The women are styling the window displays that look out from the department store onto the busy midtown Manhattan street. It’s a sumptuous picture, one that explodes with all the energy and pizzazz of an old MGM-style musical. In one breathlessly choreographed and executed tracking shot, the camera moves through the store’s busy floor and to the phone operators’ room in the back, where we land on the marvelous one herself, Rachel Brosnahan’s Miriam “Midge” Maisel.
She’s working the phones after being demoted off the sales floor, having been accosted by a very uncouth woman who stormed the counter calling her a tramp. Such things don’t fly at B. Altman’s. Her new position may lack the glamour of “the big show” out there with the customers, though the frantic chirping and hectic movements of the girls connecting the calls manifests its own exhilarating, addicting energy. Midge is, of course, amazing in her new role, something obvious from the second we catch our first glimpse of her.
Through it all, Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Just Leave Everything to Me” from Hello, Dolly! is playing—a major coup for any TV show (read: not cheap!) and as infectiously rousing an opening as it gets.
In other words, from frame one the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is as charming as ever. In fact, it’s fucking delightful.
Pardon our French, but in this instance, it fits.
For one, for all the exceptionally plucked, curled, fitted, painted, and pleated decorum with which Midge still practically glides through the world—her friend and manager Susie (Alex Borstein) at one point compares her to a dollop of whipped cream with a face—our perfect Jewish housewife turned separated aspiring stand-up comedian has a certain edge to her this time around, having weathered the reality of life outside the gilded cage.
Even Midge herself is aware of this shift. She remarks how unfiltered she is since becoming a fixture of the seedy comedy scene, having hardly ever said the word “fuck” before, but now finding that it slides out of her with astonishing frequency and ease.
There’s a certain power in the fact this show isn’t just delightful, but fucking delightful.
The series, which returns December 5 on Amazon Prime after it and Brosnahan won Best Comedy and Best Actress, respectively, at the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice Awards this past year, gives a well-manicured middle figure to thinly-veiled misogynistic connotations about what it means to be a show that is delightful, or charming, or bright, or female-focused.
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, whose previous series Gilmore Girls and Bunheads were regularly written off because they were talk-heavy shows that gave due weight to the complexity of female relationships, the series thrusts Midge forward as the embodiment of every word we used to describe vibrant women in 1959, when the series is set.
She’s got moxie, spunk, and gumption. She’s a broad, a real doll. But she’s also a badass, a complicated and flawed one at that. She’s impressive not because she’s searching for her place in the world, but because she’s demanding it. A woman with as much proclivity for nearly every task she sets out to accomplish, who seemingly manifests a road map for wherever she sets out to go, could never be considered lost.
Midge Maisel is marvelous, yes. But as season two unfurls, she’s also frustrated and lonely, tired but hopeful, and heartbroken but full of love to give.
As in season one, the series is a wonder of production, whisking the cast and the crew to Paris, where the streets are transformed back into the 1959 City of Lights, and the Catskills, the setting for one of the most extraordinary period set designs and thrilling cinematography we’ve ever seen in a comedy series. But the show works because, for every way that it’s a feast for the eyes, Midge’s journey is food for the soul. That means that as she gets wiser and more clear-eyed about her ambitions, the more grit and darkness there is in the series. And that such a technically proficient, frankly expensive production is the backdrop for that is truly revolutionary.
When we interviewed the Palladinos over the summer, they talked about the deceptive grandeur and ambition of what they were trying to do with Mrs. Maisel, especially after having spent their careers being turned down for the money their productions deserved, just because their talky, female-focused scripts weren’t deemed worthy of that cost or scope.
“It was very weird that argument, because if you don’t write superheroes and you don’t write dragons and Khaleesi and gunshots and cops running and things blowing up, people think it’s small,” Sherman-Palladino said, recalling how when they were making Gilmore Girls they couldn’t even secure budget for snow. For their series set in New England. In winter.
“But there’s literally nothing bigger than trying to transform today’s Manhattan in 1959 Manhattan. “Unless you stay inside, and it’s a lot of people talking in rooms, or you shoot really tight against a wall and there’s one thing that says, ‘It’s 1959! I Like Ike!’ We don’t shoot like that. We shoot things like a dance. We write things like a dance.”
This season, that troop of dancers each gets more time to solo.
That can play to heart-rending effect, as we watch Marin Hinkle’s Rose Weissman, Midge’s mother, reckon with both dreams dashed and newly realized as she reconnects with herself in Paris, soon joined by Tony Shalhoub’s Abe, and Midge herself. Hinkle’s performance in that first episode is a moving, hilarious, expertly pitched tour de force, exemplifying the joy of a series in its second season, when it is able to spend more time delving into the lives of supporting characters.
In Gilmore Girls, especially, the Palladinos honed a knack for writing meaningful stories for characters a generation older than their protagonists. Watching the Weissmans in Paris is one of those beautifully Gilmore Girls diversions, showing people acting completely out of character and unsettling everyone in their lives, only to slowly rationalize exactly how in-character the behavior is.
The Palladinos are so great at reminding us that, oh yeah, we’re all pretty much on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That doesn’t make any of us special, or any of us normal. We’re all frustratingly abnormal... though perhaps we might not talk quite as fast.
If season one focused on the major moves Midge made in her life, this season examines how everyone around her is settling into their own lives in the wake of those actions.
Sometimes that’s fascinating to watch, as with Rose’s empowerment, and sometimes it’s too meandering to be that interesting, as with Midge’s ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen). In the case of Alex Borstein’s Susie, it’s often both, with subplots that are confusing or unnecessary at best, but still riotously entertaining because Borstein’s wry performance is so spectacularly kinetic, and the writing so hilariously specific.
There’s such a strong rhythm to the comedy it’s impossible not to fall in step, even in less successful story arcs. The scenes in Paris and, later, the Catskills, carefully tread a line between dazzling and swooning, and twee and overly cutesy. Your mood will likely determine which direction it wobbles. But when it executes, it’s phenomenal.
Premiering on Amazon just as Trump was finishing his first year in office against the backdrop of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movement, the show was also celebrated for its timeliness: girl wronged by a man strikes out on her own in a male-dominated entertainment field. That timeliness was a happy accident, the Palladinos told me. If anything, it underlined how evergreen and timeless those themes are.
This season seems to more overtly and explicitly write to that, however, and the result is extremely gratifying.
There’s one sequence in particular where Midge keeps getting bumped at a comedy club by a brotherhood of bros that keep maligning her because she’s a woman, and therefore probably not funny. She dresses them down so viciously you’ll want to give her a standing ovation: “Comedy is fueled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness, by disappointment, by abandonment, by humiliation,” she says. “Now who the hell that does describe besides women? By that standard only women should be allowed to be funny.”
When a show gets grander and goes deeper, its confidence can be both wonderful and distracting. It’d be a lie to say that some of the roads Marvelous Mrs. Maisel travels down in season two aren’t a bit of a bore, and some of its masterful camerawork and set design occasionally indulgent. But that’s the beauty of this show. You create Midge Maisel, cast Rachel Brosnahan, and put her in one of those fabulous coats. As proven by the jaw-dropping final shot of the season two premiere, you’ll follow her anywhere.