DECEMBER 18, 2017
This week on Dear Television: Phillip Maciak, Jane Hu, and Aaron Bady get drunk, ride the subway, and take the microphone from a spoken-word poet in order to tell you about Amazon’s new series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. There are some spoilers below, so if you don’t want to get arrested, don’t say the f-word on stage.
by Phil Maciak
The other day, Aaron (who will join us below) tweeted this: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is way better than you guys are admitting.” I don’t have data to support his claim, but it had also occurred to me that the critical community was a little less excited about this new series from Amy Sherman-Palladino than I might have expected. It got great reviews, of course, but the buzz seemed a little less buzzy maybe than I would have thought. Part of this may have to do with the fact that the pilot was already old when the show appeared. (This, to me, is the most annoying aspect of the Amazon system: that their early pilots don’t generate excitement so much as create a condition where viewers can essentially forget about a show months before they ever actually see it.) And part of this is probably a result of its debut in the midst of year-end-list mania. The hottest take I can possibly imagine—and, mind you, I don’t necessarily agree with this take, but I want to consider it—is that the response to this very very good show has been slow because it’s possible (possible as in it could possibly be the case) that Mrs. Maisel is better than Gilmore Girls. And, if that were true, it would be a very hard thing to say out loud.
I have no idea why I am saying all this. It is not in my self-interest to do so. Especially because what I really want to say is that I’m crazy for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I think it is a perfect vehicle for Sherman-Palladino’s rhythmic, ratatat dialogue; it has half a dozen spectacular performances in it (I mean, Rachel Brosnahan especially, but all the leads minus the guy who plays Joel and plus Kevin Pollak and Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce); it looks and sounds great; and, beyond all of that, it feels like it’s really just clearing its throat to begin. The eight-episode series is a masterpiece of pacing, and not just because it moves briskly forward, but because that briskness occasionally speeds up or goes in slow-motion. There are a few montages that feel like dance numbers, and the show builds to Midge’s first two stand-up sets in such a way that they seem to take place in the split-second after Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff, but before he drops. The show is pleasant and warm-hearted and funny, but I don’t think I expected it to be as dizzily thrilling as it is.
Here’s the thing about Mrs. Maisel, though: it’s perfect. I don’t even mean that in a strictly evaluative way. Like, I don’t think it’s the best show of the year (hey, The Leftovers!). What I mean is that perfection is a compositional quality and aspiration of the show. Its arguments, as Aaron has also tweeted, are “symphonic,” its visual aesthetic is flawless, the casting is so sharp it feels like Harry Potter for Jewish American character actors, the stand-up sets are exactly as solid and charming as they are diegetically supposed to be, everybody says either the perfectly right thing or the perfectly wrong thing, its complications are precisely calibrated, its surprises are precisely spring-loaded, its best jokes all have call-backs, and Midge Maisel’s ankles are always the same circumference. There’s nothing messy or ragged or loose or baggy about this show. And that makes it good, but that also makes it a very particular type of show.
Gilmore Girls, for instance, was not perfect in this way. Neither was The Leftovers. Neither was Friday Night Lights. Frasier was perfect. So was Breaking Bad, and so was The West Wing. In other words, perfect and not-perfect are aesthetic categories here. Perfect shows do what they’re supposed to do; not-perfect shows do what they’re going to do. Not-perfect shows can be better than perfect shows and vice versa, but it’s a risk to do either. There were moments when The Leftovers did something so seemingly ill-advised that it could have derailed the whole series. But, in the—frequent—case that The Leftovers pulled it off, the show was transcendent. On the other hand, the perfect shows operate at such great heights and require such high-wire execution that, when they falter, it’s very very noticeable. Gilmore Girls was a long, meandering, free-associative, sometimes rapturous monologue; Mrs. Maisel is a tight ten.
