Review: Brosnahan dazzles as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

A witty script and smart cast shine in the Amazon original series

by Haley Gordon | 1/9/18 12:10am

Watching the opening scene from the new Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” I knew immediately that the titular character would get cheated on. A woman does not happily bounce through her daily, homemaking chores that seamlessly in the first few minutes of a feature without foreshadowing the demise of that perfect, happy routine by the end of said feature. 

I find myself bored and irritated by the introduction of the morally bankrupt cheating male partner as the sole conflict as an ever-present trope in contemporary content that dares to offer a female protagonist. However, I also believe in completely viewing a pilot episode before writing off a series. If that principled, holier-than-thou approach weren’t enough to keep me watching, the series is also produced and written by David Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of the series “Gilmore Girls,” a personal obsession. 

The series is set in the 1950s, and Mrs. Miriam “Midge” Maisel is the quintessential upper-class, white housewife. She thanklessly and enthusiastically supports her husband’s passion for comedy, using her charms and famed brisket to get him prime performance slots and keeping a journal full of joke ideas, audience reactions and notes on the sets. Naturally, she goes to bed in full makeup and hair, only to sneak out after her husband falls asleep to do her skin and beauty routine. She then wakes up minutes before he does to reapply makeup, do her hair and freshen her perfume before slipping back under her covers, him none the wiser. Her routine is so manicured and obsessive it makes the viewer want to laugh, until of course one steps back to analyze why a woman might be driven to measure and record the widths of her body from ankles to breasts every single day.

Of course, these tactics cannot keep a man from straying, and so after a particularly terrible set at an open mic night — all “borrowed” material — Mr. Maisel admits that he has had an affair with his secretary. Midge is left alone for the first time in her adulthood and must face her new identity apart from her husband. In this emotional turmoil, she discovers a talent and passion for comedy.   

The Sherman-Palladino trademark wit and rapid-fire exchanges play especially well between burgeoning comic Maisel — a beautifully cast Rachel Brosnahan — and her aspiring manager, played deftly by Alex Borstein, who manages to complicate and humanize a character that could have fallen into a stereotypical “butch” archetype. Contrasted with the clunky conversations impeded by Mr. Maisel in earlier scenes, the audience is unapologetically signaled about which relationship will drive this series forward. 

No smoke and screens are deployed either with regard to the characters populating Midge’s obstacle universe. For example, the husband-stealing secretary is dull, dim-witted and disarmed from challenging Midge with an unflattering comparison with her virtual complete silence. Luckily, these narratives established in the pilot episode seem to complicate in following episodes, perhaps relaxing and evolving alongside Midge’s mindset. 

Emmy Award-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska has styled a range of periods, most notably revolutionary as in HBO’s “John Adams” and AMC’s “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” The upscale, luxurious, girly pieces that fill Midge’s wardrobe might appear to be simple looks to maintain, but Zakowska shows off her skill and attention to detail in each of the protagonist’s complex, perfectly accessorized looks. Each look emits the aura of an impossibly sought-after vintage find, yet no wear and tear betrays aging. It becomes challenging while watching the show to determine whether Midge’s costumes inform her character or vice versa. And actually, irrelevant. 

A common — and deserved — criticism of the “Gilmore Girls” series is the lack of diversity in casting and conflicts that reek of white and economic privilege. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” focuses on the newly separated Midge and her close-knit Jewish family. She comes from a very wealthy background, and while the status of her relationship might get her a shunning from certain members of her high society gym class, she is not in danger.

However, as the series gets running, Midge runs into several people of color, like one of her friends at her new makeup counter job and several jazz musicians at a club. As for the cultural politics of the period, Midge admits ignorance, and that’s a start. Only time will tell if her circle will expand and diversify, and one hopes that it will. 

That hope brings me to another. I hope that the higher-ups at Amazon decide to give this show a chance to morph and develop its identity. Just as Midge begins in flux, finding her footing, so does this series. Amazon recently canceled its original series, “Good Girls Revolt,” which had a similar theme of brave women challenging a male-dominated industry and likely a similar target demographic.  

Overall, I enjoyed following around the effusive Midge and rooted for her success. Brosnahan’s comedic timing is impeccable, and it carries into scenes not as in-your-face funny as those in which Midge grabs a microphone.

I believe that this creative team has the potential and skill to marry the simplistic, satisfying storylines that deal with Midge’s irascible humor and talent alongside the historical and political context of a time in American history that is oft warmly misremembered. They should have time to execute that vision, which will require of their scripts a challenging balance to maintain. Then, if Midge turns out to be a marvelously familiar white feminist protagonist of the Taylor Swift variety, we can all agree that we gave her a fair shot.