The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - Season 2
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel shows us a hodgepodge of stereotypes and trivia, but does little to actually explore Jewish identity.”
Title: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Episodes Reviewed: Season 2
Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Amy Sherman-Palladino 👩🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Daniel Palladino 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Kate Fodor 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Read the Season 1 review here.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a delicious, decadent treat—one that pulls you in and makes you root for the heroine, but it’s hard not to notice that Midge doesn’t actually have all that much to overcome. Nor do most of the protagonists on the show. When her mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle), flees to Paris because she feels underappreciated and lost, it only takes an episode for the stubborn and self-absorbed Abe (Tony Shalhoub) to win her back, reignite the romance in their relationship, and transform into an attentive husband. And when Midge’s manager Susie (Alex Borstein) is grabbed by a pair of thugs sent to rough her up, a little time in traffic and a subway ride provides enough of an opportunity to turn them into new friends. Every bit of it is a blast to watch and full of offbeat humor, but when everything comes so easy, the whole experience feels a bit empty.
The opening scene of the show’s second season encapsulates the incongruity: a long, tracking shot that feels effortless but belies how technically difficult it must have been to achieve and how many tries it likely took. It’s a visual tour de force, a celebration of motion and synchronicity that ebbs and flows with the music, turning backgrounds into whirls of color and perky telephone operators’ voices into chirping melodies. It’s aesthetic, technical perfection, one that’s a joy to watch, until you pause for a moment to wonder why real life isn’t quite so marvelous.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
As it did last season, the show celebrates Midge as the main attraction, letting her story drive the series. Rachel Brosnahan imbues the character with an eagerness and vitality that makes the series so maddeningly bingeable, always arguing for one more minute of the audience’s time. By the same token, though, her story seems too good to be true—or more importantly, too good to be relatable. Yes, she has unresolved issues with her not-quite-ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen), and life on the road is not the five-star resort to which she’s accustomed, but on a personal level, Midge simply can’t fail. She’s gorgeous, she’s talented, her personality is intoxicating, and she can do anything, including convincing a legendary artist to show her a masterpiece that no one else has seen, or will ever see. She is, as Arielle Bernstein calls in her AV Club review, “a manic pixie Jewish dream girl.”
The problem with the manic pixie trope is that it’s an idealized version of a woman, and not one that lives in the wild. As the central character, Midge exists in her own right—unlike the traditional MPDG, who is there “to give new meaning to the male hero’s life”—but her whole story approaches the same unreachable heights.
Comparing the character to Joan Rivers, who rose to fame around the same time period, Emily Nussbaum points out on The New Yorker that as much as Midge has in common with the late, great Rivers, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s version cuts out the not-so-shiny heart of the whole experience:
“Whereas Rivers was an alienated oddball, a loner fuelled by rejection, gagging onstage at her own ‘ugliness,’ Midge is popular and pretty. She’s skilled (and brags of her skill) at everything from sex to brisket.”
While Nussbaum compares the emphasis on Midge’s superiority to an Aaron Sorkin character, it’s not a departure from Sherman-Palladino’s usual fare, which relies heavily on characters so cute and wide-eyed and charming that they may as well be Internet cat gifs.
To the show’s credit, Midge does face more direct pushback, and even hostility, when it comes to her gender than she did last season. She’s heckled a bit by a lineup of male comics as her spot gets pushed further and further back in favor of men who don’t really deserve the deference, and gets some all-too-familiar comments on her body. She tells her Stock File Jewish Doctor Beau, Benjamin (Zachary Levi), that she’s been groped in every imaginable place and had men look up her skirt, but it’s fine, really—she’s wearing so many layers of various undergarments that she can’t even feel it!
As she shoos him away, demanding he leave her alone with an artist she’s determined to charm into selling Benjamin a painting—an artist who has been vocal about wanting to have sex with her, mind you—our current social climate sits in the corner like a looming elephant. Yes, that sort of thing was normal for the time, and women had been conditioned to laugh it off, but it doesn’t mean that a little introspection isn’t called for. The surrealism of Mrs. Maisel stretches a little too far in the moment, ignoring the fact that being used to sexual harassment and being okay with it are two very different things.
Aside from assorted background characters largely relegated to the role of “the help” or entertainers, the only character of color in Maiselville is Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), a Black singer who appears on a telethon alongside Midge. After encountering him in the ladies’ room backstage (which he prefers, because the mirrors are larger and it smells better than the men’s room), Midge professes to be his biggest fan, before correcting herself: her mother is actually his biggest fan. “She even listens to your Christmas album,” Midge says, providing some of the highest praise one can hear from a Jewish mother.
Telling Midge that he always has comedians open for him, Shy excoriates Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch)’s “cracker humor,” adding that “your race can have her.” The comments come off heavy-handed, and it’s not entirely clear what the intention was behind them. Are they something the writers threw in hoping to clear the absolute lowest bar for acknowledging race, or were they worried that without them, viewers simply wouldn’t know that Shy and Midge are different ethnicities?
