The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
If the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a bright and boisterous sugar rush, the second episode is the crash. The comedown starts in the first scene, as we see a new ending tacked onto that chase-your-dream final chat between Midge and Lenny Bruce, in which he offers to hook her up with his lawyer. Perhaps I’m as blindly privileged as Midge herself, but I figured public indecency was about as bad as public drunkenness — worthy of a fine, perhaps, but not an appearance in court. Either way, Midge is left reeling, and it’s only the beginning of an episode’s worth of escalating woes.
For starters, her parents, Abe and Rose, are beside themselves at the news of her divorce, maybe more than Midge herself. Abe (whom we learn is a revered Columbia math professor) takes the opportunity to have a not-so-subtle blackboard breakdown about how vectors always manage to stick together, while Rose is off to consult with her fortune teller and/or substitute shrink Drina about whether the tea leaves portend a happy ending. But the Weissmans don’t have a patch on the simultaneous freakouts of the Maisel parents, Garment District magnate Moishe (a brilliantly cast Kevin Pollak) and neurotic matriarch Shirley (the excellent longtime Woody Allen ensemble player Caroline Aaron), who spend most of the episode in outright apoplexy. I love a good bout of witty bickering, but this is a bit too far. So. Much. Yelling!
Part of the problem seems to be that Amy Sherman-Palladino is leaning away from her main dialogue crutch: pop culture. Were Midge starring in a show in her own era, we’d undoubtedly be treated to a lot more tossed-off references to Eisenhower or Jack Benny or various underrated authors. But even if Sherman-Palladino did the research needed to write those kinds of jokes from a ’50s perspective, they’d still go nowhere with a modern audience. Mrs. Maisel seems determined to keep up her standard caffeinated pace, so the alternative is that character don’t listen to each other for minutes at a time. Instead, they yell over each other, sometimes hitting a solid joke but mostly just yammering into the void. The communication gap isn’t about character development, just sustaining the martial pace of the dialogue, and it can get exhausting.
Take, for example, the chat between Susie, who’s hiked uptown to pin down Midge for their joke-writing session, and Midge, who needs to go upstairs and grab her kids from her parents. Midge could easily explain in a single line what she’s doing; instead, Susie hectors her endlessly for two minutes as she rides the elevator from one apartment to the other and back down again. She fires off some good jabs at Midge’s wealth in the process (“I had no idea you were related to fucking Charlemagne,” “Maybe it’s all the royal inbreeding”), but most of her dialogue feels unnecessary. Mrs. Maisel might be about a comedian, but this show certainly isn’t cutting jokes when they don’t work.
That’s too bad, because some of the episode’s best moments are the subtle bits of quiet between the arias of arguing, from Midge gussying up for bed — before remembering she doesn’t need to anymore — to silently offering her mom hits from a bottle of sherry. Rachel Brosnahan is very capable of expressing a lot without saying a word, but the script hardly ever lets her just shut up and feel for a minute. And when it does, it can’t resist a dollop of hackneyed metaphor, like the diner bathroom where Midge and Joel hooked up on their wedding night being slapped with an “Out of Order” sign.
It all culminates in a knock-down, drag-out screamfest of recriminations at a dinner party in Midge and Joel’s apartment, presumably intended as the messy Jewish twin to Gilmore Girls’ Waspy Friday-night meals. Everyone is loudly airing their dirty laundry with everyone else: Abe yelling at Rose about seeing the fortune teller, Moishe yelling at Abe for having a housekeeper, everyone yelling at Midge about not using her wiles to get Joel back, and most notably, Moishe letting loose on Joel for neglecting his familial duties — and then announcing that he’s done subsidizing Joel and will be taking back Midge’s apartment, to which he holds the deed.
The point of all this drama is to drive Midge back for a second “therapy session” at the Gaslight, where she delivers another blistering, hilarious set that culminates in yet another arrest. But the impact that it has on Joel, who spends most of the episode silent as he’s relentlessly piled on, is unclear. Everyone in Joel’s life wants him to get back with Midge; none of them have an iota of respect for his secretary, Penny Pann. Perhaps getting to see Penny and Joel together might help to explain their attraction, but she only gets three seconds of silent screen time from across the room — hardly enough to justify why Joel would withstand this kind of full-tilt assault from his family and Midge’s. I’m fine with Joel being sacrificed to provide Midge with comedic motivation, but to spend this much time with his character and know so little about him doesn’t make sense.
• I tried to find the source of the Russian quote that gives the episode its title, “Ya Shivu v Bolshom Dome Na Kholme” (rough translation: “I live in the large house on the hill”), but no dice. Any Russian-lit majors want to share where it’s from, and its possible significance to the episode?
• I also can’t find any evidence that workout classes like the one Midge and Imogene attend were at all common in that era, though this ’40s “Glamour Girl” workout does have some similar moves.
• That tracking shot of Joel in the Garment District must have been wildly expensive, considering it had little to no plot payoff. This show’s set and costuming budgets are insane.
• I doubt the Weissmans would have actually purchased that ridiculously huge vintage speakerphone, but it was good for a laugh.
• Even though Moishe’s constant dressing-down of everyone in sight wore me out, Kevin Pollak is clearly having the most fun of anyone in this show. “You think every day is kugel and kids?”
• Man, does Rose ever have an eating disorder. She didn’t let Midge study abroad in Paris because “there was danger for her there … too much bread.”
• “Come back next week, when my grandmother steals my pearls and fucks my boyfriend” is a kicker worth getting arrested over.