The other thing, though, is that Mrs. Maisel is a perfect show about perfection. (Just as Gilmore Girls was an aimless show interested in the redemptive and recuperative power of its own aimlessness.) It’s about the (often-stereotyped) cultural pressures surrounding domestic and professional perfection in a mid-century Jewish American family, it’s about the laborious grind of seamless gender performance, the dress that needs pearls, the office that needs quiet, the marriage that needs children. And even when Midge cuts loose, when she goes out drunk in a housecoat, she remains perfect. Her improvised set becomes something so good, so what we need now, that the season transforms into one long training montage of Midge and Susie perfecting her act. A show about the oppressive weight of feminine perfection at midcentury becomes a show about the obsessive quest for artistic perfection. Swap out the punchlines for crystal meth, and Midge Maisel is the one who knocks.
So I guess my question is: does that make Mrs. Maisel easier to appreciate but harder to love? Are the internets not exploding the way we think they should because Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new show is a tailored Chanel suit rather than a care-worn hoodie, an immaculate macaron rather than your sixth cup of coffee on the day?
[Lenny Bruce Shrug Emoji],
by Jane Hu
I had planned to write this drunk at my local bar (a la Midge), but then remembered my local bar doesn’t have WiFi so am now typing this (beer in hand) on my giant red couch. It looks kind of sort of like this:
It’s funny. When I had loosely proposed that we Dear TV The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I had no clue that I’d find it so… impossible to write about. So impossible, in fact, that it almost begs the magical ease found in a bottle of red and a loose nightgown to make it feel like I’m not really writing at all. Writing is work, and watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is, in many ways, all about play.
My relationship to Maisel is inevitably shadowed by my history with Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first TV series, Gilmore Girls—a show I religiously followed from elementary school to the end of high school. It was a show, in other words, very much associated with those years in which the balance between work and play is continuously being renegotiated. This was moreover thematized by the very content of Gilmore Girls, in which Rory Gilmore seemingly reflected my own bildung. Except, you know, richer and hotter and whiter. But that was beside the point. The point was that I had found an aspirational portrait of how a young woman might be. And on network television no less!
We did, in fact, see Rory study a lot on Gilmore Girls. But she played more. And while my 14-year-old brain believably converted Rory’s lifestyle into a blueprint for acceptance at Yale, I had no fantasies that what I was doing when I watched Rory live her life was anything but play. Looking back, it was a complex form of identification—the kind of imaginative or bad-faith identification that often happens when engaging with fiction, though recent reactions to “Cat Person” suggest that many are only just learning this. In most ways, I was nothing like Rory. In other ways, she was the closest thing to me on television. Perhaps it’s less of a problem for those who see themselves more directly reflected in popular culture, but I forgive myself any childhood Rory cathexis that adamantly ignored (as the show often did itself) the class and racial privileges that made Rory’s flourishing possible.
The Gilmore Girls reboot was considered a hostile disaster. Rory is (was?) insufferable. But the reboot was perhaps not so much a disaster at all if we understand it as an allegory for the show’s own contemporary impossibility. Everything is falling apart in Rory’s life in 2016; she is the paragon of promise unfulfilled, privilege unrewarded. Yet, it seems hard to imagine a television drama today in which someone like Rory continues to rise, not just because Rory doesn’t work in the political climate of 2016 liberal TV dramas, but because Rory simply doesn’t work as an adult. To logically follow Rory’s arc from Stars Hollow to post-Yale is to get, well, something pretty close to what we got in the reboot. It might have left a bad taste in many a fan’s mouths, but I also can’t think of a more satisfyingly anti-climatic ending for a show that I always believed to be more realist than not. The Gilmore Girls reboot works because we see Rory struggling to work.
Enter Midge Maisel, who, as Phil explains above, comes to us already perfect. While the Gilmore Girls reboot falteringly plays out the irrelevance of its own initial premise, Maisel, writes Phil, “is a perfect show about perfection.” This is made perhaps all the more problematic given that comedy—and representations of stand-up comedians especially—is often about conflict. Jerry Seinfeld and Louis CK couldn’t make it through a day in New York without causing a scene. “In Maisel,” writes Lili Loofbourow, “Sherman-Palladino creates a comic out of thin air — and introduces her to you first as the stand-up comic’s greatest natural enemy: the fussy, perfectionist, rich, and happy homemaker.” Always there with another twist of the conventional knife, Sherman-Palladino also makes our homemaker surprisingly and effectively funny.
