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In the “Streaming Wars,” it isn’t really clear which site is winning the battle, but it is pretty clear that Amazon is losing. While Netflix tends to get the most buzz, with shows like Stranger Things taking over the pop culture discourse for weeks at a time, Hulu has managed to grasp the brass ring in the form of an Emmy Award for Best Drama for the excellent Handmaid’s Tale (the first streaming site to get such an honor). As for Amazon, well, it got serious critical acclaim (and Emmys for Best Actor in a Comedy Series) for Transparent (a series that has been in the news lately due to sexual harassment accusations against its former star Jeffrey Tambor), and it has become the American home for several smart, funny, and complex British comedies (Fleabag and Catastrophe, both of which I highly recommend), but Amazon hasn’t managed to create a cultural hit like either of its competitors. And that has led to the site buying the TV rights to Lord of the Rings (which could either be wonderful or a really awful situation- I’m currently leaning toward the latter) in hopes of creating a Game of Thrones-sized hit. But while their newest purchase begins its long development process, Amazon will continue releasing small, but smart, comedies (which will likely be overlooked, despite being better than a whole host of shows on Netflix, Hulu, and actual television). The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which drops on Amazon on November 29th) is one of these comedies. And boy, did I really enjoy the first four episodes Amazon provided for critics.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel is just your typical Upper West Side Jewish housewife, with a loving husband Joel, a businessman by day, who also moonlights as a (not very good) stand-up comic. Midge is the doting wife, supporting her husband by critiquing his sets (and showing more aptitude for comedy than her husband), and making sure to spend minimal time with her young kids, who spend the bulk of the day being watched over by her mother. However, after completely bombing in front of their friends at a club, Joel drops a bombshell on Midge: he’s been sleeping with his secretary, and he is just so disappointed in himself that he has to move out of the apartment. Yeah, not the best reason to leave your family, but it’s the crucial catalyst for Midge taking steps to find herself and her voice.
Midge, naturally, eventually ends up on stage herself, telling smart, funny jokes about life as a woman in 1958 (which are, perhaps not all that surprisingly, still relevant to women of today). And it is in those moments on stage that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is at its absolute best. The show’s two greatest assets are Rachel Brosnahan (gets a hell of a role in Midge, after being one of the best parts of the early seasons of House of Cards) and Alex Borstein (who is just spectacular as Midge’s manager Susie Myerson), and when they are together on screen, the series absolutely sings. The duo have an instant rapport and turn the show’s dialogue into a work of art. While it might hurt the overall theme of a woman finding herself away from her husband and family, I wouldn’t mind if the show eventually pivoted to focus only on these two characters with only minor stops with the rest of the cast (all of whom are perfectly capable in their performances, but those scenes just don’t have the same energy). Even if the series ends up failing to catch on with viewers, I certainly hope Hollywood takes notice of Brosnahan and Borstein’s great work (anything that gets Borstein in front of the camera more, instead of just supplying voices for the Seth McFarland stable of cartoons would be a joy).
So, the series is smart, funny, and has to really engaging characters to center the action. Yet, I know there will be a lot of people who won’t like Maisel for one reason or another. And that’s perfectly ok. This is a show that has a lot in its DNA that can put viewers off. For one, it’s from Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan Palladino, the duo behind Gilmore Girls. It’s very bright- both in colors and in lighting (despite a good chunk taking place in dingy Village bars). There’s lots of fast talking and pop culture references (albeit references from the late 1950s). There’s also a plucky leading lady who is thrust out of her comfort zone and forced to try to make it on her own, which also leads to her clashing with her more traditional parents.
Why, specifically, will this show be a hard sell to some people? Well, as with Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has a particular style that won’t work with everyone. It can be loud and in your face. These characters can be big and broad (Midge in particular can fall prey to this issue, but Brosnahan does a remarkable job of knowing when to tone the character down, which helps juxtapose her on- and off-stage lives nicely). Things tend to work out just a bit to perfectly for Midge. When she ends up in jail, her new friend (a very famous comedian of the era) magically comes to bail her out and gives her a leg-up in her career with no strings attached. When Midge can’t stay in her old apartment once she splits with Joel, she simply moves back into her parents’ place. And while she clashes a bit with her father, there aren’t really any major repercussions, just minor clashes (although it does provide an interesting look into the power dynamics in her parents’ marriage, which in turn, colors in her mother Rose a bit more, and gives Marin Hinkle a lovely beat in what is, at this point, a rather thankless role).
The writing can be a bit trying, with the Palladinos’ trying to plug a bit too much historical relevance into parts of episodes, when the series could just as easily stand on its own. We don’t need that big, famous comedian to make an appearance and validate Midge. She’s really funny on her own. We don’t need Midge to stumble across a major protest in Tompkins Square Park, get selected to speak to the group out of nowhere, and then have her deliver a stunning, funny, and humbling speech off the top of her head. We know this is a cause she would believe in and we know she was super sheltered in her bubble until recently. We don’t need to be hit over the head with her realizing there’s a wonderful, complicated world outside of the Upper East Side.
But, even when I found myself rolling my eyes over a particularly blunt point being made, I was so swept up in Brosnahan’s performance that I found myself not really caring about these quibbles. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t a perfect show, but it’s a really lovely way to spend a few hours. And getting to see Brosnahan and Borstein absolutely killing it while carrying a comedy on their shoulders? That’s definitely something marvelous to see.