'Mrs. Maisel' still flies high with its low-stakes comedy
Spoiler alert: This article discusses some key plot points in Season 3 of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
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In its third season, Amazon Prime's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" couldn't exhibit more moxie if it tried.
Yet it tries! As a viewer streams the eight episodes that premiered last week, the colors just get brighter and the wide shots get more meticulously and vividly nostalgic -- look, it's the old Las Vegas! Here's Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel in its prime! And wouldja look at the Garment District all abloom with racks of floral dresses? The show's music becomes toe-tappier, the comedy gets hammier and the oy gets vey-ier. What's not to like? (Don't answer that!)
If I didn't know better, I'd suspect creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her collaborator husband, Daniel Palladino, harbor some insecurity about losing the show's pep, to use a Mrs. Maisel-y word. Its verve. Its vim.
Maybe they've heard from some of the malcontents who also drop me notes about the show, saying they don't like it as much as all their friends do. It's boring, they say. Nothing happens. It's annoying.
Or, because the show has been such a success (including multiple Emmy wins for Seasons 1 and 2), the dings against it grow more serious, pointing out how very white and very privileged Midge Maisel's world is -- as if it were not a show about a very white and privileged (be sure to add Jewish) woman and her family in New York circa 1960.
Sherman-Palladino and company have done what they can to address those criticisms, introducing a subplot of lightly reduced financial circumstances in the Maisel family and a whiff of the civil rights movement in the world at large (more on that in a moment). But there's a bigger problem at the center of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which for some of us isn't a problem at all:
It's a low-stakes show.
We're so used to talking about, analyzing and praising high-stakes shows that we forget that most of what's on TV qualifies as low-stakes. Network comedies are almost always low-stakes shows, as are crime procedurals and most dramas. Characters have ups and they have downs, but the fluctuations tend to be short and resolvable. It's the television most of us grew up watching.
Why, then, can't "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" merely exist as a prestige iteration of the low-stakes show, featuring a character who is resplendent in her surroundings, quick with the cute quips and striving while not exactly suffering?
Why can't her panicky antics simply serve the show's zany momentum, without unleashing existential crises or darker themes? In fact, isn't the show honoring its period setting by keeping it light? That's how America so capably managed to sweep most of its social injustices under the rug for so long -- by keeping it light. I look at the manic sunniness of "Mrs. Maisel" as a subversive form of accuracy.
Midge (played with thoroughly consistent pep, verve and vim by Rachel Brosnahan, from Highland Park) is a low-stakes heroine in a low-stakes show with a set of low-stakes problems: Will she become a famous comedian? (Maybe! Probably! Who cares?) Can she keep her hands off Joel (Michael Zegen), her increasingly honorable and belatedly adorable ex-husband? (Could you?) Will she and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) have a wild fling? (What, and ruin the frisson between them?) What happens to Midge's parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) now that he's given up his tenured slot at Columbia and lost the vast prewar apartment that came with it? Will Midge's manager, Susie Myerson (the great Alex Borstein), be able to juggle Midge's career and that of the wickedly demanding comedy legend Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch, contributing a season-saving performance)?
So many questions, not a one of them really needing an answer. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" wants to be breezy and fun. Its detractors want it to be something weightier.
Perhaps that's because we pay extra for it. As the streaming wars heat up and monthly subscription bill alerts buzz continually on the phone ("You just paid Hulu $12.70" ... "You just paid Disney+ $7.63"), viewers will increasingly insist that the content reflect the price. That typically means high-stakes television, where characters endure prolonged agony, where every episode is an anxiety attack and entire worldviews are challenged, upended. Mrs. Maisel could bump into Don Draper on Madison Avenue, but the two would have nothing to talk about. He represents prestige television; she represents ... well, what does she represent? (And for that matter, must she represent anything?)
Ostensibly, the long arc here is your basic, midcentury feminist reckoning -- a Bryn Mawr girl who followed the rules, got married, popped out two kids and then realized she's too funny and too bright to not give herself a shot at becoming a star. We've followed her on that course, where the fun outweighs the frustration every time.
This season, the show tried to capitulate with a negligible dose of stronger medicine. Midge and Susie go on a national tour with Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), an African-American pop singer. They soak up a taste of fame -- Midge is a hit in Vegas; she and Shy become friends and confidantes. Sterling K. Brown ("This Is Us") contributes an effective, but surprisingly minimized, performance as Reggie, Shy's tell-it-like-it-is manager. Here and there, we get the sense that "Mrs. Maisel" might like to take us inside the tricky lives of touring black musicians in the early '60s, made trickier by the fact that Shy is a closeted gay man.
But it takes seven out of eight episodes for the show to get where it's going with this and other seemingly important matters, and it goes there grudgingly -- a low-stakes show dragged into a high-stakes zone. In the season finale, Midge finds herself opening for Shy at Harlem's storied Apollo Theater, where, gallingly, she is placed higher on the night's billing than the black comedy pioneer Moms Mabley (a brief but ingenious cameo part for Wanda Sykes).
"I'm not ready for this," Midge pleads to Reggie backstage. "I haven't earned this."
"Maybe you should cut back on the Jewish brisket talk a little," Reggie offers.
And so, what seems like a triumphant, cross-cultural performance turns into a disaster for Midge, but even here it's a low-stakes plot masquerading briefly as a high-stakes moment. The "Mrs. Maisel" perkiness will prevail, because it can't help itself. The viewer's job here is to watch (or skip) the show that has been made, not the one that hasn't.
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"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" (eight episodes) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.