What do you do with an un-problem like Midge Maisel? Well, as with Maria Von Trapp, you let her sing. Rachel Brosnahan is not only already perfect, but, as Loofbourow writes, “brimming with enthusiasm already” as well. Part of what makes writing about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so difficult, I suspect, is because watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is so aggressively… comfortable. Phil is right: this isn’t The Leftovers. It’s a whitewashed 1960s musical redone in a coral palette, if Sherman-Palladino’s reuse of “I Enjoy Being A Girl” is any evidence. Even more than the utopia that was Stars Hollow, Midge’s historical New York City might as well be itself a neon Broadway fantasy.
Part of me suspects that an Amy Sherman-Palladino show today works best if it’s somewhat historical only because none of the classic “contemporary” ASP worlds (Stars Hollow or, the town of Bunheads, which is coyingly titled “Paradise”) feel remotely plausible in 2017. Sherman-Palladino had to go period vintage in order to keep her world from not seeming too white. But, of course, Maisel’s 1958 New York City is contextualized not just through its “historical” textures and set dressing, but in how it tropes on an already fantastical aesthetic landscape of the postwar American musical: The King and I (1956), South Pacific (1958), Flower Drum Song (1961).
As with Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham and Bunheads’ Sutton Foster before her, Brosnahan is impeccably cast as Sherman-Palladino’s archetypal Adult Brunette With An Early Mid-Life Crisis. And their triangulation (you could honestly play ASP bingo with these three characters) was also a kind of late revelation for adult me. It’s not that I hadn’t already processed that Lorelai is as much—if not more—the protagonist of Gilmore Girls than Rory, but Maisel makes this unmistakably clear. In Bunheads, Foster’s character is much more firmly the protagonist than the Rory avatars of Sasha Torres and Ginny Thompson (the latter who reappears as Midge’s best friend Imogene). But in Maisel, the specter of Rory is entirely erased.
Instead, what we get are two young children—a boy and a girl—who barely register on the show as sentient beings. Children are not work in Maisel. They don’t even really occur in terms of playtime. Midge’s attachment to both—if indeed we can call it that—seems founded solely on the fact that they provide material for her stand-up bits or as excuses to score her husband a better open mic time slot. We don’t know if Midge’s daughter is going to Yale; we do know that she has a giant forehead. I’m not sure what future seasons hold, but in this one, Rory’s presence must be erased in order to make life possible again for Midge. Maisel is, in many ways, Gilmore Girls backwards: Midge begins life by presumably doing everything right, and Lorelei begins by doing everything wrong. Except, it seems, Rory. Lorelei’s second chances—her missed childhood—are inextricable from Rory’s perfect successes, which are, in turn, inextricable from the fact that Lorelei is a working single mom. Midge’s second chance—her “revivifying fall,” as Loofbourow puts it—is conceivable insofar as her children and more importantly childcare don’t factor into her life. Rory, as the Gilmore Girls reboot suggests, represents an impossible aspiration—a figure that doesn’t so much embody futurity as balk it.
Revelations of how Maisel diverges from Gilmore Girls also lead me to give Joel some airtime. Has Sherman-Palladino ever featured such a male lunkhead to play the romantic partner of one of her heroines? Dean was a lunkhead, yes. Christopher was pretty bad. Luke’s grumpiness wasn’t always charming. And similar to the twist ending of Maisel’s pilot, Sutton Foster’s new husband dies at the end of the Bunheads pilot. Against all these male romantic leads that one could at least plausibly ship, Joel is so exaggeratedly bad that he becomes an almost unrealistic character. I get that the show plays up the contradictions in their union, but I’m pointing out the extremes of Joel’s unlikability partly because I wonder if he becomes the apology for all that is so perfect in Maisel.
