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Mrs. Maisel’s Mixed Messages

There’s a scene in Season Two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that perfectly encapsulates the show’s central conundrum. Margaret (Midge) Maisel, our 1950’s-Jewish-housewife-turned-comedian, has finally gotten a gig at a semi-respectable New York City club, somewhere on the way to midtown. She shows up in her trademark black cocktail dress, fresh and beautiful and raring to go. Unfortunately, her act gets pushed back repeatedly as confident male comedians breeze in to claim her spot. By the time Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) takes the stage, it’s late and the audience is drunk, while she herself has completely lost her feminine charm. She’s sweaty, angry, and mildly intoxicated, sporting mustard stains on her sexy dress. Storming the stage, she abandons her prepared act and launches into a meta-discourse on comedy, and the suitability of women to participate in it. Comedy, she says, is about pain and rejection. Who understands these things better than women?

Her lips say “I belong on this stage”, but the show’s creators seem to be signaling something else. Before the lady comic was permitted to claim her microphone, she was forced to morph into a smelly, angry, drunken slob. In other words, she had to be un-womaned before practicing the comic arts. Was it freak happenstance? Or is there some deeper truth here? Can a good woman also be a great comedian?

Two seasons in, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hit show has collected plenty of Emmys, but still hasn’t resolved the crucial question. If anyone could square the female-comic circle, it would surely be Midge Maisel, although her life has involved remarkably little suffering. Admittedly, she was briefly devastated in the opening season of the show, when her husband (stewing in angst over his own abortive comedy career) abruptly walked out on her and the couple’s two children. As it turned out though, this shake-up was precisely the impetus she needed to uncover her own (far brighter) comic light. Soon she had launched her own daring career as “Mrs. Maisel,” with the help of her dedicated agent, Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein).

Plot-wise, the second season is somewhat uneven, taking us on extended forays to Paris and to a Jewish summer resort in the Catskills. It feels like the creators are dragging their feet a bit, knowing that their home-run hit will almost certainly be approved for a third season. Of course, it would be natural in any case for a rising star to encounter a few obstacles, but Mrs. Maisel’s feel strangely pro forma. Midge’s female nemesis, Sophie Lennon, is a crude hack recycling years-old material; it’s obvious she can’t be a serious competitor for long. Despite her failed marriage, Midge still lives in the lap of luxury, and nearly all of her friends and family reconcile themselves fairly quickly to her unconventional career. Indeed, it seems that almost nobody in this stylized 1950’s world really has much objection to a female comedian, so long as she avoids the taboo subjects of pregnancy and birth. (More on that point later.) Glass ceilings pop like soap bubbles against the magical hand of the marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Some viewers may be irritated by the ease of this primrose path, and the show does undeniably have a fairy-tale quality, finding excuses at every turn to insert breathtaking scenery, luxuriant costumes, and so much dancing that it almost becomes a musical. In reality though, this is much more than escapist fluff. The airy perfection is a facade, much like the make-up that Midge applies so expertly in her department-store day job. Because she is effortlessly superlative and preposterously privileged, we can confidently predict that Midge won’t be derailed by hard luck, revanchist social attitudes, or a lack of natural talent. That means that her failures, if and when they come, will reveal something more fundamental about the incompatibility of her comic aspirations with the kind of feminine goodness that would enable her to be a nurturing mother, loving wife, or supportive female friend. Even under ludicrously ideal life circumstances, can the alluring lady comic unfold the gift without transposing her personality into a masculine key?

Throughout the season, we see plenty of evidence that Midge’s feminine charms are fading. Once a shoo-in for a “distinguished housewife” award, she has become increasingly coarse and insensitive. At a wedding, she drinks too much and humiliates the bride with a crude and inappropriate toast. She plans a baby shower for a friend, but forgets to show up because she’s too wrapped up in her own career. When a big break (to tour in Europe) comes at the end of the season, she accepts without reflecting even for a moment on the impact her several-months-long absence might have on her young children. It takes her until the end of the day to recall that her boyfriend wants to marry her, and she’s already said yes.  