Shy does play a larger role in the final episode, inviting Midge to tour with him and setting up the next phase of Mrs. Maisel’s career, but he serves as an object, not a subject. His character exists solely to lift Midge towards success, a classic rendition of the Magical Negro trope or what the DuVernay test refers to as “scenery in white stories.”
While following Shy and Midge on tour has the potential to offer real substance to the character, the show’s track record with non-white characters doesn’t bode well—something brazenly apparent in Season 2, Episode 6 when Joel comments on a tense breakfast with his parents and the Maisel family. Midge flippantly replies, “Hiroshima was tense. Breakfast was worse.” Making a joke about a traumatic WWII event that still has lingering effects on its modern denizens lands about as gracefully as a dead fish. Though it likely wasn’t meant to offend, the lack of consideration speaks volumes.
Season 3 presents endless possibilities for character development and explorations of what it was like to be Black in America in 1959, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Sherman-Palladino and company will take on the challenge, let alone succeed.
As with last season, the butch, brusque Susie embodies a bevy of qualities that border on stereotypes of lesbians, but she’s never actually given the room to define or explore her sexuality. Susie’s devotion is to Midge, and her deference to her client’s needs over her own border on self-destructive. Whether or not Susie has any sexual interest in women—or in Midge—is never made clear, and for all the queer coding, none of it really hints at the sexual component of sexual identity. Far more of the subtext as it applies to Susie relates to her gender expression: a pair of thugs debate aloud whether she’s a boy or a girl, and she doesn’t seem all that eager to tell them. Passing for a plumber up at Steiner Resort while Midge and her family enjoy all the amenities imaginable, Susie wanders among a configuration of hula-hooping women, but there’s no overt indication that she’s interested in anything sexual: she could just as easily be wandering between lawn flamingos.
Offered only subtext and code—there’s not even innuendo, sexual or otherwise—to draw on, viewers are left in an odd position: do we accept the stereotypes as valid and assume that Susie is a lesbian or do we take the #woke wisdom of 2018 and grant her the respect to express herself however she pleases? And if we pick the latter, are we denying the show some much-needed queer representation? They’re questions only the writers can answer, and at this point, it’s something of an insult that they haven’t.
Deduction for Religion: -0.50
Mrs. Maisel is a rarity, offering up an explicitly Jewish character who practices her religion and considers it central to her identity. On the surface, the nonstop references are fun for viewers who can finally see the traditions and the idiosyncrasies of their culture onscreen, so much so that Jewish-facing sites like Kveller and Alma have lists of their favorites, and Vulture put together a guide for the Catskills-illiterate. Once you’ve gotten past all the Yiddish phrases and food references, though, the superficiality becomes apparent. Sherman-Palladino has described herself as “Jewish. Sort of.” and the “sort of” is evident when it comes to the show’s call-outs and jokes, packed in like Jews in a sukkah (you’re welcome). Mrs. Maisel shows us a hodgepodge of stereotypes, trivia, and things you can really only get away with saying if you’re Jewish, yourself—which Brosnahan isn’t, by the way.
Underneath all that, there’s very little actual exploration of Jewish identity, and it’s exploration that is badly needed in a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. In depicting Steiner Resort as lavish, fussy, and full of gossip and leisure, Mrs. Maisel implicitly reinforces old stereotypes that paint Jews as greedy misers. What belies all the exclusivity of the scene is that the Catskill Mountains, or “Borscht Belt”, became a hotspot for Jewish summer resorts because they were denied entrance elsewhere.
Writing Jewish characters whose Jewishness can be played for laughs and give weight to gallows humor doesn’t mean much if the less humorous bits of being a Jew in the late 50s go unrecognized. As Midge herself points out in Season 2, Episode 2, “comedy is fueled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment.” But unless the oppression is actually acknowledged, the comedy that comes from it isn’t funny. It’s just exploitative.
Mediaversity Grade: D 2.31/5
Shows like Fresh Off the Boat have proven that comedy has the capacity to grapple with questions of identity and discrimination without losing its sense of humor. Other period dramas like Mad Men and Call the Midwife have proven that they can tell compelling stories about extraordinary women while recognizing the harsh realities that come with sexism. All of which makes Mrs. Maisel’s failure to frame its main character in the social context of the era all the more disappointing.
At home for Thanksgiving, surrounded by my fellow Jews, the impending second season was all the buzz. It’s a fun show, bolstered by an exceptionally high level of skill in front of and behind the scenes, and finally having a show that features a Jewish character whose religious identity goes beyond a menorah and pickles is a milestone, if a depressingly overdue one. And yet, at a time when female comics are facing the same sort of harassment that the fictional 1950s Midge let roll off her back, and anti-Semitism exists in even the most Jewish of public spaces, superficial representation and a shtick about bagels is only slightly better than bupkes.