So it was a surprise to me that in the show’s finale, my favorite scene (perhaps of the entire season) revolved not around Midge, but Joel. You probably know what I’m talking about: Joel arrives at the Gaslight with a hunch that Midge will be performing. He’s already drunk when he sees his comedy hero Lenny Bruce introduce his wife who, unbeknownst to him during their separation, has been honing—yes, perfecting—her set. Flask in hand, Joel takes swigs while witnessing Midge tell some particularly lacerating jokes at the mercy of their private life. In the middle of her performance: some hecklers. Midge shuts it down all rather effortlessly, but Joel has an ax to grind, so he follows the hecklers out where he proceeds to beat them up—presumably in defense of Midge’s honor, but also, of course, because Joel is mad at Midge. He tells the hecklers, “She’s good!” And then again, to himself, stumbling away, “She’s good.” This is my favorite scene! In the angry repetition of “she’s good” partly expected from Joel, while nonetheless also disappointing, we get the first glimmers of his redemption too. Because “she’s good” means two things here: 1) “she’s good, so don’t insult my wife,” but also 2) “she’s good; she’s really good; she’s better than me,” that is the culminating revelation Maisel has been building to all season. When I started watching Maisel, my partner noted in an early episode: “I can’t wait for Joel to see her perform.” In season two, me neither.
I’ve got to get a job,
by Aaron Bady
Like Jane, I’m finding it strangely hard to write about a show that I found easy to love. “This show is perfect!” was my first thought; my second, which took me longer, was “But why?” Though now that I think about it—and since Phil has entered it into the permanent record—let me note that after observing that the show is, like, totally great, I went on to tweet, “Also, why aren’t we talking about how The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is in subterranean battle with Woody Allen?”
So let me start there. I haven’t watched anything by Woody Allen since 2014—the year you could no longer live in denial—but I found it really hard to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and not think about the times when I did, when the drop of a hat could launch me into arguing about the cavernous gap between the good ones and the bad ones, when I’d watch the new one as soon as it came out, and when I even put forward my argument that Vicki Cristina Barcelona is a great movie (which no one ever bought). I used to have thoughts about Woody Allen’s movies. I used to live in a world where having thoughts about Woody Allen’s movies was a normal thing to do. Woody Allen was an Important Filmmaker That You Had to Know About (and I did!).
It seems like a long time ago. Dylan Farrow’s op-ed was not that long ago, really, only February of 2014, but the fact that we can use phrases like “post-Weinstein” to describe the historical epoch that opened up… wait, that was only 2 months ago? It seems like so much longer ago. And that says something about the strange temporality of this moment, how rapidly even the past seems to be changing. That’s important, that this has been retroactive movement: it’s not just that the present is changing, such that the future will be different than the past. No, the “new” revelations—precisely because they are never quite as new as they seem—force a destructive re-evaluation of the past. What is the family sitcom without Bill Cosby? What is indie cinema without Weinstein? What is stand-up comedy and cinema without Woody Allen? What is the present of culture without the things that used to be the past?
Of course, the irony is that Woody Allen isn’t in the past; he’s in the present, still a presence in American cinema, and not just as an abstract example or historical influence. He still makes films, he still gets financing for them, and actors still fight to appear in them. Allen is going to keep doing what he does until the day he drops dead, and the industry will keep letting him. Amazon gave Allen a lot more money and leeway for Wonder Wheel than they gave Amy Sherman-Palladino for Maisel, as a few people have caustically observed. Before she was cast to play Midge in Maisel, for example, Rachel Brosnahan played “Ellie” in four episodes of Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes.
More to the point, Woody Allen is a presence for Amy Sherman-Palladino. There were three references to Annie Hall in Gilmore Girls, because Sherman-Palladino is a big fan; “I would worship at the altar of Woody Allen,” she once said; of her creative process, elsewhere, she once described having “Woody Allen going on in the background, that it’s, somehow, it’s music to me.” They are, perhaps, the two Great American Auteurs of patter.
