If you’re the type to pick up what Amy Sherman-Palladino is putting down, the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel had you as giddy as Lorelai Gilmore after her tenth cup of coffee. Sherman-Palladino has always had a gift for creating screwball heroines who make real life seem like a carnival, and the first 20 minutes of this pilot are pure tilt-a-whirl, a giddy array of gorgeous costumes and midcentury New York bustle and snappy one-liners delivered in massive apartments on the Upper West Side. If you designed porn for women with library-science degrees and closets full of thrifted vintage dresses, this is what it would look like.
Thankfully, Sherman-Palladino has found yet another magnetic, tough but vulnerable brunette to help weight down this cloud: the outstanding Rachel Brosnahan, whose note-perfect New York nasality and sharp comic timing are evident from the first seconds of the pilot, when Midge Maisel gets up to give a speech at her own wedding.
With that speech as narrative, the events of Midge’s early years unfold in a kinetic, Goodfellas-style montage: Raised in a tony New York apartment by wealthy Jewish parents, she’s a relentless go-getter who made good on a tweenage promise to reside in Katharine Hepburn’s old dorm room at Bryn Mawr. Although she’s a woman in the repressed ’50s, everyone in Midge’s life dances to her tune: her adoring parents (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) spare no expense on her, her adoring new husband Joel (Michael Zegen) is so progressive that he happily takes her to see tasseled topless dancers and edgy comedians over martinis, and even putting shrimp in the wedding egg rolls isn’t enough to keep the rabbi away from her Yom Kippur table.
That’s where we find her four years later in 1958, a coiffed housewife giddily ordering breakfast lamb from the butcher. After placating a salty fellow customer by picking up the tab for her pork chops (so money clearly isn’t an issue), she’s off to pull a perfectly cooked brisket from the oven in her palatial-for-Manhattan kitchen (though she still wears the same dress size she did on her wedding day). Her adorable toddler son and infant daughter complete the picture, and are largely being raised one floor up by her uncomplaining parents. That gives Midge plenty of time to don her cigarette pants and trot downtown to play bohemian at Greenwich Village’s famed Gaslight Cafe, where those peerless briskets buy prime stand-up slots for Joel, a seemingly promising up-and-coming comedian. It’s a good thing Betty Friedan is already dead, because watching all of this might kill her.
Sure, Midge has a petty problem or two, namely an appearance-obsessed mother who can’t stop criticizing her looks (or the size of her baby daughter’s forehead), and seems to have passed on the outlines of an eating disorder. But mostly, Mrs. Maisel lives in a marvelous bubble, and Sherman-Palladino’s plan is clearly to let out just enough air to create a whiff of conflict.
The first bit of deflation is Midge’s discovery that Joel’s work isn’t original at all. He’s just ripping off Bob Newhart routines, a scheme to which Susie (Alex Borstein), the sardonic woman who works the bar at the Gaslight, was already hip. After Midge suggests Joel try out some original material instead, he falls completely flat and blames her. From there, it all comes out: He feels unfulfilled in his gray-flannel-suit career; he’s sleeping with his secretary, a woman so dense she can’t use an electric pencil sharpener; and he’s decided to leave Midge.
The breakup arrives so unexpectedly and escalates so quickly that it’s hard to even feel too sad for Midge, who resolutely wisecracks her way through the whole thing. Even as her parents rage and scream and cry and blame her for driving Joel away, she’s studiously putting out one-liners. Even after consuming a whole bottle of Yom Kippur Manischewitz and drunkenly rambling onstage at the Gaslight, she kills — and the once-distant Susie clamors to represent her.
After the success of Mad Men, it was inevitable that someone was going to try to copy its formula without its feeling, slicking the glamour of post-war New York with a confectionary gloss instead of showing its sticky underside. But for a show about a comedian seemingly born to the life, a show about a Jew, a mother — a woman in the ’50s, period — Mrs. Maisel’s lack of authentic conflict rankles. Midge’s two encounters with Lenny Bruce are the episode’s weak points, but they managed to get across that Bruce is both truly talented and truly troubled. By comparison, Midge, who gets bailed out of prison a mere 20 minutes after showing her boobs to a roomful of people, comes off as someone whose lucky charm is just at the cleaners.
I hate to harsh the very real buzz that Mrs. Maisel creates, of course. Its jokes are characteristically snappy, its production design sumptuous and expensive, its period soundtrack pristine, its cast uniformly excellent. But in the early going, I’m a little worried that it shares some DNA with the Gilmore Girls revival: an escapist bit of throwback fluff that’s all viewer wish-fulfillment and no red meat. No one comes to an AS-P joint looking for gritty realism, but at least Roseanne and the early years of Gilmore Girls presented some genuine conflict to go with all the cake. Midge’s real-life contemporaries weren’t numerous, and many suffered mightily for their art. She won’t just walk right into a tight five to match her classic six, right?
• The great Tony Shalhoub doesn’t get much screen time as Midge’s dad in this pilot, but his advice about Joel (“You want a husband who’ll take a bullet for you, not one who points to the attic and says ‘They’re up there!’”) suggests he might be a Holocaust survivor. Interested to see what they’ll do with that — it’s a real opportunity to show what Jewish life was like just a decade or so on from the end of World War II.
• Is it just my Mad Men antennae working overtime, or did they riff on Don Draper’s office when they were making Joel’s?
• Contriving to show Brosnahan naked twice, despite zero sex scenes, felt a bit try-hard, especially since this show’s target audience is almost certainly women. Though I did like the exchange with Midge’s pube-bleaching classmates: “Why aren’t you in pain?” “I’m from Kansas.” “I don’t know what that means.”
• Serving the rabbi brisket from a butcher that also sells pork chops? Quite the shondeh.
• Old habits die hard: Midge’s bit while leaving jail (“I’m a con now, I got a rap sheet, I’m hard”) is vintage Lorelai Gilmore. I could practically hear Lauren Graham delivering it.
• Given the era and the subject matter, we’re probably not going to see many people of color in Midge’s world, but that poet who did the “Spokane, Spokane, Spokane … man” bit really slayed me.