Expecting realism from an Amy Sherman-Palladino show is like expecting Elmo to break into an Ibsen monologue in the middle of Sesame Street—it’s never going to happen. Sherman-Palladino’s universes are bright, zany, sparkly places, as cozy as hot chocolate, and as insulated from darkness as a casino at Christmastime. Her characters are whip-smart, mile-a-minute talkers with unshakable confidence and improbable appetites. If Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut locale where her beloved drama Gilmore Girls was set, felt like a simulacrum of small-town America, the New York of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is stranger still, like a 1950s street set that’s somehow been conjured into animation. Drunks urinate in public, women throw their trash onto the street, and yet the whole thing shimmers like it’s covered in stardust.
This is the allure of shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads: Even when really bad things happen, they tend to be possibilities in disguise. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a new eight-part drama Amazon released on Wednesday, the bad thing happens in the first episode. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a blissfully married 1958 housewife with two young children and a classic six on the Upper West Side, is abandoned by her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), who’s having an affair with his moronic secretary. Joel, though, isn’t much of a prize. He’s a weasel, a square with bohemian pretensions who leaves the tag on his black turtleneck until he’s confident he can pull off the beatnik look. He’s also an aspiring comedian, although his routine is stolen from Bob Newhart. (Midge, in some ways, seems more disturbed by this lack of originality than by his infidelity.)
Heartbroken, and reasonably hammered on a bottle of kosher wine, Midge wanders onstage at a decrepit comedy club in the Village and begins spilling out her woes. But her tragedy, it turns out, makes great comedy. Midge has a natural gift for making people laugh. And just like that, she’s found her calling, trading a nonentity of a spouse for a new career as a performer, and focusing her enviable drive and ambition on herself rather than her family.
It all feels slightly pat, a little effortless. For someone so initially wrapped up in contentment, Midge barely seems to mourn her marriage, or even to grumble when her father-in-law evicts her from the apartment he technically owns, and she’s forced to move back in with her parents. Nor do her two kids cramp her lifestyle; they’re easily disposed of with grandparents and maids. The point of the show isn’t hardship, it’s opportunity. It’s women realizing their own potential. Midge’s father, a mathematics professor at Columbia played by the estimable Tony Shalhoub, tells his students that his classroom is “a sanctuary from the variables of the outside world,” and you could say the same for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is exuberance in episodic form.
Midge is a charming character, a Jewish Pollyanna with irrepressible confidence and a winningly filthy mouth. Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed most of the eight episodes, stretches the boundaries of what she can do on a streaming platform, so Midge’s first accidental performance includes both profanity and a flash of her breasts to the audience, which gets her promptly arrested for indecency. The creator also peppers her period piece with Holocaust jokes, which somehow land gracefully within the show’s shiny firmament. “You’re jealous of the rabbi?” an incredulous Midge asks Joel as he’s packing up his suitcase and whining. “He was in Buchenwald, throw him a bone.”
It shouldn’t work, but it does. Brosnahan, who had a memorable arc as a vulnerable sex worker on House of Cards, is enchanting as Midge. She’s both a naif in a man’s world and consistently underestimated: It’s never occurred to her that there are things women shouldn’t say in public, nor is she remotely fazed by any new environment, whether it’s a police cell with a murderess covered in blood (salt will get the stain out, Midge tells her briskly) or a jazz club where Lenny Bruce is emceeing. Luke Kirby plays Bruce, whom Midge meets in jail, and who becomes her unofficial mentor. She’s also guided by Susie (Alex Borstein), a salty booker at a downtown club who instantly appraises Midge’s potential.
The show falls into place when Midge performs. She’s breaking out of her mold as a 1950s housewife, yes, but she’s also testing the edges of comedy itself. Like Bruce, who consistently scandalized America with his willingness to go dark, Midge channels her own anger and frustration into radical material. So why is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so hesitant to do the same? For all the trademark rapid-fire monologues about subway rides and missed appointments and soup (which, it has to be said, can be uttered by any character interchangeably), there are few real breaks in the show’s sunny, funny face. People talk and talk and talk, but they say very little. The closest Midge comes to emotional honesty is when she gazes at her face in the mirror, realizing she doesn’t have to apply makeup before bed anymore, and seems to feel a curious mingling of sadness, liberation, and relief. The moment, uncharacteristically, is silent.