Season Two Review: 'The Mediocre Mrs. Maisel'
In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the trail-blazing stand-up comic continues to take New York City by storm, one borough at a time. This season finds Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) and manager Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) touring the original 13 colonies, outrunning hitmen, dancing in the Catskills, and performing live on television. But the magic that stirred the first season has left the screen. The performances are stunning, the design outstanding, but the story has stagnated.
Miriam Maisel has been working the club circuit for nearly a year. Her act is polished, she has a new favorite deli that doubles as an office, complete with booking agents, helpful assistants, and the best commissary within walking distance of the club. For all intents and purposes, everything is going according to plan. Venues get larger every week, her effortless charm woos audiences, and word of mouth enabled her to go on tour. She even lands a TV gig.
The acts are the best writing in the series. Brosnahan is electric on stage. Unfortunately, audiences already know this. While it will always be a joy to watch her perform, there wasn’t a lot happening for Midge developmentally this season. No change or great challenge for the audience to sink their teeth into. Perhaps her troubles on tour were crafted to make the audience feel bad for her. However, bad motels, cars breaking down, and small fires are par for the course for artists. None of these hurdles slow Midge down. She just moves on to the next gig.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fast-talking, academically driven, weirdly WASPY view of New York in the late ’50s still lacks a level of diversity required of the city and era. While she digs into upper East Side Jewish culture, it still sits at a surface level of understanding. Similar to Lena Dunham’s season 2 Girls fix, a singular Black male was added to the cast and featured in two episodes. None of the criticism of season one was taken into account during the creation of season two and the show suffers greatly for it.
Unfortunately, every standout this season carries a Y chromosome. In a show called The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the women are a little less than spectacular. The true standouts are Lenny Bruce played by Luke Kirby, Tony Shalhoub as Abe Weissman, and Rufus Sewell as Declan Howell.
As Bruce, Kirby gives a career-high performance. Not mimicking the late comedian, but completely embodying the swag, depression, and hunger for the stage. He brings whimsy back to the show that was once otherworldly.
Shalhoub is delightful as a man whose world is falling apart. His son, whom he adores, has secretly outperformed him. As a member of the CIA with top clearance, his son has to humiliate Abe in front of his colleagues before Abe blows his cover. Abe is also carrying the secret that Midge is a comedian. Plus he nearly lost his wife. He’s a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown and he’s terribly funny to watch.
Sewell has been around forever. In a single episode, he manages to turn out one of the most compelling characters in the entire series. A perpetual drunk (who’s never as drunk as he seems) struggling to share his art with the world gets a crush on Midge. Brooding, hiding, and somehow still charming, I instantly want to watch an entire series on this man’s life.
For a show that promises to push the envelope, explore second-wave feminism, and handle all assortments of unsavory materials, it is surprisingly squeaky clean. If the f-bombs were removed, it could be screened on ABC tomorrow. Given the presence of the great Lenny Bruce and using The Village as the main location, the purity of the show is distasteful. It is disrespectful, in 2018, to show an area of vital diversity and refuse to highlight it in any meaningful way.
The Marvelous Ms. Maisel is bookended with images of Lenny Bruce. During Bruce’s first performance, he talks about his childhood depression. The early years of drinking and pissing off teachers led him to become the man he is today. It’s a direct recap of Bruce’s real-life performance on the Steve Allen Show. The audience laughs and Maisel laughs at his torment.
In his final performance, Bruce sings All Alone on the set of the Steve Allen Show. In the first act, Midge is shaking with laughter, enthralled with her idol and champion. In the latter performance, she sees her life reflected back at her. She finally hears what Bruce has been telling her from the beginning. If there’s something else she can do, anything, she should do it. Comedy is not fun. Reacting to this horror and the predetermined notion that agreeing to work with Shy Baldwin has ended her personal life, Midge goes back to Joel. One night only, she promises. I love a broken woman. Women have been the object of desire or total bitches for so long, but to live life without consequences makes for a very boring story.
The same thing happens to her mother. Rose leaves Abe because she feels invisible. Abe proves her right when he doesn’t notice she’s missing after weeks of being gone. In Paris, Rose is alive. Thriving with a desire to learn and eat, she’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. As glorious as Rose’s migration to France was, she is forced to return to the states. Abe makes concessions to show he appreciates her. He helps her audit classes at Columbia and defends her when his boss tries to kick her out. He is trying to be a good husband.
Given the time period and the marriage Abe and Rose have, it makes sense that Rose would shlep back to New York City. What doesn’t make sense is her lack of fight before and her lack of resentment afterward. Rose had found them an apartment in France. When Abe said please, she caved so easily. The new woman I had fallen in love with vanished in a puff of smoke. Everything she does in New York, from throwing her daughter’s friend a baby shower to trying to thrive at Columbia seems burdensome where everything in France felt freeing. Most importantly, Abe lost every reason he had for bringing them back to America. His job at Bell Labs, his work at Columbia and their apartment are all gone by the end of the season. We never get back to Rose and her feelings on these losses and the biggest loss of all, Paris.
Joel needs a free apartment and miraculously, one shows up. After toiling away in his father’s shop, while looking for the money his mother has hidden, he discovers an unused room. The next time the audience sees the room, it’s fully furnished. A little weird that there isn’t much separation between the office space and his living room, but it suits his needs.
When Miriam wants to be back at the makeup counter, her boss tests her with a trial run at the coat check-in. Her one instruction: Never leave the tiny box. Miriam cannot help herself. After hurting her co-worker’s feelings, she chases her around the floor trying to apologize. When caught, she is sent back down to the telephones. But then, a shortage of girls, a phone call, and she’s back at the Revlon counter.
These two scenarios, Miriam’s job circle, and Joel’s short housing odyssey, perfectly demonstrate the main problem with season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Consequences are spoken about, but not experienced. Any hurdle or hiccup is cleared away by sheer spunk or waving money at the problem. After a while, watching these decisions play out becomes tedious and boring.
For example, Maisel wails throughout the final episode that her decision to go on a six-month tour with the hottest pop star in the business means she’ll end up alone. But her new fiancé, the dashing Doctor Benjamin, has been explicit from the beginning that he wanted someone weird. He’s seen her stand-up comedy. He jumped backward through flaming hoops to convince her father he was a good man. He’s signed on to marry Midge with both eyes open.
The show doesn’t give enough information on Miriam’s feeling on the doctor. Does she love him or is she just trying to appease her mother? There is a brief scene in which Miriam asks her father how she can atone for being a comic. Unwilling to give up the profession, but eager to go back to get back to their previous relationship status, he tells her, “Just get married.” Miriam’s mother spent their entire summer at the Catskills begging Miriam to give the doctor a chance. But when the date is a disaster, Rose lets Miriam off the hook. It isn’t until their ride back to the city that Miriam agrees to go on a second date. So why can’t this work?
I’m willing to chalk the season’s slump up to a sophomore year. The freshman season was a knockout and it can often be difficult to recreate the magic. Hopefully, Midge will face lasting consequences in season three. Whether her parents, children, or business partner, someone must finally snap and say enough is enough. Also, if we’re going to continue to live in The Village, let’s live in The Fucking Village. I want queer friends for Susie and romantic love interests, and Blacks, and Puerto Ricans, and not just in guest appearances. This is New York. Let’s act like it.
Header Image Source: Amazon