What’s getting me through this winter of endless Trump tweets and freezing cold? The Golden Globe-winning Amazon show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (“Maisel” won for Best Musical or Comedy TV Series and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy TV series.)
Why am I in love with “Mrs. Maisel?” Because “Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino who gave us “Gilmore Girls,” is “Mad Men” if it were a vibrantly colored, campy Broadway musical with crackling, rapid-fire dialogue, fab hats and beautiful-only-in-movies snow scenes. Binge-watching the show is like observing the folkways and customs of natives of another planet. Yet, in our #MeToo era where women and gender non-conforming people often still struggle to be themselves, “Mrs. Maisel” feels timely and eerily familiar.
“Maisel,” set in 1958 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, stars Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam “Midge” Maisel. Midge is a Jewish housewife with a sharp, sometimes ruthless wit, loser husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and two cute children, who makes fabulous brisket. They live in an incredible apartment (no one, no matter how rich lives in such amazing digs in real life, but who cares?).
Trouble comes to this paradise when Joel, who has a “man in the gray flannel suit” job tries to break into stand-up comedy at the “Gaslight,” a comedy club in Greenwich Village. His act is beyond bad – it’s not even his own material. It’s a bit he stole from Bob Newhart. Joel leaves Midge to have an affair with his secretary. Midge, disgusted with Joel, gets drunk, rushes to the “Gaslight” and delivers a brilliant, obscenity-laced comic monologue. The audience doesn’t know what to make of it. But, no matter. Midge kills.
Then “Mrs. Maisel” takes off. Soon Midge is arrested for going topless and using obscenities. She meets Lenny Bruce (this is TV!) who helps her find a lawyer. Susie, the butch comedy manager of the Gaslight (Alex Borstein) becomes her champion. “She is brilliant!” Susie, who’s become Midge’s personal manager gushes about Midge.
Midge isn’t a second, let alone third wave, feminist. She’s a creature of her time. Though a Bryn Mawr graduate, she’s never worked or thought of working. Midge measures her legs and thighs to make sure that her figure is still svelte. She gets up in the middle of the night to put on her make-up and set her hair so Joel will think she’s always perfectly coiffed and made up. Yet, Midge isn’t a shrinking violet. Midge is a funny, confident, Joan Rivers type woman who delivers her own wedding toast.
“Maisel” has a queer resonance. Along with the soundtrack (Barbra Streisand singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”), there’s the bond between Midge and Susie. Though different in class and sexuality, they become a close team as they work to launch Midge’s comedic career.
Susie is a working-class woman who lives with gender stereotyping because she doesn’t look like most hetero women. “At least he said young,” Susie says when a judge at a hearing on Midge’s obscenity charge calls her a “young man.”
Midge’s privileged life is tranquil until her marriage splits up. Then, she’s forced to get a job for the first time. (You understand why she loves her work! Midge works as a saleswoman at a sumptuously decorated department store.)
Though Midge is hetero, her comedy breaks taboos in the manner of Rivers and Lenny Bruce. In a time when few knocked motherhood, she talks of her ambivalence about being a mother. “It’s supposed to be natural,” Midge says, “the equipment is preinstalled.”
We often think of the 1950s as being the time of “the silent generation” – a period of little rebellion against social norms. It’s easy to believe that gender non-conformity is a present-day issue or that queer life was completely invisible mid-century. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a lively, vibrant, non-didactic reminder that this isn’t the case. Check it out.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.