“Can’t you stop talking about yourself for one moment?” her agent asks at one point in the season. She can’t. Her self-absorption makes her an honest and authentic comedian, but it also makes her a negligent mother, a callous lover, and an absent and unreliable friend. That’s why the season ends on a dark note, with Midge’s mentor, Lenny Bruce, performing a routine on the theme “All Alone.” Even to Midge herself, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the path she’s chosen, whether high or low, is exceedingly lonely.

Narcissism, of course, is unattractive in both sexes, but Mrs. Maisel’s creators actually go further to imply that feminine pain may itself be unsuitable comic material. Late in the season, Midge violates a comic taboo when she tries to build a set around the absurdities of pregnancy and childbirth. The club owner, enraged, pushes her hurriedly off the stage. It’s an interesting moment, because Midge’s routines have largely been dirty and sexual, and most of them focus on female themes. Why is pregnancy beyond the line? The incident draws us back to Midge’s earlier discourse on comedy, and its genesis in suffering and pain. If childbirth (the quintessentially feminine pain) is an inappropriate subject for a nightclub routine, that may throw some light on the plight of the female comedian. Midge is surely right that women, as a group, have plenty of familiarity with suffering. But is there something specific to feminine self-sacrifice and pain, which make them improper objects of mirth? It’s an arresting thought, which will hopefully be explored further in the next season.

On the male side, the show revolves primarily around two men: Midge’s unfaithful husband, Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen), and her father, Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub). As in previous Sherman-Palladino creations (The Gilmore Girls and Bunheads), the men on this show share one possibly-unrealistic quality: they reliably take notice of witty and talented women, and find these qualities sexy and alluring. In general, Sherman-Palladino’s men are judged by two criteria. First, can they handle their manly business, as professionals and members of society? Second, can they handle their women? Sherman-Palladino dramas have no mercy on men who are too weak to match the objects of their affections.

In season two, Joel and Abe seem to be on opposite trajectories. Joel starts low, having already struck out spectacularly in the first season. By now though, he’s recognized the depths of his failure, and he’s striving energetically to be a bigger man. He throws himself into the task of straightening out his family’s tortuous business affairs, and he gallantly rescues Midge and Suzie when a club manager tries to stiff them. He’s tormented with regrets over the captivating woman who still performs under his name. Her moral descent opens an interesting possibility though: over the long run, might he eventually prove too good for her?

Abe, by contrast, begins the season on a high note. In Season One he appeared as a brilliant but comically distracted mathematician, who focused relentlessly on his stellar career while his womenfolk managed his domestic affairs. Now though, his wife has decided that she’s fed up with this thankless arrangement. She runs away to Paris to recapture the zest of her art-loving youth, and Abe is forced to confront the reality that his marriage is in real jeopardy. He splutters for a day, but then rises to the occasion, waltzing into his wife’s romantic vision but then gently persuading her that New York is their real home. After that initial success though, Abe’s mettle is more sorely tested when not one but both of his children turn out to have secret careers that threaten to undermine his own. By the end of the season, we see him at a crossroads, flirting with professional disaster even as his confidence is in shambles. Can he pull himself together, and re-establish his professional and social standing? Or will Midge’s demons end up haunting her father also?

As so often happens in hit shows, the second season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is somewhat weaker than the first. It’s less funny, and often feels like an interlude that’s slowly meandering back towards the show’s real narrative arc. It’s still worth watching though, not only for the luscious visual presentation, but also for the sake of setting the stage. In the next season, will Midge finally be punished for her increasingly-egregious moral failings? Will the men in her life prove equal to their daunting professional and personal challenges? What will these events ultimately tell us about femininity and the comic arts? In her second season, Sherman-Palladino has written us a lot of IOU’s. Now we’ll just have to wait, to see whether the show can deliver.

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