Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
Is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a very good Jewish show, or just a very Jewish show?
That’s the question top minds have been deliberating since the Amazon Prime comedy, following a midcentury New York housewife who becomes a bawdy stand-up comic after her husband leaves her, premiered in 2017. Reactions to the show have been polarizing, especially as it’s gained a buzzy toehold in TV culture. Many viewers love it, but several influential critics (including The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, a writer who’s never shy about allowing her Judaism to inform her tastes) have pronounced it too weightless and image-obsessed for its own good.
Maisel’s eight-episode third season dropped earlier this month, and it just picked up two more Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy and Best Actress to add to its growing pile of accolades. So this seems like a good moment to revisit the show, and think a bit harder about who it’s for.
Let’s acknowledge right off the bat that Mrs. Maisel is an incredibly fun show to watch. Series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) has always embraced the screwball potential of bright, zippy setpieces, and her third season is chock-full of them: opening with an impeccably choreographed kickline at a USO show, the series then follows Midge on tour to the bustling showrooms of Las Vegas and the sunny beaches of Florida.
We get to watch this improbably successful, proudly Jewish heroine take in all the glamour that 1960 America has to offer, including doo-wop musical acts and After Dark lounge talk shows, all without ever encountering more than an ounce of sexism or anti-Semitism. It’s the unbridled joy of American nostalgia, minus the uncomfortable baggage. And if that happy-go-lucky formula still pleases you three seasons in, there’s no reason to turn your back on it now.
Of course, Midge herself remains a delight. Rachel Brosnahan’s sunny disposition can paper over most things. She nails the bits of her act that we see, enough for us to understand how this woman could have catapulted from relative unknown to utter sensation in such a short time… although her funniest moments are more character-based, like at that opening USO show when she’s forced onstage to sing “White Christmas” and doesn’t know the words.
The ‘Oy Gevalt’
These moments are nice when they arrive. Still, it would be naïve to think Midge is written as a fully-fledged character with actual human flaws when she’s so clearly conceived as a wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Midge is a superhero for Jewish women, whose powers include shattering the comedy glass ceiling; incorporating explicit Jewish jokes into her act without fear of targeting; turning men’s heads with her perfect figure, bottomless closet, and flawless recipes while keeping her louse of an ex-husband at her beck and call; and basking in the societal glow of motherhood even as she neglects her children for months at a time without more than a smidgen of guilt. (Midge’s kids are rarely depicted as anything other than annoyances; when she calls home from the road and her son picks up, she impatiently waits for him to finish paying attention to her.)
Superhero narratives have their place, of course. But why craft such an accurate period setting and specific New York Jewish milieu if your Chosen One is just going to disregard the defining challenges of the era? Comedy comes from struggle, after all, and no comics know this better than Jewish ones.
No adversity ever truly befalls Midge in the third season, but even stranger, the difficulties that do face her supporting cast are tone-deaf enough to accidentally perpetuate some touchy Jewish stereotypes. Issues of wealth, for example, become harder to ignore: Midge’s parents have to give up their obscenely luxurious Upper West Side penthouse after her dad (Tony Shalhoub) quits his job to hang out with some idiotic young Marxists and her mom (Marin Hinkle) turns down her sizeable trust fund from the family oil business. Picture a bunch of men in yarmulkes surrounded by waitstaff in a mansion in the middle of rural Oklahoma, debating where to send the riches they extracted from a land that was not originally theirs, and you get a feel of how uncomfortable this sequence is.
Instead of using this opportunity to swallow a lesson about class, the show continues to reflect these characters’ lack of self-awareness about their own (the couple keeps their maid, and freaks out over the prospect of having to ride a bus). Again and again, Mrs. Maisel presents opportunities to wrestle with the comedic and dramatic potential of fortunate Jews navigating unfamiliar spaces, only to back off before we can get too (un)comfortable. Another subplot about Midge’s ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) dating a Chinese medical student (Stephanie Hsu) opens up the show’s worldview, but it’s marred by the fact that Joel is still in love with Midge… because if anyone were to stop loving her for more than a minute, the show would cease to function.
Am I being a sourpuss? A downer? Just another shmuck standing in-between Midge and her unfettered success? Jews have suffered so much for the right to laugh and joke about themselves, and this is the thanks they get from one of their own?
Look. If Mrs. Maisel can hit your pleasure center with its eye-popping music, comedy, production design, and costuming – and Lord knows it’s working overtime on all those fronts – there’s no reason to drag it through the mud. And a modern feminist retelling of the history of American Jewish humor can be a potent cultural force right now.
But Sherman-Palladino opens up endless doors for exploration in the third season, between Midge’s cross-country odyssey with black talent in pre-Civil Rights times, the further development of counterculture hero Lenny Bruce as a character, and the introduction of an entire plot thread set in Chinatown. Given all this, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. Mrs. Maisel can rattle so much material onstage about her religion and womanhood, but she can’t find much to say about all these other fascinating things around her.