan socialite, who now needs to work at a department store to get by. Seeing her actual standup routines is, surprisingly, some of the least interesting writing on display. But as wonderful as her performance is, she only gets about a third of the screen time by the second season—and that’s not a bad thing.
Alex Bornstein as Susie the manager is a standout. She balances Susie’s gruff masculine presentation with a genuine belief in Miriam’s potential and ambition for both her partner and herself. And despite being the ostensible straight man of the duo (in the purely comedic sense, of course), when the time comes for her to deliver, she gets some of the funniest lines in the show. She’s earned her Emmy award for supporting actress.
Other standouts include Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Miriam’s befuddled, panicked, but loving parents, Luke Kirby as real-life standup comedian Lenny Bruce, LeRoy McClain as a touring singer with a secret, and Jane Lynch as Miriam’s rival, a phony “blue collar” comedian in the Phyllis Diller style. You’ll spot a lot of other notable guests in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances, too.
The only character I really don’t like is Miriam’s ex Joel, and that’s no fault of actor Michael Zegen. He’s played with subtlety and humility. I just wish the show didn’t want me to care so much about what happens to him after he cheats on his wife and abandons his family. His long, slow, painful redemption arc is one that feels honest but not particularly interesting.
If you’re here for the period part of this period piece, you won’t be disappointed. Mrs. Maisel‘s depiction of New York in the ’60s, from the upper west side penthouses to the seediest dives of Greenwich Village, is charming and sometimes startling. Though the sets are almost all interiors—it’s tough to shoot a historical show in New York anywhere except Central Park—they ooze with authenticity. We get a pleasant side-trip to Vegas in its prime in the third season, too.
The same joy and authenticity apply to the clothes, makeup, and hairstyles: Miriam’s wardrobe would turn heads even at a Jackie Onassis garden party. But that same level of care, without the eye-searing colors and patterns, applies to all of the characters and their accouterments. I didn’t live through the ’60s, but I feel like anyone who did would get a huge kick out of the production design, not to mention the various nods to the period—the Rosenberg spies, Liberace, and Robert Preston’s original run on The Music Man all get shout-outs in the first season.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been running for three seasons, expected to return to Amazon for its fourth late this year (or later—thanks, COVID). It’s racked up over a dozen Emmy awards for performance, writing, and production, among many others. I can’t say it will appeal to everyone—that very play-like dialogue focus is the most common complaint I’ve heard. But if you want to see a period piece that stands on its own as both a comedy and a drama, check it out.