Woody Allen has been playing in my background, as well; my reaction, too, was that we were watching “Gilmore Girls Banter Meets Vintage Woody Allen, With a Feminist Twist.” And it’s a shame, in a way, that I’ve already mentioned his name so many times (in a post ostensibly about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). It’s a shame because it changes the frame for appreciation, makes it hard to describe the things that this show is doing. If I try to talk about how Sherman-Palladino orchestrates combative conversations between multiple characters—or how her fight scenes are “symphonic”—am I comparing Midge telling her parents that Joel has left to Gilmore Girls or to one of Woody Allen’s “four people talking at once, spiraling out of control”? When I try to describe how the camera moves, or how the city is portrayed—or the jazzy set-piece tone poems that link it all together—I find myself reaching for Allen as a point of comparison, placing her in relation to the Great Works of the past.
Woody Allen is an obvious point of comparison, of course, for several reasons. They both enjoy long, conversational shots, letting scenes filled with rapid-fire dialogue also stretch out and breathe. What Phil called the “imperfection” of Gilmore Girls also describes a pleasure of the Woody Allen oeuvre; in their sloppy proliferation, you could watch them like a TV show’s many episodes, different but united by a recognizable voice. And, of course, I find myself thinking about Woody Allen because Maisel is a period piece about a Jewish comedian in mid-century New York, a show in love with a grand old city of the past—like so many of Allen’s movies—but also the scene of Allen’s own comedic bildung. Though he didn’t actually start doing stand-up until the early sixties, Woody Allen could almost be a character in the show, like Lenny Bruce; here he is, for example, performing at The Gaslight Café in 1962. Like Bruce and Maisel, Allen was of the generation of comedians that went beyond mere jokes and schtick and built a character out of a coherent personality, when comedians performed alongside folk artists and beat poets and took on that burden to expose yourself and tell the truth.
The irony of all this, of course, is that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a show about Woody Allen’s milieu, but with no Woody Allen in it. The culture gives up its icons slowly and with great reluctance, locked into old critical habits and traditional patterns of appreciation; even me, as the last paragraph shows, with my refusal to not frame Sherman-Palladino’s show in relation to Allen. But Maisel is not shackled to the past, and neither is this show, and I think that’s why it works. If the similarities force the comparison, the differences emphasize the contrast: In her stunningly total confidence and omni-competence, there is perhaps no comedian that Maisel resembles less than Allen. There is some Joan Rivers in her performance—and Brosnahan clearly learned a lot about delivery from Rivers—but the core of the character is something very different than the neurotic, compulsive, inadequate nebbish that Allen rendered more effectively (and insistently) than any other artist. Annie Hall is built on that one joke about the eggs and the chicken, and the lesson that our inner worlds are mysterious and unknowable, that since we bumble through life without plan or purpose, we must get what we can get while we can. Indeed, Allen’s entire oeuvre is arguably built on the self-centered urgency of demanding that since there is no God—and life has no meaning—the only truth is that the heart wants what it wants. Who are we to question it?
The answer is: Maisel questions it. Maisel calls bullshit on her husband’s attraction to an unexceptional woman and sees it for what it is, an egotism too weak to be honest with itself. Joel turns out to be more decent, and more nuanced, than a typical Woody Allen character, but his boringly predictable fling with his secretary is exactly as boring and cliched as it appears. There is no deeper meaning, or underlying mystery to be unearthed. Joel is just what he seems to be, and what Abe Weissman identifies him as from the start: a weak man who needs a powerful woman to build him up, and who resents her for it. What’s difficult about the world is not that we can’t know it; what’s difficult is that we’d prefer not to. This is the truth that Allen rarely told.
The thing about Maisel is that life is hard but not mysterious; it’s painful, but not cruel or tragic. Life is filled with challenges and opportunities, and you work hard to make the best of it, with whatever materials you have to hand. If you suffer, you also love. It is what it is. And as it was in Gilmore Girls, patter is not a mask for the soul’s absence, but a load-bearing wall, the closed door to the break-room where you can rest from the incredible labor of being an adult by shooting the shit with your friends. And while Allen once declared that “comics are childlike” (and “I’m more at home with kids because I don’t trust adults”), Maisel’s hilarious disregard for its children helps clarify how central that work of adult self-making is to the show: she has always known what she wanted, and still does; she doesn’t hide behind the unknowability of the human heart, she explores it. She grew up, a long time ago.
A career suicide set takes down an icon,