The Amazon Prime series "THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL"
just wrapped. In a universe of televised rubbish,
it stands out as truly superb.
Upstart comedienne Miriam "Midge" Maisel, brilliantly played by Rachel Brosnahan.
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It takes a lot to get me to post an essay about a television series. To adequately explain the appeal of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL (if only to myself) I need to go off on one of my Grumpy Old Man-Splaining tangents. Please stay with me here.
To the bemusement of many, the 1970's band Steely Dan– once described in the music press as the musical anti-heroes of the 1970’s– are enjoying a sudden resurgence in popularity among millennials. I'm not completely surprised, because Steely Dan's appeal has always been multi-fold– their musicianship is razor-sharp, from the staggering complexity of their compositions to their obsessive perfectionism in the studio to their unique fusion of jazz & rock. And then there's their lyrics, which slide so smoothly through one's ears as to discourage detailed examination and yet are loaded with wry arcana and clever wit. Quite paradoxically, Steely Dan's catalogue is somehow claimed by aficionados of both high-art "prog rock" (e.g., King Crimson) and insipidly smooth, unintentionally self-parodic "Yacht Rock." (To me Steely Dan's music seemed slyly snarky without rising to rebelliousness, a set of anthems for high-functioning stoners that served to bookend the comparatively tedious playlists of Grateful Dead-loving layabouts.)
But whatever their exact appeal, my point is that there's something for almost everyone to love about Steely Dan... and so too THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, a.k.a., for brevity's sake, TMMM. Let me count the ways:
For history buffs or just nostalgia lovers, TMMM is a period piece, set mostly in very early 1960's Manhattan. The detail and accuracy is astonishing.
The writing– from the pithy dialogue to the story structure– is absolutely top-notch.
TMMM is VERY Jewish (because so is stand-up comedy, historically) but the Judaism and Jewish culture is presented neither as way-inside humor nor with any edge of derision. Sadly, that's an ever-narrowing path to hew nowadays, but TMMM successfully (and hilariously) navigates it backwards in heels.
Speaking of "backwards in heels," I couldn't help but note that Rachel Brosnahan is a fantastic physical actress, frequently dancing rather than merely walking as she guides someone– along with us, her audience– from one room to another.
The clothing– particularly Midge's– is also fantastic. In fact, the colors of just about everything shown in the daytime burst with joyous brilliance. TMMM is such a feast for the eyes that I could probably have enjoyed it with the sound off.
TMMM tackles feminism from a unique perspective– back when such things were inconceivable, a young and upscale Jewish mother is suddenly forced to survive on her own and joins forces with a woman very much her opposite, and together they... okay, no spoilers here; suffice to say that it took 5 seasons, but they pulled it off.
TMMM also tackles LGBTQ issues... and what life was like 60 years ago in pre-Stonewall America when being gay could not only destroy one's career but was also actually illegal.
And almost by definition, TMMM had to take on the all-pervasive sexism of that era... and Midge's struggles against the prevailing patriarchy– and the hidebound chauvinism exhibited by just about every male from her boss to her own loving father– are resolved in the penultimate scene in the final episode. But you really need to watch the whole series for proper context.
TMMM offers a glimpse into the dark side of comedy via an Emmy-winning portrayal by Luke Kirby of the ground-breaking yet ill-fated comedian Lenny Bruce. Thanks to TMMM, newer generations are learning about this very talented man who was way ahead of his time in multiple ways.
Even TMMM's minor characters are thoughtfully drawn, from the pair of thugs who insert themselves into Susie's management company to Zelda, the Polish maid portrayed by Matilda Szydagis... who really speaks Polish and previously appeared as Tony's mistress in THE SOPRANOS.
TMMM is as chock-full of multiple love stories as Love, Actually, and it's hard not to feel cross-currents of tender affection– in one form or another– oozing from the screen every episode.
And finally, unlike a certain medical soap opera now lining up episodes its TWENTIETH season, TMMM knew when to call it a wrap.
If you followed this show in real time as Andrea & I did, we commend your excellent taste. If this essay inspires you to order it and binge-watch it, we're pretty sure you'll find something to love about it.
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I borrowed the title "Your Show of Shows" from a real comedy show that aired on NBC from 1950-54.