Best known for her work on cult favourite series Gilmore Girls and the sadly underrated Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino is the queen of sharp and savvy female protagonists on television. And with all due respect to the triumph of Star Hollow’s Lorelai, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel might be her most winsome creation to date.
Her new series doesn’t just present Sherman-Palladino’s first foray into streaming with Amazon, it also expands her scope beyond her small-town storytelling forte. Set in 1958 New York City, Miriam “Midge” Maisel first begins her journey as an unrelentingly cheery, upper-middle-class Jewish housewife, striving to be the “ideal” woman as traditional mores dictate.
At first glance, Midge seems content to play the doting wife and mother to her sad-sack aspiring stand-up comic husband, Joel Maisel, and two slightly off-putting children. Her life appears charmed and vibrant, even as she studiously fits in her exhausting (and hilariously absurd) beauty and fitness regime into her daily routine.
But soon enough, her picturesque life falls apart when Joel’s plagiarized, humourless routine bombs and she discovers that he’s having an affair with his empty-headed secretary. Even her parents seem to blame the dissolution of her marriage on Midge not being perfect enough. It all seems bleak until one night, Midge drunkenly walks into a decrepit Village comedy club and stumbles on stage.
Once the spotlight is on her, she proceeds to unleash her frustrations in a profane, engaging, lewd and unendingly uproarious moment of raw-nerved catharsis. It may have been an accidental tirade against the world, but it’s also one hell of a stand-up routine – and a million times funnier that her husband ever dreamed he could be.
That’s when she’s discovered by misanthropic club employee and upstart manager, Susie Meyerson, who recognizes that her mix of improvisational instinct, observational wryness and impeccable comic timing could be special. We should be surprised by her sudden detour into a stand-up career, but truthfully, the audience has already caught on to her talent early on.
From the show’s very first scene where the confident and vivacious Midge makes a side-splitting toast at her own wedding, to her day-to-day interactions with friends and family – we can already tell that she’s a naturally funny storyteller, quick on her feet, and always ready with a wisecrack. She’s written brilliantly, but its lead actress Rachel Brosnahan’s extraordinary performance that imbues her witty, rapid-fire lines with warmth, verve – and occasionally – fury.
The more difficult or depressing her life gets, the more hysterical and eye-opening her sets become. Like any good comedian, she mines personal misery for public hilarity – but more than simply inciting a barrel of laughs – her incisive anecdotes also feel a like a feminist rallying cry.
“Why do women have to pretend to be something they’re not?,” Midge proclaims to raucous applause. “Why do we have to pretend to be stupid when we’re not stupid? Why do we have to pretend to be helpless when we’re not helpless? Why do we have to pretend to be sorry when we have nothing to be sorry about? Why do we have to pretend not to be hungry when we’re hungry?”
Sure, she may stumble along the way as she learns the craft (she soon realises she can’t wing-it all the time) while balancing a new job and being a single mother. But our collective desire to see her succeed is overwhelming, and that’s a huge credit to the level of investment Brosnahan’s captivating performance and Sherman-Palladino’s wonderful writing invokes.
Famed her her exorbitantly long scripts (a Sherman-Palladino episode is said be at least 15 pages longer than a regular hour-long episode of TV) – filled with dizzying dialogue exchanges, blistering quips and abundant pop-culture references – Sherman-Palladino is in peak-form here. She might even be sharper than her prime Gilmore years because this uncensored streaming format allows her push boundaries and use language that she never could while on a YA network like The WB.
This is a sterling showcase of a woman’s self-discovery and liberation via the unlikeliest of means. Midge is a driven, strong-willed and ambitious heroine with a filthy mouth that could make a sailor blush, and it would be a shame if you missed out on her journey.
Rating: 9 / 10