Monday, May 20, 2019

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: TV Review

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (streaming on Amazon Prime), is a TV series set in New York in the late 1950's that focuses on the decision of one Miriam Maisel - "Midge" to her friends - to become a stand-up comedian.

It is not what she planned. In the pilot episode, Midge, played by Rachel Brosnahan, is living a great life as a young, Jewish housewife and mother. The highlight of her day is buying more fabulous new clothes, setting up kids birthday parties and getting the Rabbi for Yom Kippur. Happily married with well-off middle class parents and living in a spacious Upper West Side apartment, her husband, Joel, is the one who wants to do standup and escape his well-paid corporate gig, and Midge supports him, often bribing the crew of The Gaslight club with food if they'll put him on stage. 

But he has no talent, and after one particularly awful show, a destroyed Joel goes home to tell Midge he's been having an affair and is leaving her. In an instant, her world comes crashing down. Her parents tell her she needs a husband and that Joel needs to be made to return. Reeling from all this, and drunk, she staggers to The Gaslight and on to the stage to try and understand what Joel had been seeking there, only to find herself unloading to the audience about her situation in a biting display of anger, self-pity, tears and laughter.
Midge - Did I tell you he left me for his secretary? That's right. She's 21 and dumb as a Brillo pad. And I'm not naive. I know that men like stupid girls, right? (gesturing to a guy in the audience with his girlfriend)
Guy - "Uuuhhh".
Midge - But I thought Joel wanted more than stupid. I thought he wanted spontaneity - and wit. I thought he wanted to be challenged, you know what I mean? (gesturing to the girlfriend)
Girlfriend - "Uuuhhh".
Midge - You two are going to be together forever.
She finishes by baring her breasts, just as the cops come and arrest her for public indecency and performing without a licence (Midge - "You need a licence to do that?"). She's chucked in the back of a police car along with Lenny Bruce, who has been arrested at another club for obscenity, as usual. 

One of the Gaslight staff, Susie Myerson, played by Alex Borstein, sees Midge's drunken ramble and determines that she has a gift. She bails Midge out and tries to persuade her to pursue standup comedy as a career, with Susie as her manager, while Midge dismisses the whole thing as an embarrassing one-off. But later, after yet another domestic crisis and another drunken ramble at The Gaslight, Midge begins to realise that this might be for her. And as things develop in the series she begins to see she could be great, and moreover, realises that she wants to be. She starts to learn the trade by watching and listening to other standups, and suffering a couple of terrible stage failures. She also decides to keep this all secret from everybody she knows and gets a day job: naturally it's in the makeup department of a rich store, and naturally she's great at it. Thus does Season One roll for eight episodes.

Brosnahan is just stunning in the role of Midge. I first saw her several years ago in her breakout role as a drugged, down-and-out prostitute in the US version of House of Cards. She took a movie stereotype and made her vivid, but it's the mark of a great actress when she can create another one that makes you forget the first. Her Midge is attractive, smart, sassy, knowing, yet also strangely innocent in some ways. Even being arrested by the cops causes her outrage, not fear: such is her privilege. There is no question that the show revolves around her, but so does the fictional world she lives in: "Can’t you stop talking about yourself for one moment?", Susie asks at one point. No! She can't, but that's the reason she can do stand-up in the first place.

All great comedies need a straight-man, and in this case it's Susie, who is almost everything Midge is not: short, dumpy, frumpy (pants, braces and cap every day), cynical, aggressive, and foul-mouthed. And poor; she eats straight from a pot on her swing-down bed in her tiny, rented bedsit. But she's smart, verbal, knows the business, and knows talent when she sees it. 

The whole series flies forward on whirling, whizzing repartee in almost every scene. It's a throwback to the great 1940's Screwball comedies like His Girl Friday. This is a "talky" series that demands you pay attention. Borstein and Brosnahan have great chemistry: you sometimes want to strangle Midge - and you want Susie to be the one to do it.

But all the characters are developed steadily and you begin to like every one, even with their infuriating faults. Joel, the cheating husband, is not left as simple cypher of betrayal: you actually begin to gain respect for him as he faces up to the godawful mistake he's made, realises Midge has the gift he so badly wanted, reconciles at least a little with her, and quits his corporate job to run his parent's business.

Similarly, Midge's mother, Rose, comes off as haughty, snobby and cold - but then begins to show how much she is Midge's mother; sexy and smart, though hemmed in by the rules of an earlier Jewish generation. Midge's dad, Abe (wonderfully underplayed by Tony Shalhoub), is a genius mathematician teaching at Columbia, and is self-involved and distracted to the nth degree: shades of Midge again. Joel's parents are working class Jews who've fought their way up to owning a clothing factory, and their constant clash with Midge's academic parents is best shown when Abe, desperate to put Midge and Joel back together, visits the factory, where he's appalled:
He brought them here and stuck them in his factory! Is he paying these poor people? Are their toilets for them? I’ve seen their faces! I can’t be sure of this, but one of them has a look like, 'I should’ve taken my chances back in Germany!'
The sets are lush and gorgeous, perfect derivations from a 1959 edition of Better Homes. In the same manner as LA Confidential, the background is determined to have every aspect set in that time, even if the average viewer will never notice: the apartments, the bars and delis, the slightly worn seats in the diner. The show is in 4K, which means that in a way you'd expect of a CGI SF movie, all this visual detail is relentless.

"We got the Rabbi"

The clothes even more so, in their case modified from the pages of 1950's Vogue. Most women I know have drooled over Midge's wardrobe and I have to admit that it's attention getting. The wardrobe designers must be in 7th heaven as they put together these fanciful creations with the colours popping out at you: the swing coats, cinched-waists and capri-pants pulling your gaze away from the perfectly coiffed hair, makeup and hats.

There are visual tricks worthy of the movies. Scenes that you realise are choreographed shoutouts to musicals. At one point Rose runs away to Paris to recapture her art-loving youth ("I was unhappy. I didn't want to be unhappy anymore"), and when Abe and Midge follow, there is a transition from the New York to Paris skylines that echoes Lawrence of Arabia blowing out the match or the man-ape throwing the bone into the air.

Then there's the music. The episodes are packed with jazzy pieces, obscure British music hall ditties, Broadway showtunes, torch songs and lilting ballads from the mid 20th century. But they're selected with the same care and attention to detail as everything else: when Susie and Midge are hotly debating money in a diner, the quiet background tune is the Andrews Sisters singing  Rum and Coca Cola, with it's drawn-out refrain of "Working for the Yankee Dollar". 

But in one of the great quirks of the series, the songs that play over the end credits are from the 70's and 80's. So when Midge realises she can't make money via standup yet and must get a job, we close with the great XTC's Dear Madam Barnum. When Susie attacks a famous woman comic, which could see Midge blacklisted in NYC, the ending is Siouxsie And The Banshees Cities in Dust. When she finally tells her parents what she's doing in Season 2: cue Romeo Void's Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)

At this rate it's quite possible they'll play NWA's Express Yourself, Talking Heads Once In A Lifetime, Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, and The Art of Noise remix of Suzzane Vega's Tom's Diner.

It's true that between the sets, the clothes, the dialog and the music, Mrs Maisel is a fairy tale. We rarely see her children, who stay with her parents every night (with their maid, naturally) while she goes out to work gritty clubs (her parents have no idea in the first season and think she’s dating). Her brassy magical touch dissolves glass ceilings and there's no systemic discrimination standing between her and her dream that can't be knocked down with the right one-liner.

But it may become more than escapist, laugh-out-loud fluff, and I'm not sure I want it to. Season 2 was not as tightly focused, but showed that this dreamy perfection was a thick facade. Joel is called in to get money out of a scumbag club owner, which involves the punch in the nose even Susie apparently can't deliver! We get a glimpse of the potentially selfish destruction in Midge when she excitedly accepts an offer as an opener for a Nat King Cole-like crooner on a six month tour of the USA and Europe - remembering only at the end of the day that her handsome surgeon boyfriend, Benjamin, has proposed to her (and she's still married to Joel). And the kids? Lenny Bruce, who has befriended her, invites her to see his first performance on The Steve Allen Show (again, perfectly rendered from the actual 1960 series), where he riffs on a husband looking back on an abandoned marriage but a great career that left him, "All Alone, All Alone".

And of course when Midge transgresses the mild rules of the era in her first TV appearence by using hypnotising hand motions and murmuring "Vote For Kennedy,... Vote For Kennedy", it's a marker that the 60's are fast approaching, when the demons will be unleashed, and the feminism that Midge almost, but not quite encapsulates, bursts forth. Will she move forward or fall backwards, into that? 

We'll see what happens in Season 3 later this year, and while the creator of the show, Amy Sherman-Palladino, is not known for dark stuff, it's hard to see how this airy confectionary world can continue much longer. We still laugh, Midge is fearless, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid, but we know that terrible things are drawing near.


Graeme Dixon said...

What a ray of light in contrast the vile nonsense that usually appears on this site. Keep up the good work Tom

Anonymous said...

I wonder why the names praising Tom's output never appear again. If I wanted a movie review I would read Rolling Stone. I don't mind the blood sports as Veteran calls them but too many of these posts and Adolt will be dishing out his recipes again.

Vileness is in the eye of the beholder.

Bill Kawolski

Tom Hunter said...

We don't have a registration system for our commentators, Bill, so it's a bit of a surprise when people are willing to put their name in, but it's appreciated, and of course we can't know who they really are anyway.

As with my piece on the death of the Martian robot, Opportunity a couple of months ago, I will be putting up other non-political stories occasionally, just to leaven the taste of the blood. I'm glad Mr Dixon appreciated that.

But don't worry: I'm writing more "vile nonsense" as we speak, articles ripping my Lefty politiclal and ideiological opponents as the scum of the earth that I know they are. Articles that they will undoubtedly attack as having echoes of racism, hints of misogyny dark penumbras of violence, and the shrieking paranoia of Old White Men.

Bums on seats, laddie, bums on seats.

Snowflake said...

While you’re undoubtedly batshit crazy, Tommy, and have apparently decided to spend your remaining days demonstrating that to the world, you can at least string sentences together, your abuse has some subtlety to it and your flaws in logic are hidden beneath rhetorical flourish. In that sense you have lifted the tone and I too liked this piece. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to take a bath in carbolic acid.