Last Thanksgiving, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls returned, swaddling Netflix viewers in comforting if overcaffeinated mother-daughter banter. One year and one week later, the fast talk is back. Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, streaming on Amazon starting Wednesday, is a period dramedy full of repartee and references delivered by a heroine who floats along on her own self-confidence. This time, however, there’s a plot: Rachel Brosnahan stars as Midge Maisel, a 1958 Jewish housewife who is trying to become a stand-up comic. As with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce, Mrs. Maisel is a series about structural misogyny conceived before a Trump presidency, the Weinstein revelations, and—most relevant to the subject matter at hand—Louis C.K.’s masturbatory misdeeds came to light. As with these shows, Mrs. Maisel is like water in the desert, slaking an unexpected thirst—but only Mrs. Maisel makes for such a fizzy quaff, pertinent and escapist at the same time.
As the show begins, Midge is purringly content. All of 26, she’s ensconced in a palatial Upper West Side apartment that is understandably compared to Versailles, with two kids, a perfect figure, a magnificent way with brisket, and what she believes to be a kicky marriage. Her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), works in Midtown by day, but at night he dons a black turtleneck and takes Midge downtown, where he performs stand-up at the open mics of happening Village basket houses. But one night Joel’s performance goes bad; he’s been swiping a Bob Newhart bit, and another wannabe beats him to it. Humiliated, he lashes out and then walks out on Midge. His shocked wife meanders onto the stage of the Gaslight Café and launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue that reveals a new talent—and then gets her hauled off to jail for indecency. A stand-up is born.
Comedy doesn’t age well. Midge’s performances have to walk a fine line between being funny right now, without entirely flouting our sense of what was funny then. Though Midge’s manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), tells Midge the only way to really get good is to practice, practice, practice, we see none of that. Instead, about once per episode, Midge delivers a dramatic monologue born out of the events of the episode, on subjects like divorce and motherhood. Onstage Midge jokes about her misplaced faith in her husband: “It’s like when you’re a little girl and people say, ‘The princess lived in the magic castle for 100 years, and the prince climbed up the side, slayed a dragon, kissed her, and woke her up, and they lived happily ever after.’ And you think”—she takes the perfect beat —“That’s plausible.” Stoned onstage at a jazz club, Midge wonders, “What if I wasn’t supposed to be a mother? What if some of us are supposed to travel a lot … or just talk to adults for our entire life?” It’s a comedic tack that’s more Ali Wong than Joan Rivers, but the anachronism gets the point across: For women, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Maisel is set in more or less the same period as the early seasons of Mad Men, with which it shares a certain staginess, but not overseriousness. Maisel was shot all over New York City, but its sets have the feel of a backlot. When Midge ends up in jail, you cannot, as you could in the The Deuce, smell it. The dialogue is peppered with modern-sounding syntax, like “nerd alert” and the Gone Girl–echoing “cool chick.” The vibe is not realistic but buoyant, intentionally so, except when it comes to interpersonal family dynamics, which have an acid touch. Midge’s parents, a housewife (Marin Hinkle) and a taciturn mathematician (Tony Shalhoub), react to Joel’s departure by blaming Midge completely: What did she do wrong? And how is she going to get him back before the rebbe comes over for Yom Kippur break fast? (Between Mrs. Maisel and Transparent, Amazon is now home to the two most Jewish shows on television.) Midge more or less agrees. She’s not a rebel, an iconoclast, or a feminist; she’s a rule-abiding product of her time—except when she’s on stage, where she’s free to ask questions she doesn’t even know she’s been thinking about.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, like everything Sherman-Palladino does, is quirky. But as timely as the show is, especially with the recent C.K revelations serving as a reminder of comedy’s sexism, its rosy oddness takes you out of this particularly grueling time. It’s a stylish, fun show that is neither punishing nor idiotic, an escape from reality that is tethered, ever so lightly, to reality. It’s a trip to the Catskills, say, not Timbuktu. If we have in recent years come to think of the best comedy as a form of truth-telling, as personal expression at its most searing and honest, Mrs. Maisel is a reminder that it is also—if not first and foremost—the laughing cure.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus