Cast your mind back to the Emmy Awards in September. The most memorable part of the broadcast was Amy Sherman-Palladino, got up in her personal version of top hat and tails, making Emmy history for her wins in both comedy writing and directing, making her the first woman to do so.
Her series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won five awards, including supporting actress for Alex Borstein and lead actress for Rachel Brosnahan. It arrived on Amazon in late 2017 and had the impact of a rocket. Multiple Golden Globes preceded the Emmy Awards.
Much of the praise and the awards were given to the series pilot, an astonishing creation. A one-hour comedy-drama, lavishly made and set in New York of the later 1950s, it had thrilling energy and buckets of charm. Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), the daughter of a smug, well-off academic (Tony Shalhoub), dumps her cheating husband, Joel, and becomes a stand-up comedian.
After the pilot, the series wobbled and weaved through multiple episodes, still charming but taking a very long time to get to the gist of Midge’s transformation and move onward.
The second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Wednesday) is as delightful as that first episode while still managing to wander off in odd directions. It seems more focused, mind you, the dialogue just a tad more glittering and the essential feminist theme a little more resonant.
It remains a baffling construct at times, but in a gloriously intriguing way. It’s a fantasy and yet the arc of Midge’s life is authentic. She’s a good stand-up, but not a great one. That’s because she’s mostly angry and still trying to be a good mother and daughter even while she’s trying to break free. For all the fast-talking, wise-cracking comedy, there’s an underlying sense of emotional desperation to Midge.
The second season opens with a stunning set-piece as Midge toils on the switchboard at department store B. Altman. The long scene borders on Busby Berkeley territory in its complex staging. Then, in minutes the show relocates to Paris. Midge’s dad has come home to find his wife Rose (Marin Hinkle) has absconded to Paris, where she spent part of her youth. He inveigles Midge into flying to Paris with him to retrieve his wife. There are funny scenes and 1950s Paris is made dreamy beautiful, but the episode is really a showcase for Shalhoub and Hinkle. There is one key scene in which Midge finds herself on-stage, and her traumatic feelings about her ex-husband are revealed in a story-defining phone call.
What the series pulls off, in spades, is hyper-stylized storytelling that still manages to deliver scenes of shrewdly delivered truth. And it is funny. This concoction of style, humour and poignancy is unique.
At times, the meander can be briefly frustrating. While Midge is finding meaning in Paris, her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) is confronted by two thugs sent to warn her about an alleged double-cross. The thugs are, in fact, lovable goofs and the entire scenario expands into a warm-hearted bit of business in which everybody learns to get along. Similar to other segments of the series, it could do with being trimmed by a few minutes but the viewer’s mild irritation evaporates when the focus returns to Midge and her surge of romantic guilt by the Seine in Paris.
There are injections of wickedly funny dark humour that are in truth funnier than Midge’s stand-up routines. But Sherman-Palladino is teasing out her own contemporary, humorous perspective on the late 1950s. A joke about Sylvia Plath, which I won’t give away, is simply outrageous.
It takes enormous skill to play the main roles in this odd, lovable series. All the men are, essentially, fools who follow their own ego. Shalhoub is excellent as the cosseted dad whose vanity is plain to everyone but himself. And Michael Zegen as Joel, the guy who can’t deal with his wife being strong and funny, makes a contemptible character plausible. As for Rachel Brosnahan, she’s obliged to carry the series as Midge and she is wondrous.
There are disconcerting elements galore in the second season, especially the presence of Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) as an amiable mentor to Midge. In most series, the engine of the plot would be primed to get Lenny and Midge together, but there’s something else happening here. Something reckless and dazzling even when it drifts away from Sherman-Palladino’s core comic vision.